Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Highclere Castle – Our Trip to Downton Abbey!

Welcome back for the next installment in our UK roadtrip. You'll remember we've been to LegoLand, Harry Potter World & London Town. Everything we’ve done so far on our budget UK road trip was for my four children, but this one was for me.

I’d promised myself a visit to Highclere Castle for years - in fact, every time I've watched an episode of Downton Abbey - I’d go online and start researching but something always came up, so I didn’t get a chance to book it. We were in London, I had a car, so why not? Ah yeah, tickets were sold out!

What is Highclere Castle?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last six years, you’ll recognise Highclere Castle as the home of multi-award winning period drama Downton Abbey. It’s one of the most famous historical buildings in the UK nestled in 5,000 acres of farmland, woodland and parkland.

History of Highclere Castle

The estate was established by Charles Barry, who also built the Houses of Parliament. Highclere Castle was constructed using Bath stone in Jacobean style, completed in 1842 with a history dating as far back as 1086, and the land has been inhabited by the Carnarvon family since 1679. 

The 5th Earl of Carnarvon George Herbert returned from his hunt for the tomb of Tutankhamun in Egypt when WWI broke out across Europe, and his wife Almina turned Highclere Castle into a hospital to care for soldiers returning from the war in 1914. As soon as the war was over the search for Tutankhamun resumed.

Lord Porchester, the son of the 5th Earl of Carnarvon and his wife Catherine, handed Highclere Castle and estate over to the war effort during WWII and the castle itself was transformed into a home for evacuee children and the estate was used to train allied soldiers.

The 8th Earl of Carnarvon -also called George Herbert - and his wife, the Countess of Carnarvon, currently reside at Highclere Castle. Lady Carnarvon writes an insightful and fascinating blog which she’s kept regularly updated for the last three years; she shares behind the scenes information, photographs and anecdotes keeping us up-to-date on the daily goings on at Highclere Castle.

Getting to Highclere castle


Highclere Castle and Estate is located in Newbury, West Berkshire; 45 miles west of London. I had no problem at all finding it, I took their advice by inputting post code RG20 9LE (local restaurant) into my Sat Nav and then following the brown tourist signs.

If you use their post code it’ll bring you to the wrong entrance as the estate operates a one way system for traffic.

Public Transport

There is a regular train service from London Paddington to Newbury Station 5 miles from Highclere Castle. Train tickets cost approx £23/€26.77 per adult return, you’ll then need to take a taxi from the rank at the station costing between £15/€17.46-£20/€23.28 each way.

There is a cheaper option of a bus but that involves a walk from the train to the bus stop and then a long walk from the local village to the castle.

Tickets for Highclere Castle

Highclere Castle is only open to the public Easter holidays, UK May Bank holidays and Sundays to Thursdays over the summer months. They also hold special events such as Vintage Garden parties, Capability Brown Open Days; Capability Brown is responsible for designing over 170 landscape gardens and parks throughout the UK including gardens at Highclere Castle, White Tie Vintage Gala Dinner and Battle Proms, which I must say sounds amazing.

It’s an open air concert/garden party/picnic which attracted an astonishing 10,000 people earlier this month. Classical music is played with cavalry displays and spitfires in the air choreographed to perfection with the added thrill of cannon fire topped off with a firework finale. Their Christmas Craft Fair is also high on my list of reasons to return.

Tickets are like gold dust and sell extremely fast each time they are released. Some tour operators offer tickets to visit the real Downton Abbey but at a vastly inflated price so my advice is to book early. Tickets for spring and Easter are released for sale on their website in early November with summer tickets going on sale in early February. There are different ticket options available with variations of castle, gardens and exhibition.

As I mentioned earlier tickets were sold out for the day we wanted to visit. Luckily for us though they keep a limited number of tickets back for walk-ups. Their advice is to arrive early, or after 2.30pm, for the best chance of securing a ticket. 

