The Santa Experience at Marwell Zoo

What do you look for when you take your children to see Santa? With the myriad of opportunities available these days, I like to think it’s getting easier to find one that speaks to all your child’s needs, whatever they are.

For us, it’s important that there’s no pointless hanging around and even less that there’s any queuing. Oscar’s Autism isn’t massively sensorially based, but he does need to be able to move as much as possible and queuing just makes no sense to him (I often wonder if he’s really British at all 😉 Joke!), to the point it can make him anxious. He also struggles to concentrate for long periods of time on one thing, preferring lots of small activities to one big one.

So when we were invited to come and meet Santa at Marwell Zoo the description they gave to us ticked lots of our boxes straight off. No queuing, no pointless hanging around and plenty of activity. It sounded too good an opportunity to pass up.

Meeting Santa at Marwell Zoo is a real event. We’re not talking just chatting to a big man in a red suit and white beard, it’s a whole experience. We were well prepped as to what to expect and couldn’t have had a better time. We arrived at the zoo before our allotted time, which gave us time to go round beforehand. I think Oscar would have been heartbroken if we’d gone all the way to the zoo and not seen the animals, Santa or no Santa, so we were really grateful that our ticket included entrance to the zoo. However, it doesn’t have to be, if you’d rather just visit for the Christmas experience.

But first, giraffe

But first, giraffe

We made our way round the park in a loop, ending up at Marwell Hall and ready to start our Santa Experience. The visit was broken into sections, which while very clear, flowed brilliantly:

Join the elves in Magical Marwell Hall and warm yourself with a glass of mulled wine or blackcurrant and a festive treat.

We were welcomed to the perfectly beautiful Marwell Hall, by a team of elves, all dressed to the nines and all who seemed to have been thoroughly briefed on Oscar’s Autism and his needs, which was a wonderfully thoughtful touch. We got our drinks and Oscar had a mince pie before taking a real shine to one of the elves’ outfits. Mistletoe really earned her Nice badge that day by removing her shoes, apron and hat and letting Oscar try them on. Baring in mind this is the boy that doesn’t really do dressing up, he had a whale of a time! He was so happy, it bought a tear to my eye and we hadn’t even seen Santa yet!

Oscar takes a shine to Mistletoe the Elf's uniform. So she gives it to him to wear!

Oscar takes a shine to Mistletoe the Elf’s uniform. So she gives it to him to wear!

My little Elf

My little Elf

To amuse the children while we waited for everyone to arrive there was a touch screen Naughty and Nice list for the children to check, which I though was a really clever touch, especially as the children could find their own names on the Nice list and their favourite super villain on the Naughty list!

Be charmed by Mrs Claus whilst she reads the enchanting tale of ‘The animals that saved Christmas’

I had explained to the staff beforehand, that Oscar was unlikely to sit and listen to a story. They couldn’t have been more understanding and suggested that we skip that part of the experience if we wanted to. However, on the day we decided to give it a go. The staff were prepared for him to leave at any point, which was very reassuring.

Mrs Claus was waiting for us in a gorgeous ‘woodland grotto’ complete with trees, snow, toadstools and tree stump cushions. She proceeded to read a beautiful Christmas story, set at the zoo and based around the animals, which was a clever touch. And blow me if Oscar didn’t sit with the other children and listen to part of the story. OK, he didn’t make it the whole way through, but by allowing him to move around as and when he needed he lasted for at least 3/4 of the story. It blew my mind!

You're not seeing things. Thats Oscar. Sat on a carpet. with other children. Listening to a story. Regardless of how long that lasted it happened and I couldn't have been prouder. The fact that Mrs Claus was wonderful and read such a cute story may have helped!

You’re not seeing things. That’s Oscar, right in the middle. Sat on a carpet. with other children. Listening to a story. Regardless of how long it lasted, it happened and I couldn’t have been more proud. The fact that Mrs Claus was wonderful and read such a lovely story may have helped!

Create your own Christmas cone tree

If Oscar had surprised me in the previous two sections, how he reacted in the craft based activity amazed me. We were lead into yet another beautifully decorated room, laid out with everything needed to make ice cream cone Christmas Trees. I expected him to just choff the sweets and ignore the craft, but I need to stop underestimating my boy. He sat and happily made a beautiful tree. As did mummy! The elves then wrapped them in cellophane and ribbons and when we were ready lead us to the main event!

