Review: 7Bone Burger Co in Reading

Chin dripping with a big dollop of ketchup, fingers messy with yellow mustard – eating a 7Bone hot dog is not an elegant experience.

But it is a satisfying one.

7Bone Burger Co is the latest restaurant to open its doors in Reading (you’ll find it along St Mary’s Butts), and on Friday Ben & I went along to the preview night to, well, basically stuff our faces. We’d been to the Camberley 7Bone about 2 weeks ago and really enjoyed it, so we were looking forward to returning and trying some more of the menu.

Tip number one for 7Bone is don’t wear anything with a restricted waistband – this is big eating at its best. It’s all the fried/saucy/meaty goodness you could possible want – this isn’t the place you come for a salad (although there is a token one on the menu).

Welcome to Reading 7Bone!

So what makes 7Bone different from every other American style burger joint? Well, in some ways not a huge amount. The main element of the menu is burgers, hot dogs, and fries – team that with one of the American beers and you’re good to go.

But there are a few twists that make 7Bone that bit more interesting. The portswood poutine for example was a meaty puddle of deliciousness – fries, slow braised beef, a ‘deep’ gravy (it had such a hit of meatiness in its flavour, despite being quite thin) and cheese curds.

Ben’s favourite dish – the Portswood Poutine

Then there are the frickles – which we had at Camberley and I wish we’d had again at Reading. Frickles – aka fried pickles – are a super naughty piece of fried goodness. Crispy, crunchy and delicious dipped in the blue cheese sauce. And plentiful in their portion size too.

Instead of frickles we had onion straws on the Reading preview night. Again – total, utter naughty food. There’s basically nothing healthy about a whole basket of Friday onion, but well, it’s Friday night, the beers are flowing, who’s really thinking about the gym?

The burgers and hot dogs are goooood. So good it needs to be said in a long, drawn out way with lots of oooooos. Plenty of sauce, and again, something a bit different on the menu. At Camberley we had the Peter Green (Texan all steak chilli, cheese, American mustard and jalapenos) and One Big Chicken (buttermilk fried chicken, hash brown, cheese, chipotle ketchup, HP sauce and mayo). Both were chock-full of filling, the chicken one especially had such a huge meaty piece of fried chicken in that you couldn’t really eat it without deconstructing it on your plate. And a really good layer of sauces in there too which really pack the flavour in.

At Reading we had two sliders (Ronald’s revenage – double cheese, onions, ketchup, mustard and pickles – and the dreadlock Rasta – chicken burger with hot sauce, shredded iceberg and dirty spread) and a Caravan Park hot dog (pork dog, fried onions, dirty spread, ketchup, mustard and pickles). Again totally stuffed with fillings and really thick tasty patties on the sliders.

All. the. food.

I have no idea what ‘dirty sauce’ and ‘dirty spread’ are actually made of (I’m guessing some kind of mayo/ketchup combo) but I don’t really care –  the whole flavour bundle was delicious. 7Bone has fun with its menu – things like dirty spread are the character it’s creating – a place where you can stuff a burger into your face, make a mess, clink a beer with your companion and carry on. It’s lively, it’s fun, and it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Of course, that kind of frivolity isn’t necessarily going to be to everyone’s taste and the person next to us at the preview night was having a proper moan to the manager. The menu was ‘confusing’ (it’s burgers and hot dogs, how confusing can it be?), the frickles were ‘like marmite’ and they were firmly in the hate camp, and ‘what ACTUALLY is in dirty sauce?’. I guess you can’t please everyone… Maybe a rant like that comes with a preview night where you’re asking for opinions, and everyone is quite rightly entitled to be 100% honest, but it was a bit off putting when we just want to chill and enjoy our food.

I got the feeling maybe they just didn’t ‘get’ 7Bone? For us, it was chilled and fun, the kind of place we’ll go before the cinema or just because we fancy popping out for some food on a Friday night. The venues are a bit hipster in decor – neon lights and exposed pipes, you know the drill – but they look cool and they work with the laid back vibe.