We arrived at 10.30am and chose a family ticket costing £60/€69.78 which admitted 2 adults and up to 3 children to Castle, gardens and exhibition, with children under 4 years old admitted free of charge and do not require a ticket. The reason I chose this ticket is that it would have worked out more expensive to pay for 1 adult and 3 children separately.

What’s to see and do at Highclere Castle?

Apologies for the lack of interior pictures of the Castle as photographs of the interior are strictly prohibited, but that's all the more reason for you to go, right?

We spend about an hour taking in the glory of the Castle wandering from room to room chatting with the knowledgeable members of staff in each room. Strangely the 120,000 square foot castle didn’t feel as big inside as it looks on screen. I was delighted to get to see the library with its oversized fireplace and matching red sofas.

We had a peek inside some of the bedrooms, they’re roped off but it’s far enough into the room to allow you a full view inside. We even got to descend the grand staircase; it’s exactly the same as on TV. The tour guides were fantastic giving us a brief overview of each room as we entered but then floating like social butterflies from person to person offering more detailed information.

The castle sits on 1,000 acres of formal gardens and parkland which you are free to roam and explore. There are three tea rooms offering everything from hot dinners to a champagne afternoon tea. I spent a small fortune in the gift shop on lots of stuff such as His Lordship’s Chutney, fancy Highclere biscuits, Tutankhamun pencils and rubbers for the kids for school and handmade soaps. 

Unfortunately my budget couldn’t stretch to the £37.50/€43.69 it cost for a hand painted Christmas bauble so I made do with a key ring in the shape of the outline of the castle for £3.95/€4.60, which I’ll remove the metal from and attach to some red ribbon for our travel tree.

The piece de resistance for my children was the Egyptian exhibition which spans throughout the cellars of Highclere castle. My older three had been learning about King Tut in school just before the summer break so it was fresh in their minds.

The 5th Earl of Carnarvon George Herbert was the financial backer in the search for Tutankhamun’s tomb. He, along with Howard Carter, searched for many years throughout the Valley’s near Luxor in Egypt, eventually discovering the tomb of the boy-pharaoh in the Valley of the King’s in 1922.

Sadly the Earl of Carnarvon passed away before the tomb was completely excavated; he never got to see the true extent of the artifacts they discovered. His passing led to the story of the ‘curse of Tutankhamun’ - whereby people believed if you disturbed the mummy of an ancient Egyptian person, ESPECIALLY a pharaoh, you’d be cursed with bad luck, illness or death. There are hundreds of artefacts on display in the exhibition including a full size replica tomb complete with sarcophagus.

I particularly loved the black wall with what looked like letterboxes dotted around it, upon further inspection by the children we learned it’s a replica of exactly what George Herbert and Howard Carter saw when they first discovered the tomb. When you lift one of the many flaps it casts a beam of light into a pitch black room but it’s enough light for your eye to catch the dazzling jewels and the shine from the gold of King Tut’s mask.

Stone Travel Verdict?

I loved every moment of our tour and the kids really enjoyed it too, even my 4 year old was kept entertained throughout our visit. It’s steeped in history so it’s educational as well as pure indulgence. My only thought is can I squeeze in another trip at the start of December to visit the Christmas fair?! I’d imagine the Castle would be like a winter wonderland decorated for the festivities.

Please note that no children’s buggies/prams are allowed into the castle, if you’re visiting with young children you’ll have to carry them around so make sure to bring a sling.

Have you been to Highclere? What did you think?

Monday, August 29, 2016

Monday's Moments ~ 29/08/16

Is there anything that could improve on that cracker of a Dublin day? Perhaps, but failing having a 99 on Howth Head with Tom Hardy there are some Moments I'd like to take a minute to be grateful for: 

1. Corrina booking Frankfurt for our Christmas Market adventures this year! 

I'm not quite ready for Summer to be over but I'm ALWAYS ready to put another break on the calendar. 

2. Watching Heidi's edition of Dog Tales on TV3 with her on Friday night. SEE IT HERE. Admittedly I sobbed seeing just how devastatingly underweight and abused she was but she has us now & we have her. 