Every family was assigned a table to make Cone Christmas Trees. Such concentration!

Every family was assigned a table to make Cone Christmas Trees. Such concentration!

Family Savage. A rare photo indeed!

Family Savage. A rare photo indeed!

Meet Santa in his sparkling grotto and receive a special gift

We had agreed with the park beforehand that Oscar would be the first child to go and see Santa, to avoid any prolonged waiting and they were as good as their word. The whole team knew Oscar was to go first and again their communication was much appreciated. We were lead into another room, where Oscar was shown a curtain to pull back to reveal Santa’s grotto. It really was magical! After a quick peek he ran into the room and whilst he didn’t seem blown away by the fact that the big FC was sat there on a throne, he did go and chat with him, after having a look around the room.

Who's through there?

Who’s through there?

I really feel the ‘Santa’ can make or break an experience like this and Marwell’s Santa was fab. He spoke to Oscar like you would expect, but I got the feeling he’d also been briefed on Oscar’s needs as he didn’t seem phased by Oscar’s apparent lack of interest. He didn’t ask for a hug or for Oscar to sit with him (although at one point Oscar chose to go and sit next to him) and he didn’t seem upset when Oscar’s most pressing question was “Where’s the presents?”. Love him. He didn’t mean “wheres my present?” (well not completely), it’s just you very rarely see Santa without presents in books and films do you? And he’s a literal thinker my boy. Santa happily handed over a gift, which we let Oscar open immediately. And when Santa asked for high five, Oscar happily obliged. It was fantastic!

Oscar chose to go and sit with Santa. Even if he didn't want to look at him!

Oscar chose to go and sit with Santa. Even if he didn’t want to look at him!

Hey dude! Oscar meets Santa

Hey dude! Oscar meets Santa

The only thing I wished I’d done differently was taken the boy camera. Much of the experience was dimly lit and my iPhone photos just don’t do the day justice. We did however purchase two of the official photos of Oscar meeting Santa, which I thought were great value. Both were printed and framed in a carboard sleeve as you would expected, but we were also given hi res digital copies. All for £10.

Oscar opens his first Christmas present of the year (a light sabre and a Star Wars sticker activity book!)

Oscar opens his first Christmas present of the year (a light sabre and a Star Wars sticker activity book!)

My boy is too cool for school. Who wants to hug Santa when you can High Five!

My boy is too cool for school. Who wants to hug Santa when you can High Five!

Thoughts

Would I go back? Totally. If the staff were as understanding and well briefed as this time, I’d be there in a shot. Oscar loves Marwell and has done for years. Who wouldn’t want their child to meet a real childhood icon in their favourite place in the world?

We had such a lovely day and we really did make a whole day of it. Although I do fear it’s kind of ruined shopping centre Santa’s for us for life 😉

A day well spent!

A day well spent!

 

 

 

Thank you so much to Marwell for the invitation to meet Santa.

I was not paid to write this review and as always all opinions are my own.

How I met Father Christmas – and why I wouldn’t do the same thing for my son


When I was a kid, going to see Father Christmas (because back then he really was just Father Christmas. I’m a bit more interchangeable with what we call him now. Father Christmas, Santa, I don’t really mind, Oscar knows they’re one and the same) was one of the highlights of my year. I can’t tell you how magical it was for me and that was due, in no small part, to the Father Christmas we used to go and see.

If you grew up in or around Coventry in the late 70s/early 80s, I’m guessing you also went to see Father Christmas at the Co-Op, a department store in the city centre. I say that simply because I don’t remember ever going to see him anywhere else. And to be honest I never wanted to go anywhere else. I went with my mum and Nanna (and probably my brother although I don’t remember him being there) and it was almost more exciting than Christmas Day itself. Almost 😉 !

It was super special to me and thousands of others over the years, because you see they didn’t just have a Santa in a chair that you queued up to see, oh no! Before you went anywhere near a guy in a red velvet suit you had to get the sleigh to Lapland. Because you see we weren’t going to see any old Santa in a department store. No, we were travelling to Lapland to see the actual man himself.

