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How to celebrate the Fourth of July in London

TweetHow to celebrate this very American holiday in London? I’ve been wondering that myself for about a decade. The thing about celebrating Fourth of July is that the enjoyment comes from knowing all your family, all your friends, the entire nation is celebrating too. When I lived in in New York, the Fourth meant cookouts in Prospect Park organised by my friends, legendary party-makers and grillers John Fasciano and Frank Reilly. It meant ball games and hanging out among a whole bunch of other groups of people, all playing ball games and hanging out and happy to be off work. Everybody eats hamburgers and hot dogs and it’s all about ritual. In London, it’s still about ritual, but…different. I’m not lucky enough to be invited to the American ambassador Matthew Barzun’s party. The Democrats Abroad group has an annual ticketed picnic, but it’s always seemed a bit big and impersonal. Plenty of restaurants put on special menus with “American food”, god help us. Just booking a table with our little family seemed sad and anticlimactic as the kids don’t have any of the associations with the holiday that I do.   A few years ago my friend Jenn came to rescue. “Come to dinner for Fourth of July!” her email beckoned. She gathered a group together and booked a table at an American-style restaurant on the busy King’s Road, deep in the heart of West London. We came, we ate and drank, we waved little American flags. To be honest, the place where we eat is a little bizarre. It’s called The Big Easy — yes a restaurant for Fourth of July — and the menu looks like they free-associated when someone yelled, “Southern food!” Lobster, barbecue (Texas, Memphis, Carolina and Kansas style), jalapeno poppers, fajitas, jumbo shrimp, clam chowder…it’s like hitting every roadside diner from San Antonio to Charlotte.   This isn’t the holiday as we know it. No fireworks, no ball games, no John F. and Frank R. Today my husband is already anticipating his lobster bib (lobster for Fourth of July?) and ice-cold longneck. But it’s good friends and food and a new ritual. Happy Fourth of July! My tips for celebrating the Fourth of July in London If you plan a barbecue, have a rain-day Plan B in case English weather appears. This year it’s hot and sunny but it can just as easily go the other way. Book any American-style restaurant as far in advance as you can. They get packed with expats and...

London summer family fun: Polo in the Park

Tweet Summer in London is awash in festivals and outdoor parties, but there’s something quite special about Polo in the Park. The sport has real elegance, excitement and panache, and now it’s more family friendly than ever. (Scroll to the bottom for discount code for money off your tickets for the Friday or Sunday.) The organisers have teamed up with Sharky & George, the cool, fun children’s entertainers and party organisers. I love these guys — instead of doing the usual kids parties things, they organise imaginative, energetic and silly activities that they themselves enjoy, which gets the kids excited too. We’ve used them a couple of times for my daughter’s birthday or big family get-togethers and the kids always come away pink-cheeked, laughing and exhausted. That means amid the chukkers and mallet-swinging, there will be some very untraditional activities like water bomb catapults, space hopper polo matches (this I must do), a giant obstacle course, strawberry bootlace eating races, tug of war and other games galore. Polo in the Park runs over a weekend — June 5, 6 and 7. Sunday is the day to go with your family, not least because of the great activities, according to  Rory Heron, MD of Polo in the Park. Fridays tend to be more corporate; Saturday is the party day, packed with groups of young singles. When to go Sunday 7 June will be a fabulous family party, with peak time 11:30 – 2pm. There will be a bright pink slide on the field before play starts and at 11:30 you’ll be able to take the field, as Sharky & George have convinced Polo in the Park to allow a family pitch invasion. Original Travel will host a parents’ zone, where you can relax in a deck chair with a glass of fizz while the children play in the “Little Hooves” kids club. What is Polo in the Park? Chestertons Polo in the Park takes place at Hurlingham Park, Fulham, South London. It features an adapted game that is more accessible and geared toward the spectators. The field is smaller than a regular field, so visitors are closer to the action, the teams play with a brightly coloured larger ball (the kind used on indoor arena polo games) that looks like a miniature football, and there are 3 rather than 4 members on each team so the action is easier to follow. There are 4 quarters of 7 1/2 minutes per quarter. You’ll even get to see some professional polo players...