The staff were friendly at both locations and our service was quick at both. The beers were good in Camberley (try the Kona Big Wave) and the cocktails were delicious in Reading (the French Bone is a sweet, fruity little number and the Endgame is a thick, fruity, rum-soaked hit).

The French Bone (left) and the Endgame

The prices are reasonable – you’re looking at about £8 for a burger/hot dog/melt and around £4ish for a side – and in the scale of burger restaurants where McDonalds is one end, Five Guys is the middle and the Handmade Burger Co is the other, it sits somewhere between Five Guys and Handmade Burger Co.

Without a doubt we’ll be visiting both venues again. They’re a really welcome addition to Camberley and Reading and there’s absolutely no question that next time we go, frickles will definitely be on our table.

Sunday Brunch at Hotel du Vin in Henley

Hotel du Vin in Henley, for me, is synonymous with the Henley Literary Festival.

Every time I’ve been there, except for my most recent visit, it has been in some way related to the Festival and the hotel has always left a wonderful impression. Whether it’s sipping a glass of crisp Pinot in the courtyard at the launch party, or popping in for a quick cup of tea in between events, it’s always been a place to relax and enjoy.

But for every time I’ve been there while enjoying the festival, I’ve never actually eaten there. (I know, that should really be whispered!).

So when an email landed in my inbox inviting me to try out the Hotel du Vin Sunday Brunch it took me all of five minutes to reply with a ‘yes please!’.

A long, lazy Sunday brunch always feels indulgent – it means you’ve done all the jobs you need to do, and you can really enjoy the time you’ve got stretching ahead for the day. And the relaxed setting of the Hotel du Vin fits that perfectly. With wooden floors, dark wooden furniture, and an eclectic selection of art on the walls, it feels cosy and welcoming. A pool of light also flooded into the room from the courtyard and made us long for warmer weather and al fresco dining.

The Sunday Brunch offer is £24.95 per person for four courses, including the French Market Table, which is a bit of a showstopper – but more on that in a moment!

The first course on the menu was the soup of the day, and when we visited it was cream of cauliflower. The soup was thick but smooth, and creamy, with the fresh taste of the cauliflower really coming through. It was also a really generous sized bowl which definitely set the tone for the portions to come.

Then it was time for the French Market Table – just take a look at this:

Thin slices of delicious iberico ham, prosciuito and salami, fresh mussels, wedges of bread, coarse meaty terrine, olives, balsamic pickled onions, plump tomatoes, cucumber pieces, slices of salmon, a creamy potato salad. The feast went on…

Both Ben and I agreed that we could happily have stayed on the second course, filling our plates again and again, but a little self-restraint, and knowledge of what was to come, kept our greedy sides at bay.

Our waiter – one of several who looked after us impeccably – asked if we wanted a breather and we nodded a yes while trying to fathom how we’d manage more food. The spacing was spot on, allowing us time to relax and chat before our mains arrived.

The main course presents a choice, there is the Sunday roast, or options like Steak Frites and Poached Scottish Salmon. I chose the rib of Aberdeenshire beef Sunday roast and Ben went for the Severn & Wye Smoked Haddock.

The meat was pink, as I had asked for, and beautifully tender, cut into fairly thin slithers so you could really taste the beef. It was served with a rich and meaty gravy and a soft cloud of yorkshire pudding. A full bowl of fresh winter veg was on the side, almost overflowing with roast potatoes, carrots, parsnips, broccoli and red cabbage.

Ben’s fish was also fantastic, served with a mustard butter and placed on a hash brown, although the poached egg on top wasn’t runny, which a perfect poached egg should always be.

Pudding – yes there was more – was a comforting banana, rum bread and butter pudding for me, and apple tarte tatin for Ben. They were so good we both refused to share.

The bread and butter pudding was topped with rum and raisin ice cream, which had a faint hint of booze, and worked very well indeed with the banana in the pudding.

While we’re talking sweets, my head was turned a few times during our meal by the sight of a three-tier cake stand being carried through to the bar area. Admittedly any cake would usually turn my head, but this was particularly dazzling due to the puffs of candy floss which were sticking out of the top. It looked fabulous and fun, and will definitely be added to my ‘must-visit’ afternoon tea spots.