My memory of 35(ish) years ago, is some what hazy, but I clearly remember that the experience began with queuing up and being taken through a door into a room. The room was small and dark and lined with benches all facing a wall, in front of which where two (models) reindeer! Once everyone was seated, music and jingle bells would start, as would a projection of moving snow in front of the reindeer. It looked as though they were actually ‘dashing through the snow’. Suddenly we weren’t in just a room, we on a sleigh and we were off to see Father Christmas! My memory also wants to say that the seats moved, tilting as we dashed through the snow, but I honestly can’t see how that could have been and maybe I’m imagining it. Did it?

The most jaw dropping bit of the whole experience for me, was when we ‘arrived. The ‘sleigh’ would stop and we would be shown out of the room, but, and this is the best bit, everything outside the room was different to when we came in. We were in Lapland. As a three and four year old that blew my tiny mind. It was the most exciting part of the whole deal. We had actually traveled to the North Pole! While I’m still not 100% sure how it was accomplished, I’m pretty sure now, that we were just taken out of a different door than we’d come in. But however they achieved it, at the time and for far too many years after I believed we’d actually traveled somewhere. It was truly magical.

After all that seeing Father Christmas was just the icing on the cake. I sat on his lap and got my present wrapped in garish 70’s paper. I smiled for the photo.

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Seeing Father Christmas at the Co-Op, Coventry, circa 1981. Note the reins. Oscar truly is his mothers son! Also who knew Father Christmas wore grey suit trousers under his coat?

Well I did eventually. The first year I was taken I was just one and having none of it. And quite right too. Now I have children I know how frightening that must have been to a one year old. But it’s still gone down in family lore that I wouldn’t sit on Father Christmas’s lap the first time I met him and my mum had to sit in his chair with me instead.

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My first visit with Santa circa 1979. I was just one. I look pretty terrified of the man in red. I’m still not a big fan of beards now 😉

Because the whole seeing Santa thing can be overwhelming.  The experience I had as a child was so sensorially exclusive. There’s no way I could ask Oscar to do any of what I enjoyed (eventually) as a child. Because we are/were very different children. We have in fact only taken Oscar to see Santa once in his life, when he was 5 months old and it really was more for us as parents than for him.

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Oscar meets Santa in 2012. He wasn’t fooled by the beard. He tried to pull it off minutes after this!

The following year he was already struggling with things such as waiting. And following his Autism diagnosis we stopped even considering putting him through an experience we were pretty sure he wouldn’t understand or appreciate and could cause him great anxiety. Like I said, very different children.

However, as he grows, his capability and understanding grows with him. He’s much more aware this year of who Santa/Father Christmas is and this year for the first time in years we actually feel we want to give him the opportunity to see Santa; for him, rather than for us. It is true that some places are becoming more aware of inclusivity or even just providing a range of experiences to meet all needs when it comes to big events, such as Christmas. Last year I even read about some shopping centres (unfortunately not near us) running Autism friendly Santa grotto experiences, which is fab. All children should be given the opportunity to meet the big guy if they want to. However we have plumped for a very different kind of meeting all together this year, one that hopefully speaks to Oscar’s interests and needs.

Following our fabulous day out on the Watercress Line in the summer we have decided to take him on the Santa Special where you “travel in a festive traditional train carriage, while Santa and his jolly helpers visit you in your seat with a special gift.” I have high hopes for this as it combines two of Oscar’s favourite things in the world; trains and receiving presents! It also removes any need to queue, something Oscar finds so hard to do. It also gives us our own space and we can take toys and snacks to help him if needs be.

I honestly can’t wait. But wait I will have to, because I’ve booked it for Christmas Eve. This may sound bonkers to some of you, but Oscar struggles with the concept of time. My concern was if we saw Santa too soon, he might want his presents NOW, and not cope with having to wait weeks to get them. I could be wrong of course, but that’s AutismMamas for you. Always trying to second guess, always two steps ahead!

Anyway, Christmas Eve it is. Who knows it might work out perfectly and bingo, we’ll have ourselves a new Christmas tradition. I mean it’s not as amazing as actually travelling to Lapland, like I did.

But I think it could still be pretty magical 😉 .