Review: Barbury Shooting School for kids

Tweet I come from Texas, so really I’m supposed to know all about guns. But since I won that riflery award at summer camp age 12, my shooting prowess has largely been on the wane. Don’t get me wrong — I love shooting (I did say I’m from Texas, right?), but the opportunities to practice don’t come along that often. When my 16-year-old stepson received a voucher from his grandparents for a clay pigeon shooting day, my husband and I decided to register our 11-year-old daughter too and, while we were at it, have a private lesson for the two of us. Or rather a private lesson for me and a bit of easy shooting for him. The day out was at Barbary Shooting School in Wiltshire, just on the way to granny’s. The school is top-notch and runs loads of activities, from “have a go” days for taster sessions, ladies gun club meetings, multi-activity parties, children’s parties, and individual and group lessons. Here’s what we thought of it:   What: Our 11- and 16-year-old went on one of the Young Clayshots Day. The group of children — there were upwards of 20 that day, which one of the staff described as the biggest they’d ever had — were divided into smaller groups then taken to various stations of Barbury’s grounds. In one area just next to the lodge/club house, they took turns learning how to shoot air rifles at neon-coloured water balloons tacked onto a board. In another they did archery — using seriously engineered bows and with some of the children standing remarkably close to the target. They they got instruction shooting “birds” (clays catapulted into the air) and “rabbits” (clays that roll along the ground). All the children were complete novices or just about. (Barbury also run children’s clayshots days for more intermediate shooters.) Kid appeal: “It was very easy to learn how to shoot and you felt safe. The instructors were very clear,” my daughter said, describing her experience a few weeks later. On the day she was more effusive, talking in detail how she did the best in her group in the air rifle shoot-out, hitting a metal crow to beat out the last boy standing. The 16-year-old beamed after getting a nearly perfect score shooting clays. Thanks to the attentive instructor, who stood next to each shooter in turn and gave shot-by-shot advice — along with an occasional hand in guiding the gun — every child hit at least one and we were...

iPhoneography: Preparing for Chinese New Year in London

TweetI’ve always loved Chinese New Year, even if we don’t always celebrate it in grand style. I also love walking through Chinatown in London whenever I’m in the West End. Compared with Chinatown in New York, which has taken over Little Italy and goes on for block and blocks, London’s Chinatown is basically one or maybe two streets. It’s tiny, really. But whenever I am on my way to Leicester Square Tube station, I try to structure my route so I can walk down Gerrard Street. Last week I was lucky enough to be walking by while they were preparing for Chinese New Year, so it was more colourful and busier than ever. I like that even on this one street I feel transported into a different world. Food hangs in windows that I can’t identify. Signs are written in a script I don’t understand. All around people bustle, carrying in boxes of exotic vegetables to the grocery stores, reading the menus outside the restaurants.   When I walked through last week, they were hanging lanterns for Chinese New Year. Huge boxes were piled up, as a worker unpacked lanterns — made in China? — that they would string between the buildings.     Of course the big question is where to eat in Chinatown. I’ve tried several places that were all fine, all just about the same. But last week my husband came home raving after a lunch with colleagues at The Four Seasons Chinese Restaurant on Wardour Street. This is, not surprisingly, not related to the hotel chain of the same name. He had some “very good” crispy pork belly but the reason they went was for special roasted duck, which he raved about. I haven’t been there yet, but I’m looking forward to checking it out, if only to have another excuse to wander through our Chinatown. For more information about visiting Chinatown, go to www.chinatownlondon.org....

Surrey: Family geocaching at Polesden Lacey

Tweet“Do you know what geocaching is?” I asked my 11-year-old, as we drove to Poleden Lacey. “You find things using a GPS. It’s boring,” she replied, staring out the window in the back seat. “How do you know? Have you done it before?” “I used a GPS once. It’s better if it’s just a map.” Ah, the enthusiasm of youth. After a wonderful Christmas break in which I became reacquainted with an area outside of Zone 3, I resolved that our family would get out and do some of those things we’re always saying we want to do. One of those goals is to use our National Trust membership to see some wonderful estates, historic houses and gorgeous countryside. This is a bit more difficult in winter, when many properties are shut for the season. But we discovered Polesden Lacey, about an hour’s drive away in Surrey, was open and also offered free geocaching. What is geocaching? I confess, geocaching always sounded a little made up to me. Like my daughter, I thought it needlessly complicates the simplicity of a fun treasure hunt. But you mustn’t let the little ones get the upper hand in cases like this. So my attitude on the drive down remained doggedly optimistic. “Let’s see how it is. I think it will be fun!” I glanced over at my husband. He gaze was ahead as he silently piloted the car. No help there. The idea behind geocaching is simple: You follow coordinates, distance information and an arrow on an app or GPS device to caches — boxes where you sign a log and leave a trinket or small object. Then it’s on the next cache. Geocaching at Polesden Lacey At Poleden Lacey, you reserve a GPS unit in advance then pick it up at the ticket and information desk, leaving your membership card or a deposit. (The GPS units are nice little Garmins.) The property has 2 trails — one with 8 caches in the garden surrounding the house that takes about an hour and another roaming across the larger estate that takes about two. We only had a little over an hour so we opted for the garden trail. You also get a waterproof map with clues about each cache, to make them easier to find if your GPS skills don’t get the job done. By the second cache, the “bored” 11-year-old was racing ahead of us through the undergrowth, yelling back over her shoulder, “This way!” At each cache we signed our...