All of our lives have changed for the better thanks to Dog's Trust & those who got Heidi to them in the first place. We're inseparable now innit

3. Coming downstairs on Saturday morning to find Boo in Heidi's bed with her! It's been 6 weeks but Boo finally trusts her enough to come downstairs, I think she was grieving for poor old Diesel too. 

I thought being in the same room was as far as we'd progressed, until I caught them snuggling. Cockle warming goodness. 

4. Arriving to Kippure Estate with Aar & Limelight Comms on Saturday for our Survival Day following Captain Fantastic (See Aar's movie review HERE). The entire estate is stunning. A real hidden gem. 

We lit fires, filtered water, built shelter, cooked lunch & basically showed Bear Grylls right up. There are so many opportunities that we've been afforded thanks to this blog. Saturday was the most unlikely but one of the most rewarding too.  Suck it, Bear!

5. Corrina (@stonetravel4) winning 'Best Britney' at the Bow Lane Drag Brunch yesterday! I couldn't possibly tell you why she won but I can tell you that we haven't laughed that much in years. 

We'd brunch with 10 of the country's brightest business women and laughed from the moment we got together until last orders last night. Corrina's win being the cherry on top. Doctors should prescribe days like yesterday. 

Tell us, what's the one Moment that means you're not chasing off Monday Blues today? 

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

How to Get the Best of London on a Budget with Kids! Part II

There’s no shortage of things to do in London with kids especially if you’re on a budget; there’s hundreds of free things to do like London’s amazing museums - the Natural History Museum, Science Museum, National Maritime Museum, and Ragged School Museum - where you can learn all about Victorian school days, and my personal favourite  - the Imperial War Museum - amongst a shed load of others.

There’s also a whole host of parks with perks such as Victoria Park with its giant slides, or St James’s Park where every day at 2.30pm you can see the parks pelicans being fed fresh fish. You can even go to the zoo for free at Golders Hill Park Zoo. Not forgetting a free visit to the iconic landmarks or a visit to see the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. All this coupled with the fact that children under 11 travel free on London’s public transport means it’s one of the most pocket friendly cities to visit on a budget with kids.

Unfortunately we didn’t have time to do any of the above as we only had one full day in London so the children picked what they wanted to do before we’d even left Ireland. Read on to find out where we went, how much we paid and how I got on with 4 kids under 9 on my own!

Stamford Bridge

My 9 year old daughter Orla is Chelsea mad so no trip to London would be complete without a trip to Chelsea F.C.’s home ground, Stamford Bridge. I priced it on their website and it would cost me £19/€22 per adult & £13/€15.06 per child under 5’s admitted free of charge. For walk-up tickets on the day you visit add £3/€3.48 per adult and £2/€2.32 per child. I set about searching online to find a better deal and I found one on Virgin Experience Days website, £16/€18.53 for 2 adults so I purchased two of these offers. Unfortunately you need a UK address to book these so I sent them to my Sister-in-Law BattleMum, who kindly forwarded them on to me. Instead of it costing me £58/€67.19 it cost me just £32/€37.07; a great saving for just a few minutes research. On their website they advise there is a limit of three children per adult admitted to the stadium, but nothing was said to me when I asked for 1 adult 3 children and an under 5’s free ticket at reception.

Getting there was really easy - we used the tube and alighted at Fulham Broadway, a 3 minute walk from the stadium. As we approached the grounds a friendly staff member approached us and gave us free Chelsea scratch cards, and we won some great prizes like free audio guides for the museum, 10% off merchandise in the shop and a free guide book.

Included in your admission price is a guided tour of the stands, home and away dressing rooms, the press room, the tunnel, and the dug out with a self guided tour of the Chelsea F.C. Museum. All I could hear from Orla as we walked through the stadium was ‘awesome’ constantly repeated - suffice to say she loved every minute! The prices and products in the shop were fantastic, so much so we left with 5 bags on our backs full of branded merchandise such as socks that cost £1 a pair, pens for school £1.50, t-shirts £5, jacket £8, school bag £8, goalie gloves £5 - the list goes on!