 

Halfords Black Friday Giveaway

Oscar’s Autism meant that he didn’t start using language in any meaningful way until he was 3 and a half. And yet every day since then it seems like he learns another word, grasps another concept, answers another question. For me it’s thrilling. Only last night did he described his book case as a “library”! Asking for things has also been slow to arrive. We focused for the longest time on getting him to express his needs, which he still sometimes struggles with to be honest. So you can imagine, asking for things he wants, verbally, hasn’t been high up on his agenda. Until recently. Suddenly he can tell me when he’s hungry and two weeks ago he told me he wanted a bike. And when your child, who has only just (at four and a half) learnt to sit for long enough in order to learn to pedal, asks you, with words, for a bike, you start looking for a bike. Believe me.

If you follow me on Facebook you’ll have seen I asked my lovely readers where they’d recommend when looking for a first bike, particularly one that was good quality but also value for money. The answer from almost everyone who joined the discussion was Halfords. To be honest I’d completely forgotten Halfords did bikes but I had so many recommendations for them, I couldn’t not check them out online. I had no idea how much a child’s bike cost. Looking around the internet it would appear you can happily pay whatever you like. Bikes are one of those things I think. So I was pleasantly surprised to find the ones at Halfords weren’t crazy expensive.

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Now I don’t know about you, but I love a bargain. I’m the kind of person that takes great pride in finding something I want in the sale. However, I’ve never really got involved with the whole Black Friday thing. The images of people trampling each other to get a cheap telly always left me cold. There’s no bargain on Earth worth that kind of behaviour. But then I saw that, this year, Halfords are having an online Black Friday sale on 25th November. Not a trampling in sight. They are discounting things every day until the main event on 25th and I’m keeping my eyes on the site but I think I’m going to wait for the biggie, the main event on 25th, to be in with a chance of a really decent discount.

Now I love a bargain, but what’s a bigger bargain than free? Alongside their Black Friday discounts Halfords are also running a Black Friday Giveaway. You can enter any time up until 22nd November to be in with a chance of winning one of three prizes of either £2000, £1000 or £500 worth of Halfords goods. That’s a lot of Christmas pressies right there! I’ve put a link to the Halfords Black Friday Giveaway page in the image below.

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I’ve entered. And you’ve got until 22nd to do the same! Good luck!

Right, back to looking at bikes. I only hope Oscar doesn’t ask for anything more expensive. Like his own private jet or a Ferrari. If he asked me with words, I’d probably get it for him!

 

This is a collaborative post.

Savage Christmas 2015

It’s January. How can it possibly be January? Already? We spent so long looking forward to the Christmas holiday and just like that it was over. Sad Face. Or rather that should be Happy Face, because our holiday was perfect! It was everything I had imagined and so much more and for that reason I can’t possibly be sad!

I wrote here about our Christmas plans to hire an apartment in our childhood home town of Plymouth. About how we wanted to spend Christmas with our family and friends, but how due to Oscar’s Autism, we all needed our own space. And I was right. All the planning and the organising meant the holiday, because this was so much more than just a Christmas celebration, was totally worth it!

The drive down to Plymouth was OK, with only minimal delays. The boy spent the whole four and half hours watching Thomas the Tank. God bless Apple! When we arrived at the Royal William Yard, the owner of the property was there to meet us. She even helped us carry our luggage up to the 2nd floor apartment, bless her. She showed us around, what turned out to be a much more spacious apartment than I had envisaged. I had spent some time in the weeks leading up our stay showing Oscar pictures of the flat, taken from the website, but you’re never sure how similar a place is going to be to a promotional photo. Well, I was thrilled to see it was identical, even down to the radio channel playing on the television. I could have hugged her just for that, never mind the milk, coffee, flowers and mince pies she’d bought for us! I knew then this was going to be a good holiday!

Taken from the website, the lounge looked exactly like this picture. I was so grateful!

Taken from the website, the lounge looked exactly like this picture. I was so grateful!

My first impression of the place was it is SHAMAZING!

My first impression of the place was ” This is SHAMAZING!”

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The view as we arrived. Breathtaking!