3 top tips for ice skating at Natural History Museum

TweetIce skating is a regular part of the Christmas season for us. Maybe it’s because I grew up with visions of myself twirling on ice like Dorothy Hamill (the US equivalent of Jane Torville in singles skating). This rarely happened. I grew up in a semi-arid desert, the nearest rink an hour and a half drive away. These days in London, you’re never far from someplace where you can get your skates on. Here’s a peek at the rink at the Natural History Museum this season. Plus, scroll down for my take on other London ice skating rinks.     The Ice Rink at the Natural History Museum, near Exhibition Road. Til 4 January 2015.  www.nhm.ac.uk/visit-us/whats-on/ice-rink   Other great holiday ice rinks in London Somerset House – The classiest rink of them all, set in the courtyard, with club nights and a Fortnum & Mason affiliation. Less of a family feel but a magical setting. Til 11 January 2015. Westfield London indoor rink – No rainy weather, no chilly wind. Whether you think skating next to New Look, Topshop and a bustling food court out of the fresh air is a fun twist or against nature depends on your outlook. My daughter loves it. Just remember to do your shopping afterward as the lockers for stowing your stuff are in a different area of the building. Til 4 January 2015. Hampton Court Palace – It’s the location fit for a king, with the rink in front of the grand Tudor and Baroque building. There’s plenty of parking and if you book at the right time, you can combine skating with a palace visit. I think the rink seems a bit marooned on the vast lawn in front of the building and my daughter says this rink is “too small” although it seemed comparable to other temporary rinks to me. Til 4 January 2015. Canary Wharf Ice Skating Rink – It’s a strangely serene experience — skating amid the steel high rises in Canary Wharf. We find ourselves strangely drawn to this rink, which also seems less crowded than some of the others in town. You can read my full review of the rink here: The ice skating rink at Canary Wharf Other rinks I haven’t yet visited. Have you been to them? Broadgate Ice Rink Eyeskate at the London Eye Hyde Park Winter Wonderland        ...

Wales: Review of Cefn Barn, Talgarth Wales

Tweet When it comes to booking accommodation, some people just got it. Take my friend Kathryn. She reliably books fantastic accommodation at all budget levels. She does the same things I do — uses Google, browses a few sites. But while my track record is lamentable, hers is stellar. I once arranged a hotel in Madrid that looked perfect online for a girls’ weekend. My friend Tula took one look at it when she arrived, before walking out and booking us a suitable room a few streets away. Meanwhile, Kathryn has arranged an eco hotel in Copenhagen with an honesty bar stocked with organic wine, a tidy affordable hotel on the edge of Bologna city centre (where my husband’s ex-mother-in-law was also staying, but that’s another story) and a Japanese hotel with multi-function toilets within walking distance of Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market. A stylish barn in Wales Kathryn’s most recent success was finding Cefn Barn for a couples’ weekend away in Wales. Every year we celebrate our wedding anniversaries jointly with a trip away — sometimes grand, sometimes modest. This year we only had time for a weekend away from London and fancied some walking. So we set out for the Brecon Beacons. This renovated barn is set on the edge of Brecon Beacons, by Llanelieu, Talgarth. It’s done to an impeccable standard, with a wood burning stove, an open kitchen, sliding doors that open on either side.     My husband and I set off from London to meet Kathryn and Nick there. We used the postcode instead of the printed directions and ended up driving in a muddy field in pelting rain (thanks, Google!). We finally found our way to the well-paved road from Talgarth and down to the barn via a crunchy gravel road. I don’t know about you but I love the sound of a gravel driveway under the wheels. We unloaded the car in the storm, running for the barn door and inside were greeted with a double-height sitting room, 2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms and a well-equipped kitchen. We stayed for 2 nights and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Here’s what I thought: The look This is an architecture-designed conversion and it shows. Everything from the outdoor patios on either side of the barn to the underfloor heating to the double-glazed windows and doors to the overhead walkway to the mezzanine lounge and bathroom is done to a very high standard. When the doors are closed, you can sit in the glow of the fire and...