Tower of London

We had watched a couple of documentaries on the history of the British Royals and the Crown Jewels in anticipation of our trip, so the children were really excited about visiting. None more so than Aoife - aged 9 - who brought a pink silk rose for her favourite Queen Anne Boleyn; she’s always had a fascination with the British Queens since she was tiny particularly the second wife of King Henry VIII.

There are oodles of things to do with children at the Tower of London such as a children’s activity trail, historical re-enactments, an audio guide with five different tours, children’s White Tower tour, Raven Master talks and lots more.
As it was raining when we visited we opted for the guided tour which commences every half hour. A Yeoman Warder - commonly known as a Beefeater - greeted us at the gate and brought us directly to the Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula (St. Peter in chains) where he conducted the twenty minute tour indoors. 

My four little ones were mesmerised and hung on every word, especially Aoife when he pointed out Anne Boleyn’s resting place at the altar. As we departed the chapel the Beefeater advised us that Aoife could lay her rose at the point of execution on Tower Green as there’s now a monument there. We then joined the short queue to see the Crown Jewels; we’ve no pictures as photography is prohibited inside the building that houses the jewels. 

There were a lot of ooh’s and aah’s uttered from my children as we moved from one exhibition to another viewing some of the finest stones I’ve ever seen - of course none being finer than my 5 little Stones!

Have you ever heard of the Ceremony of the Keys? It’s the oldest ceremony of its kind in the world carried out every evening for the last 700 years without fail. Essentially it’s a 35 minute ceremony to mark the locking up of the Crown Jewels and the Tower of London with as much flounce as possible. 

Tickets are free but have a £1 booking fee and must be booked in advance online. They sell like hot cakes and are already sold out until March 2017. Just a word of warning though, it’s illegal to sell tickets that you’ve booked online or buy from any other source. You must be at the main gate at 9.30pm precisely and produce ID along with your tickets to gain entry; photography is prohibited throughout the ceremony.

For our visit I couldn’t book tickets online as they had issues with their website, so I had to call to avail of the discounted website prices. I paid £37.50/€43.44 for a family ticket - 1 adult and three children aged 5-15 - and children under 5 years old are admitted free of charge. Gate prices are slightly higher; you can also opt to give a voluntary contribution towards the upkeep of Historical Palaces which I declined.

Lunch in London

Photo Credit to A Girl has to Eat!

At this stage it was lashing rain so we bolted across the road to 'The Liberty Bounds', a Wetherspoons pub for lunch. It’s a lovely pub serving hearty pub grub at great prices which suited us perfectly. I paid £40/€46.34 for drinks and a selection of dishes for us to share, as the children couldn’t decide what they wanted to eat.

Sky Garden

Sky Garden is London’s highest public garden spanning three floors atop 20 Fenchurch Street. It’s just a 5 minute walk from Tower of London; you can see the building towering over the landscape so you don’t even need to ask directions. Consisting of two bars, two restaurants, a private dining room, immaculate landscaped gardens, an observation deck, and an open air terrace Sky Garden offers the best unhindered views of the City of London and beyond on a clear day.

I had visited Sky Garden with Sue in April when we got some lovely photos from the open air terrace on the 35th floor, but when I visited with the children the terrace was closed due to inclement weather. Tickets are completely free but must be booked online in advance. They have a policy of only 3 children permitted per adult so I had to book one of my children as an adult and I’m glad to say we didn’t have any problems when we arrived. 

Before you can gain entry you must have your booking details and adults must produce some form of ID such as a passport (photocopy is acceptable), ID card, drivers licence or a bank card, and children under 18 do not need to provide any ID.

London Eye

This really is a spectacular way to view London, spending 30 minutes revolving slowly so you’ve plenty of time to see and capture a photo everything on London’s skyline. I particularly liked the addition of the 4D movie which wasn’t there when I last visited, many moons ago. 