After a leisurely two hours we tried to button our coats back up (it was a task!) and headed out into the sunshine for a walk along Henley’s beautiful riverside. Henley is a lovely place to visit, picturesque and calm, and Hotel du Vin couldn’t be a better fit for the town. I will certainly not be leaving it until the next literary festival before I visit again.

I was invited to review the Sunday Brunch menu at Hotel du Vin in Henley so my visit was complimentary but all views are my own honest opinion. 

48 hours in Liverpool

For Christmas this year Ben & I decided to do presents a bit differently.

Rather than buy each other a gift, we decided to each book a surprise mini break for each other. I chose Liverpool.

Having been to Liverpool for a work conference around four years ago when I worked at the paper I’d had a glimpse of the city and it seemed like a lively place, a cross between the historic (the Albert Docks) and the modern (the Liverpool One shopping centre). I’d been itching to go back and get a chance to explore properly, and I had a feeling it was the kind of place which would be perfect for a little city break. It turns out I was right…

John Lennon’s statue outside the Cavern Pub in Matthew Street

How to get there?

We decided to drive up, as it works out quite a bit cheaper than the train. It took around four hours from Berkshire, which was fine, although the way back took an epic 5.5 hours due to roadworks – gah! We’ve done a few road trips like this now (including Edinburgh), where our hotels/apartments haven’t had parking so we’ve stayed in town centre car parks. It worked out at £13 a day, which isn’t too bad either.

Where to stay?

We stayed at the gorgeous Malmaison hotel near the Docks. We’re both big fans of Malmaison in Reading, (although we haven’t actually stayed there we got a sneak peak of rooms during Dante or Die’s I Do theatre production) and we love popping in for a few drinks. Malmaison always feels soothing – I think it’s the dark walls and dim lights, it just makes you feel relaxed. Our room was a good size and it had a huge bathtub plus a walk in monsoon shower, which is always a bonus. It was a great location too, just a 10 minute walk to the Docks or the town centre.

What to do?

A must-visit while you’re in Liverpool

Liverpool is ideal for a two day visit as it gives you enough time to explore the culture (and do a bit of shopping!). Our first stop was The Cavern Club, home of the Beatles. Although we’re not super Beatles fans as such, you can’t help but be in awe of the venue, and enjoy hearing their music played live. All the greats have played at The Cavern and there’s just so much history. We had a beer and listened to some Beatles covers and it was the perfect way to start our trip.

It’s also well worth taking a walk along the Albert Docks which have little shops and restaurants nestled around them. There are some impressive boats moored there, and it’s also the home of Tate Liverpool. We popped in as I wanted to see the Tracey Emin/William Blake exhibition they had going on, and we found ourselves wandering around for a good 90 minutes. The gallery had a really nice mix of work, including a quirky robot play which was taking place while we were there.

And of course, there’s the shopping. Liverpool One has all the main high street players, and there are a few other little streets/shopping centres to find too.

Where to eat?

Eggs Benedict at Lox and Caper

Being mostly driven by our stomachs, food plays a big part in any mini break we go on, and we discovered some complete gems in Liverpool (pretty much due to Ben’s sixth sense for picking a good restaurant!). We tend to look at TripAdvisor (although you do have to take the reviews with a pinch of salt), and then have a look on a restaurant’s website/Facebook page. Here are the places we tried:

  • The Salt House. Such. good. Tapas. Ben spotted this while we were walking through the town centre looking for somewhere to grab a quick bite to eat after arriving in Liverpool. They had a set menu which offered three tapas dishes and bread per person, and it was just the right amount. One of my dishes was a cauliflower risotto which was wonderfully creamy, and the pan-fried pardon peppers with flakes of salt were delicious with a hint of bitterness.
  • Mowgli. We rocked up for a table at 7pm but it was so busy we were told we wouldn’t get seated until 9pm. No problem, we thought, we’ll just do our night in reverse and go for some drinks first. What’s the harm right? The harm is that alcohol skews your judgement and you end up ordering the entire menu. (I lie, it was the whole menu but it was A LOT of food!). Mowgli was superb. It’s an Indian street food menu with things like Bhel Puri and roti flat breads alongside lots of different curries and street meats. We had the Yoghurt Chat Bombs which were incredible – they kind of pop in your mouth and you have all these spices and flavours alongside the cooling yoghurt – and we went for ‘a Tiffin box for one’ each, which is like a curry roulette. You get three curries and a rice, which are delicious but it was way too much – just go for one between two.
  • Lox and Caper – We very nearly didn’t find Lox and Caper as it’s tucked in with the Merseyside Youth Association. The MYA reception desk is at one side, and the cafe tables at the other. We popped in for brunch and the menu has loads of awesome things including several different variations on Eggs Benedict. I had the traditional which came with super thick ham and a creamy Hollandaise, and Ben went for the Oscar which came with brisket. A no-frills, super good food kind of place.
  • Bacaro – More tapas I hear you cry? I know, but we were SO full from over-doing it at Mowgli we decided to go for small plates for our second evening. Looking at the website, we think Bacaro may be linked to the Salt House, but it felt more like an evening venue, with twinkly lights and super friendly staff. Everything was delicious – the fluffiest mozarella, crispy deep fried gnocci with pesto, slithers of beef carpaccio. And a lovely prosecco.
  • Castle St Townhouse – You can see a pattern emerging. Tapas. Brunch. Tapas. Brunch. Castle St Townhouse was a comforting place to stop and refuel before heading home. Our waiter brought us some cucumber water to start (refreshing) and then we sipped tea and coffee while tucking into baked eggs with chorizo (Ben) and a black pudding hash topped with a poached egg (me). The menu was slightly more interesting than most brunch venues and the food was lovely.

Where to drink?

We went on a mini bar crawl while waiting for our table at Mowgli and ended up trying a couple of cool places.

The Underground Gin Society – It just sounds fun, right? Set down a little flight of steps, so you could totally walk by and not even realise it was there, the Underground Gin Society is a cosy, dark little bar, with ALL THE GINS. We tried the Liverpool Gin (when in Liverpool eh?) which is served with a slice of watermelon. It was light and tasty but the barman put in way too much tonic so it sort of swamped the flavour a bit. Less tonic, more gin please.

The Alchemist – Breaking Bad meets cocktail bar. Think Long Island Ice Teas which cloud with dry ice, or cocktails served in those triangular laboratory flasks. It’s achingly cool, but doesn’t feel too pretentious. I had a Peaches and Cream (Briottet peach and pink grapefruit, lemon, prosecco) which was just the right amount of sweet.

Malmaison – It would have been rude not to have a nightcap at Malmaison. The bar wasn’t busy but it felt cosy and relaxed and we sipped a warming whiskey to finish off our night after Bacaro.

And that is how to fill 48 hours in Liverpool. Well worth a visit if you get the chance.

Where have you been?

A photo I took on a blustery tube strike day walking to Waterloo. A bit of computer wizardry has turned it into a painting and I kind of love it like this.

Since 3 January the rhythm of my life has changed pretty dramatically.

A 10 minute commute has become an 80 minute one on a good day, and a 100 minute one on a bad day, and with it my habits and routines have had to twist and bend.

How cool is my train pass holder which my lovely sister bought for me. Officially a commuter.

I talk about train times and delays a bit too much now, and I’m no longer the last person left standing at a crossing in London waiting for the green man because I’m not quite sure what the flow of traffic is.

I eat a bit less, I drink tea a bit more and I do personal correspondence on the train (see I told you I mention trains all the time!).

Love this sign. I saw it outside a little shop near Buckingham Gate and it sang to me

I enjoy a walk in green spaces to clear my head, and I have seen the best and worst of people on public transport (yes, trains). It still makes me smile to see London landmarks arching over the skyline.

The London Eye on a chilly Friday night

Gone are the free hours to blog (as you’ve probably noticed!) and instead time has become really precious again. I eat, I read, I socialise and I crochet.