We settled in immediately. Oscar ran from room to room and we moved the few delicate looking objects (a beautiful model of a tall ship and some glass vases) out of the reach of curious hands. That done Ben collected the Christmas shopping, while I unpacked. Poor old hubs had to carry all the shopping from the car to the apartment alone as I had to stay with Oscar, but once it was done he was rewarded with a large beer, a child who settled down to sleep straight away and a feet up relax on the sofa with pizza. You couldn’t do that staying in someone else’s home 😉

Christmas Day itself was fairly quiet. We had present opening in the morning, in our Christmas jammies. Oscar was incredibly lucky again this year. He has such a generous family. And I breathed a sigh of relief to see no one had given him anything that wouldn’t fit in the car on the way home. ‘Tis always a worry 😉 While he played with his Tidmouth Shed playset, I cracked on with the lunch. One of the best things about the apartment was, without a doubt, the kitchen. It was an open plan layout but the kitchen was raised giving the feel of a bar, or in my case a stage! I loved it. It meant Ben could help from the other side of the worktop and not get in my way and I could talk to my mum as I prepared the veg. We drank, ate and generally relaxed all day. The boy wouldn’t sit with us at dinner, which was a shame, but wasn’t something I was going to force and cause a melt down over. Instead I plated him some food, which he moved around the room but didn’t touch. Until later when I heard him say something was ‘mmmm it’s elicious’ and realised he had wolfed the roast potatoes and later on some turkey 🙂 Good lad!

The big FC was tres generous this year!

The big FC was tres generous this year!

My candy cane boy

My candy cane boy opening his presents

Tidmouth Sheds was a hit!

Tidmouth Sheds was a hit!

Facetiming Aunty Laura

Facetiming Aunty Laura

Prosecco for Brekkie!

Prosecco for Brekkie!

The Maple Based Turkey was a hit. And not at all burnt (well a bit singed maybe!)

The Maple Based Turkey was a hit. And not at all burnt (well a bit singed maybe!)

Me in my 'cooking like I'm in a cookery show' element!

Me in my ‘cooking like I’m in a cookery show’ element!

Got to use my Christmas linen for only the second time since it was bought in 2010!

Got to use my Christmas linen for only the second time since it was bought in 2010!

Yeah Christmas day was a hit , but this holiday was so much more. Before we even started our holiday, we had worked out something of a schedule. What we were going to do and who we were going to see everyday, and do you know I’m so glad we did. It meant we knew and could prepare appropriately. It also stopped any dithering, messing about wasting time, trying to decide what to do and potentially missing something important out. It also meant I could prepare Oscar. I have no idea how much the pictures of the people I showed him or the explanations I gave helped, but he coped brilliantly all week and I can only surmise it helped a bit! We visited family, had family visit us, hosted parties, went for meals, went walking in the fog up on Dartmoor and the boy loved it all. He loved playing with his cousins. They are all a similar age, but the older two, Jessica and Lucas, were just amazing with him, including him and listening when I explained why he was or wasn’t doing this or that. Whenever Oscar got frustrated or upset his cousin Lucas would just say, ‘hey Oscar come on lets run’ and off they’d go, sadness forgotten. In fact the only melt down we had all week was after his cousin Lucas had to leave. And even that didn’t last long as he collapsed into bed, jiggered from such an amazing day!

Love this crazy. My oldest niece Jessica

Love this crazy. My oldest niece Jessica

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Partners in crime! Oscar with his cousin Lucas

We just had so much fun this Christmas. And the fact that Oscar coped so brilliantly, only made it all the better for Ben and I. We treated ourselves too this holiday with dinner at River Cottage on Christmas Eve (with babysitting provided by Nanna!) and a night out (for Ben) and in (for me) with our friends we miss terribly and don’t get to see nearly enough of.

River Cottage on Christmas Eve

River Cottage on Christmas Eve

Ben and Lee reliving their youth. Ben behind the 'bar' and Lee propping it up!

Ben and Lee reliving their youth. Ben behind the ‘bar’ and Lee propping it up!

But the best thing about this trip was undoubtedly the apartment. It was stunning and practical. It gave us everything we needed and was in a fantastic location. I knew the idea to hire somewhere was a good one. I just couldn’t have asked for more and none of us wanted to leave. Oscar loved watching the boats from the windows, I loved the kitchen and Ben loved the calm quiet of the place. One of my favourite memories of the place though was the lift. Within a day Oscar had learnt how to press for the lift, get us to the right floor and to hold our hands when we needed him to. Just watching him learning like that was worth staying there for alone.