All four of my children loved it, and  Seamus was thrilled to see Big Ben from so high up. There are lots of ticket packages available so you can save by bundling other attractions with your London Eye ticket which I’d highly recommend it for an adult’s only visit, but unfortunately it’s simply priced too highly for me to recommend this to families.

I received one adult and one child ticket free of charge for our visit to the Coca-Cola London Eye. I paid for two children as under 4’s are free, and I didn’t pre book the tickets online so I paid the on-the-day price of £18.95/€21.95 per child, which was a total of £37.90/€43.90. You can avail of a 15% discount by booking in advance online. 
That was our full day in London grabbing the best bits in a few short hours. Do you recommend anything for us to do on our next visit?

Drop back next week when I’ll tell you all about our visit to Highclere Castle - known to millions as Downton Abbey!

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Friday, August 19, 2016

Captain Fantastic - Movie Review!

Who's In It?

George MacKay, Trin Miller, Frank Langella, and Viggo Mortenson

What's It About?

When an 'off the grid' (literally mountain people) families' mother doesn't return from a stay with her 'normal' parents, the Cash family leave their secluded lives to bring her home.

Any Good?

What the hell is with kid actors this year? I don't know if it's me getting used to them but they've mostly been hugely impressive. ESPECIALLY the kids in this movie. Every single one was brilliant, expect for maybe a shaky scene or two from the teenage son, it felt fully immersive, like watching actual family dynamics play out. 

While the children were incredible, they were still outshone, that's no mean feat. The best performance had to be from Viggo, the eldest son or the grandfather. Viggo is so stuck with his anti-capitalist ways that he can't see what's happening in front of him, eldest son is a smart kid with literally no social skills, and grandfather is full (grand)father lion mode. It's the full spectrum of male angst and Captain Fantastic was all the richer for it. 

There was something odd about this film though, I'm not sure if it was the idea of 'off the grid' being so alien to me because most people from Ireland I know are like 4 acquaintances from each other, or the fact it's the hippie Tarzan family movie. 

The film itself is absolutely beautiful (even if the opening drags somewhat) and the score is sublime. The bizarre scenes of this unconventional family look much more acceptable or 'normal' when they look this good. Aesthetic on point, if you will. I found the ending a bit useless (though Mam loved it) I felt it made the last 30 minutes irrelevant.Though challenging & somewhat off kilter, like the family themselves, Captain Fantastic is beautiful to watch... like the family themselves. 


Thursday, August 18, 2016

Things That Rustle My Jimmies

This week has seen me upping my walk to 6k a day to save lives. MANY LIVES. 

Let's unrustle some of those jimmies shall we? 

1. Buying a new gĂșna only for their 50% sale to start the next day!!

2. Emails offering proof reading services that are littered with grammatical errors...

3. 'Hey, could I grab a list of the contacts that have paid you in the past?'


5. The disheartened DMs, tweets & Facebook statuses following any blog award announcement. 

Neither nomination nor award is ever a true reflection of your blog or the blood, sweat & tears that have created it. 

Truly, an Irish blog awards result is very like Irish weather, don't like it? Wait a minute. 

Tell me, what's been rustling your jimmies this week? Care to release that Kraken? 

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

How to Get the Best of London on a Budget with Kids!

Well hello there and welcome back to our budget family road trip across the UK! So far we’ve driven over 300 miles in 3 different countries, just four of my children (aged 9,9,8 & 4) & I. We visited Legoland Windsor (HERE) which is one of my most popular posts to date and Warner Bros. Studios home of Harry Potter (HERE), both posts have a moxy load of tips on how you can do them too. 

This week I’ll tell you about the second hotel we stayed in, closer to central London and what we got up to in the hopes it inspires one of you to take trip to London with your kids. Harry Potter Studios took us just over four hours so when we were finished we hopped in our hire car and headed straight to our hotel to check-in.

Where to Stay in London with Kids

There were a few factors in deciding where we stayed. I didn’t want central London so I could avoid the congestion charge as we had a hire car. I wanted somewhere that didn’t charge a fortune in parking fees, did you know that some places charge up to £50/€57.82 for 24 hours parking?! I needed a hotel that was on budget and had public transport links.