I’m making a crochet mood blanket where I make one square a day in a colour which matches my mood. So far I’m only 3 days behind, hoorah!

Books have been a saviour on some commuter days, when the thought of getting up in the dark is eased by the knowledge that I’ll get to tuck back into whatever imaginary world I’m wandering around in at the moment. Instagram has become the place I chart my reading adventures, a bit of mini blogging I guess.

Loved this book. Such a multi-layered story.

Weekends have become precious and short and I actually let myself stop and catch up now, rather than rushing around to fill every moment. That said, last weekend I went back into London for a bottomless brunch at Forge&Co with some of my best friends and it was so nice being in town at a weekend and getting to enjoy the non-commuter side of things too.

Poached eggs and prosecco

I love this new way of being. Don’t get me wrong it is tiring (and tiredness has a way of being quiet for so long and then jumping out at you so you sleep in until 10am on a Sunday – woops!), but it feels bigger. I feel different – challenged and invigorated – and I’ve realised a fast pace is definitely my kind of thing. I’m looking forward to seeing the seasons change in London and for the first summer walk around St James’s Park, and I’m excited to keep growing and embracing this new way of life.

The Festival of Light at Longleat Safari Park

If the saying is true, that whatever you’re doing on New Year’s Day will set the tone for the rest of the year, then 2017 is going to be really blooming brilliant.

After an awesome New Year’s Eve spent drinking gin, eating Thai food and playing games at Cat & Alex’s we all hopped in the car and went to Longleat Safari Park for New Year’s Day.

Animal ears were compulsory!

Longleat brings back memories of being about 14 and going there with one of my best friends and her family, and I haven’t been since so it was really nice to return and see how it’s changed in the last 14ish years.

We decided to go for the safari first, which was every bit as brilliant as I remember. You do the whole safari in your own car, except for a small stop off at the African village to start with, and you get given a CD to play which talks you through each area as you drive into it.

Gorgeous

The animals just roam free around you, and it really is amazing how close they get to the cars. The lions were incredible and I loved the wolves who definitely looked as if they were posing for photos!

The monkey enclosure is definitely still the best as they leap up onto your car and scamper around. We saw one having a good old chew on a car aerial behind us but luckily our car came out unscathed.

After lots of squealing at the monkeys and some Oohs and Aahs over the wildcats we drove back down to the main entrance area to warm up with a hot, gooey pizza. It was the soggiest day outside, and we got completely soaked at the African village, but we all decided to just go with it anyway, and not let the weather dampen our day.

We bought a couple of brollies and headed to the outdoor maze. I remember the maze seeming so huge as a kid, and it taking us ages to find the middle, but my sense of direction must have improved as I was the second out of our group to make my way through.

Totally didn’t get lost in the maze!

After that we went into Longleat House which is stunning, and they had some gorgeous Beatrix Potter ballet costumes on show. There was also a roaring fire at the entrance so we lingered a bit there in an attempt to get dry.

And then it was back outside to check out the Festival of Light. The festival has actually been so popular they’ve extended the dates so it’s running up to next weekend too. It’s so worth a visit – the lights were gorgeous, with a whole garden full of cheeky Beatrix Potter characters.

There was also a section celebrating Longleat’s 50 year anniversary with a huge birthday cake, presents and animals, which was brilliant.

Happy birthday Longleat!

There were New Year’s Day fireworks schedule for 6pm but being pretty cold and wet by that point we decided to head home. Even with the pouring rain, it was such a brilliant day, and if the rest of the year carries on like that we may be rather soggy but we’ll definitely be very happy indeed.

Looking forward

Well 2016 has been a bit of an oddball of a year hasn’t it?

And by oddball I mean a year which saw two occasions when we went to bed and couldn’t believe what we were seeing when we woke up. A year with so much public grief for lost heroes. A year with news headlines which made your stomach lurch when you read them.

It’s no wonder the online world is currently being so vocal about how ready it is to close the door on 2016, to put it down as a black blotch of ink on the scroll of time and instead fill our hearts with hope and move on.