Making Angel Delight, a truly British dessert

Tweet“Ooooh Angel Delight,” my husband intones. “We grew up eating it.” I’d never even heard of Angel Delight before I arrived here and its popularity speaks to the British penchant for blancmange, which is kind of like pudding, kind of like aspic, kind of like Cool Whip and kind of like nothing else I’ve ever had. It’s very sweet, with a soft texture and can literally be made in minutes. Angel Delight is the heritage brand and has been whipped up since 1967. When mixed with milk, it’s also a source of calcium. At BritMums we’ve been doing a project with Angel Delight, which gave me the perfect opportunity to try it out along with my daughter. Here’s how easy it was to make it and what my daughter thought of it. Because of its sweetness, this flavour is firmly in the kids’ camp. (I can’t imagine tucking into a big bowl of bubblegum flavour.) If your children love a fun sweet bubblegum dessert, this one is so quick and easy to make, it’s worth trying . You can trust them with measurements and mixing because there are only a few steps. Garnish it with some sprinkles, top with ice cream or whipped cream, decorate with fun straws in a pretty glass like we did. This post is part of a sponsored BritMums project with Angel Delight....

Review: The Milestones Museum, Basingstoke

TweetAs another British summer arrives, the imploration on every parent’s lips is the same: I need rainy day activity ideas! We’re constantly on the lookout for interesting outings, especially as our teenager and tween are long past enjoying soft-play. We recently visited the Milestones Museum in Basingstoke and discovered a great afternoon’s outing that’s educational to boot. We were invited to visit by Hampshire Top Attractions, which features some of the best days out for families in the region. Why visit the Milestones Museum The Milestones Museum is an indoor street landscape that tells of life in Hampshire in days of yore. It features actual objects, vehicles and replica shops from history to provide a walk-through historical experience. Helpfully, it’s housed in a massive warehouse-like structure in a modern leisure park (nearby is a drive-through McDonalds, cinema, indoor skydiving, ten-pin bowling and more) with plenty of parking. There is loads of room to walk (or run) around, innumerable exhibits to admire and some interactive activities — a perfect antidote to that cooped-up feeling. While the ceiling overhead is corrugated metal, the finish on the buildings is admirable: not cardboard cutouts but genuine brick buildings. What to see at the Milestones Museum They have an old bus you can clamber on, living rooms showing the styles of ’50s and ’60s (check out that television!), shops — some of which you peer into, others which you go into — vintage cars, vintage bicycles, an Edwardian-style pub and much more.   What we loved The pub and the sweet shop are experiential shops — you can order a drink or buy a ration card and old-fashioned penny to “buy” sweets that were only available during wartime rationing. It was also, not coincidentally, one of my daughter’s favourite stops. “The sweet shop was like a real olden-day sweet shop,” she said. “Everything was in jars, and we had these ration cards. We handed the ration card to the lady. The lady ripped the ration card and gave us some sweets. I chose lemon sherbet,” she said. Another big hit was the Penny Arcade. I could have spent an hour here, trying out the old-fashioned games and diversions — everything from fortune-telling machines a la Zoltar to What the Butler Saw-style risque photo flip machines (ooh la la) to games of skill. (Scroll to the bottom to see my video of some of the machines.) There was also an exhibit of huge animals, built from Lego. “The mammoth was made out of something like...

Summer in London: Wahaca on the Southbank

Tweet   There are those moments when I’m reminded how much I love living in cities and how much I love living in London. Tonight was a glorious summer evening on the Southbank, the Summer of Love festival is going on, people were drinking and relaxing on the terrace and I met Selena from Oh, the Places We Will Go at the Wahaca Southbank Experience. Wahaca really is one of the best places to get — we can’t call it Tex-Mex but at least some kind of Mex — in the UK. It’s fresh, delicious, colourful. (As every Tex-Mex lover will know, true Tex-Mex tends to be all brown, served in a soupy mess and is absolutely gorgeously delectable.) This location looks out over the South Bank urban beach and is constructed out of shipping containers, a concept that’s caught on as a hallmark of with-it architecture even if it’s not necessarily as green as it first appears. (You can watch the video of how they built the pop-up.) But when you’re holding a watermelon margarita, eating creamy guacamole and people watching on a sunny London day, it feels like there’s no better place to be.     Tell me, what’s your favourite British summer activity or something you’ve done lately with the kids or on your own that makes you love this time of year? Post a link or share a comment below!   The details The Wahaca Southbank Experience Queen Elizabeth Hall Southbank Centre Belvedere Road London SE1 8XX +44 (0) 207 928 1876 Twitter: @Wahaca Want to find out about other cool London activities? Here’s some inspiration: Urban Explorer: A resource for family activities in London 10 things not to do in London     Subscribe to Jenography to get occasional updates Email Address...

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