I chose Travelodge Kew Bridge just around the corner from Kew Gardens as it had everything I needed. I paid £142.80/€165 for 2 nights B&B and booked us in as 2 adults and 2 children. Parking onsite cost £6/€6.94 for 24 hours or a discounted rate of £15/€17.35 for 3 days.

The hotel itself is very basic, the reception area is just a desk and a vending machine but it does its job perfectly well. Our room was spotless with a double and two single beds overlooking a church next door that was being renovated but we weren’t disturbed by the noise. We were pleasantly surprised by the breakfast; it consisted of a full English breakfast served buffet style with lots of other options available such as cold meats, fresh fruit and cereal. The staff were really friendly and chatty in the restaurant, they were so helpful offering assistance to my little ones.

How to get around

There’s a train station a 10 minute walk from the hotel but I wanted a tube station so we hopped on the very frequent number 65 bus literally at the foot of the steps outside our hotel for a 10 minute journey to Kew Gardens Victoria Gate bus stop then a 2 minute walk to the Kew Gardens Tube Station. From here we took the District line to central London only 15 minutes away.

Stone Travel Tip: You need an Oyster Card to travel on a bus in London; luckily I still had mine from a previous visit, any credit left on it doesn’t expire. You can order one online or buy them at most tube stations.

Children under the age of 11 can travel free on all Tube, DLR, London Overground and Tfl Rail services so I was just paying for one adult. When using an Oyster Card all journeys are capped at £6.40/€7.40 so even if you make 20 journeys you’ll only be deducted £6.40/€7.40 from your Oyster Card, making public transport in London with kids cheap as chips.

What to do with 3 hours in London

As I mentioned at the start we had finished our tour of Harry Potter Studios and checked into our hotel where we found ourselves at 5pm wondering what we could do. I didn’t particularly want to just stay in the hotel but I was also mindful that I was on my own with 4 kids whom I wanted to get to bed a reasonable time. 

A quick check of google maps and we were on our way out the door. We caught the District Line Tube to Earl’s Court where we hopped off, I didn’t tell the kids where we were going and they were shocked when we walked out of the station to find a real life Tardis in front of them. My daughters are crazy about Dr Who so they were thrilled to see it; we took a few photos before getting back on the district line to Embankment station.

I surprised them with a visit to Sherlock Holmes Pub and Restaurant on Northumberland Avenue. Unfortunately the restaurant was closed for a party so we ate dinner in the bar area. They love Sherlock Holmes and the bar was crammed full of memorabilia. They all devoured fish and chips from the kids menu costing £4.95/€5.72 each and I had a burger and chips costing £13.95/€16.13, to be honest my burger wasn’t the best at all but the chips were lovely.

We strolled the 5 minutes back to Embankment Tube Station but I brought my kids a few steps further and up onto one of the Golden Jubilee footbridges because they have fabulous views over some of the most iconic sights in London such as the London Eye and Big Ben which makes for a perfect photo opportunity. 

Check back next week where I’ll tell you all about our jam packed day out in London including visits to Stamford Bridge, home of Chelsea F.C., Tower of London to see the crown jewels, Sky Garden and the London Eye.

Have you been to London with little ones? Any tips? 

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Things That Rustle My Jimmies

It's been a while but BY GOD do I need Jimmies to be back ~ commence unrustling....

1. Coming back from a weekend away to find Aaron accidentally left my candle burn down to the wick. MY JO MALONE CANDLE!!

2. Appliances having an innate sense of you thinking you're doing OK. Just this week I thought 'I might treat myself to...' BOOM washing machine is kaput!

3. Dublin Taxi drivers that ask you for directions...

4. Ignorant SHITS that horizontal park across the entire footpath outside driveways!!

5. Taking high dose Maca root for murderous PMS & it still not working a fortnight later...

Tell me, can you relate? What's been rustling your Jimmies this week?