Personally, 2016 has been a bit of a limbo year, saving, saving, saving in the hope that we’ll eventually be able to buy a home to call our own.

And it has also been a year with so much goodness. I’ve danced on many a wedding dance floor and seen wonderful friends profess their love for one another and I’ve cuddled adorable new babies who just leave me in total awe of how precious they are. I’ve had an epic adventure to the Edinburgh Fringe with the best people, I’ve flown to Malta where I braved a storm and never knew that just watching Harry Potter while the rain hammers down outside could make you feel so content.

I’ve had afternoons sitting on the floor of my parents home playing games with wonderful little people, I’ve sung at the top of my voice while standing in a field watching Fall Out Boy, I’ve clinked cocktails with many, many friends and I sat in the sunshine for a day on my own in London with a ice lolly which tasted like champagne.

Without getting completely sentimental, I’ve spent lots of time with the people I love, which absolutely does mean the most, and looking at the world outside has made me realise how precious the simple things inside my little bubble are.

So, 2017. It feels like we’re on the cusp of a big year. I’m about to start a new job in London (excited!) and we’re about to begin ‘the great big house hunt’.  This year will also see some amazing friends tie the knot and there’s already a bit of travelling on the cards (Bruges here we come!).

I’ve been thinking hard over the last few weeks about what 2016 has taught me, and have put together a bit of a goals/resolution list for the year ahead.

1. Focus on the good. As said by Roald Dahl – ‘If you have good thoughts they will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.’

2. Stop mindlessly scrolling. I’ve realised how much social media has negatively impacted on my happiness this year (this article in the Guardian says it all) so I’m going to try stepping away a bit more.

3. Walk. If bootcamp taught me anything this year, it’s that exercise = happier. And with the Shine walking marathon in September I better get my boots on.

4. Have a brilliant year in my new job. Let the London commuter life begin!

5. Crochet a mood blanket. I saw this idea on Bella Coco’s blog and just ordered 25 (!) balls of wool, with 10 different colours matching a different mood. I’ll be making one square a day, based on how I feel. Let’s hope for lots of happy pink.

6. Get lost in books. Escaping into pages always makes me feel better and there will be plenty of chances to read on the train now.

7. Take the pressure off. I’ve taken the pressure off with blogging in December, and haven’t pushed myself to do so many posts each week. I feel much less stretched for it, so although I’ll still be posting, it will probably be a bit more ad hoc.

8. Be less afraid. If I listened to one half of my brain – the part that’s soaked up every bit of news this year – I probably wouldn’t leave the house. I need to listen to the other half and be brave.

9. Spend time with the people who make me happy. It’s a no brainer.

10. Find a home. Four walls and a door – it’s out there, we just need to find it.

December dips and pom pom crowns

Imagine this.

It’s a freezing cold day, the kind where your breath turns to ice in front of you, and your alarm goes off at 5.30am. Getting out of bed, you pull on some clothes, hop in the car (which, by the way needs de-icing), and head down to the river.

You get out of the car, take all those warm clothes off until you’re just left in your bathing suit, and you squelch across the muddy ground to the water’s edge. Then, without any drama, you just slip into the freezing cold water and go for a swim. And you do this EVERY SINGLE DAY for the rest of December.

I literally can’t imagine doing it even once, but this is what my amazing friend Ella has been doing to raise money for Crisis, the homelessness charity.

It looks beautiful but can you imagine how cold that is!!

She’s braved dark mornings and icy evenings and all sorts of toe-tingling temperatures, and has raised nearly £3,000 for Crisis in the process, which is just incredible. All the information about her swim is over on her Dip a Day December justgiving page, and if you’ve got some money to donate it really is the most worthy cause.

For each of Ella’s swims she’s also been wearing a different hair accessory which is where the pom pom crown part of this post comes in. I’d been keeping an eye out around town for something fun she could wear, but aside from Santa hats and Rudolph ears there didn’t seem to be much. So then I remembered the pom pom crowns Kirstie Allsop wore at the Handmade Fair last year and decided to see how tricky it would be to make one.