Watching the boats

Watching the boats

Walking to the lift wearing his backpack for the first time!

Walking to the lift wearing his backpack for the first time!

Would we do it again?

Absolutely!

But do we really need to wait until Christmas??? 😉

 

 

 

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Mummascribbles

Our Christmas Plans

It’s true. It’s 18th December and I haven’t written a single Christmassy post this year. Compare that to last year, when I couldn’t get enough. Ahh well. It’s not that I’m not feeling the festive spirit, I am, just in a different way and with so much else going on, it’s felt disingenuous to write light hearted pieces when I don’t really feel light of heart.

But preschool term is now over. The paperwork for his EHCP is being processed and we wont find out until the beginning of January as to whether he gets one. Schools are closed and I can’t visit any more. So I’ve decided to try and put all that down for the holidays. Worrying and even thinking about it wont change anything. It’s time to lay those weights down for a few weeks and just enjoy my family.

So what are our Christmas plans? Well, actually it’s the one thing that’s kept me going these past few months, I am so excited about it. Last year we stayed home and went out for Christmas dinner (as we’ve done several times before). It wasn’t exactly a disaster, but the wait for the food was interminably long. Oscar coped (just), but it took everything we had in us to get him through and I realised, even then, that I would need more control over the situation this year. We don’t have the space to host Christmas at home, so it was clear we would need to go somewhere else. But asking family or friends to host and then asking them to do everything your child needs to make it through the season, well it was a big ask. Too big an ask in my eyes. So back in the summer we decided to hire somewhere, make a holiday of it. And if we were going to do that, then why not do it where all our family are.

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Which is how we came to find an apartment in the Royal William Yard in Plymouth, Devon. It’s a relatively newly refurbished Victorian military barracks and we’ve hired a three bedroom apartment for the entire Christmas week. I’m so excited. It not only gives me a place to cook and serve Christmas dinner to my family (something I’ve not done properly in five years!), it also means my mum can stay with us on Christmas Eve and see Oscar opening his presents (something she’s never done), we can see all our family and friends over the course of a week (instead of trying to whiz round and see everyone in a couple of days which we usually do when we visit) and be included in traditional family shindigs. But the best thing about it is I can give Oscar the time and space to decompress, as and when he needs it. Staying with other people can be a wonderful experience, but it puts an awful lot of pressure on everyone. And this way if my son just wants to watch Thomas in his pyjamas and not go out, or we need to leave somewhere he’s been over stimulated, we can.

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Royal William Yard

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I’m not saying it’s the perfect solution to what can be a stressful time for everyone. I’ve been mentally planning what I might need to take with me to be able to cook a full Christmas dinner in a strange, and not necessarily well equipped, kitchen (this is after all a holiday let) for weeks. But I think it’s a damn near close as I can get it. And anyway, my sister in law text me the other day to tell that that although they’re away on Christmas day, she’s giving a key to Ben’s mum and should I need any utensils or such from her well equipped kitchen, then to just take them. I could have kissed her. Had she not been 300 miles away!

But that’s exactly what I’m hoping this Christmas will be all about. Family. Oscar is a part of a family he barely knows and I want that to change. I want him to spend time playing with his cousins, who when he does see he adores. I want him to spend time getting to know his Aunties and Uncles (Uncle Paul, I hope you know we have a child as active as you ever were!). I want him to feel the love his grandparents have for him. Everyone has been so supportive of him and everything about him that makes him Oscar. To them he’s just one of the clan.

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Oscar’s ‘Christmas Book’, a book of pictures to help him identify where we’re going and who we’ll be seeing beforehand.

So we’re off on 23rd. And I can’t wait. I’ve made a book of laminated pictures of the flat and all our family for Oscar to look at. The food shopping has been done online. The presents have all been bought and wrapped. We’ve got the artificial tree to take with us. The flat has wifi. What more could we need? As with everything we’re expecting the best and preparing for the worst. Oh, and Ben and I are taking full advantage of having my mum with us on Christmas Eve and leaving her to babysit while we go for dinner at The River Cottage.

River Cottage Canteen Plymouth - our Christmas Eve plans!

River Cottage Canteen Plymouth – our Christmas Eve plans!

Weeeeell, it’s not all about the family 😉

 

 

A Cornish Mum