It turns out they’re super easy! I found this tutorial on Bespoke Bride and altogether it probably took about an hour to put the hairband together.

The first step is to make your pom poms, and the best gadget for doing that is the pom pom maker. It saves so much time and each pom pom comes out looking really fluffy!

SUCH a genius gadget. No more cardboard rings like we used to use as kids.

I did make a pom pom out of a gold glittery wool I had (see photo below!) but it shed so much glitter everywhere it looked like a fairy had sneezed across my living room floor by the end. The gold pom pom was quickly vetoed when it came to assembly but the rest of the colours were actually bright enough without it anyway.

Pesky gold!

After you’ve made all your pom poms it’s a case of figuring out how you want them to sit. Some hairbands I’ve seen have them sitting really neatly and all the same size but I wanted mine more textured so I made some small and some medium sized and then tied a few close together so there was a bit of height. Then you just tie them on, snip the loose threads and there you have it!

A pom pom crown fit for a lovely (and brave!) winter swimmer, dipping in the cold December waters every day for a very, very good cause.

Review: The Girl with the Reindeer Knitting Pattern – a Dick Barton Adventure

B Hoodlum (Clive Elkington) and A Hoodlum (Luke Burton) discuss their master plan. Photos by Savannah Photographic

If there is ever a time for all out silliness on stage it is most certainly the festive season.

And we’re not talking pantomime with its slapstick chuckles and ‘he’s behind you’ chants, instead it’s the madcap world of special agent Dick Barton.

The Studio Company has well and truly put its own stamp on Dick Barton, the special agent who was the eponymous hero of a radio series in the late 40s and early 50s, and come up with a lively production, filled with plenty of festive fun.

Dick (Quiller Rees) and Snowy (Gordon Coe) are in a tricky situation while Jock (Adrian Tang) tries to appease Klaus (David Rhodes)

Our heroic trio, Dick (Quiller Rees), Jock (Adrian Tang) and Snowy, played with fantastic expression by Gordon Coe, smell something fishy about a new restaurant and set off to investigate.

The restaurant owner, Klaus Holland, performed with a fantastically silly Nordic accent by David Rhodes, is clearly up to no good, but why does he have so many Christmas puddings and why do Santa (Luke Burton) and his elf (Clive Elkington) appear to be delivering them?

The plot is fun and frivolous and the cast go full throttle, running around the stage and keeping a great energy throughout. The jokes came thick and fast, with few gags eliciting some actual groans from the audience. But while some jokes got a titter from the sold-out crowd, including a few moments of amusing word-play, the laugh-out-loud jokes we would expect from the comedy-detective genre were missing. A few easy innuendo jokes fell flat and perhaps a bolder delivery would gather more giggles.

There were times when the production dipped a toe into the all-out ridiculous – a brief, unexplained arrival in France, a Russel Brand-esque drunk host with more hair than face and an octopus being thrown at someone during a dark chase scene – but it wasn’t consistent. If director David Wembridge was brave enough to tip the scales closer to the surreal there’s potential for a really wacky, hilarious production.

The brilliant ice cream ladies

But despite being held back a little, there is plenty to entertain. An impromptu dance sequence worked wonderfully, two ice-cream ladies made a fantastic cameo, and there was enough Christmas spirit to power Santa’s sleigh.

Although it may not have you belly laughing throughout, Dick Barton’s adventure will certainly bring you plenty of festive cheer.

The Girl with the Reindeer Knitting Pattern – A Dick Barton Adventure is at South Hill Park until Saturday, 17 December. To book visit www.southhilllpark.org.uk.

I was invited to review the production so my ticket was complimentary but all views are my own.

The king of festive weekends in Kent

If there were a prize for the most traditional festive weekend in the UK, my adventures in Kent last weekend would definitely be in the running.

We had chestnuts roasting on an open fire, A Muppet’s Christmas carol, Christmas tree decorating and the actual bloomin’ ghost of Christmas future.

It’s all about the glitter bauble

We were down in Kent visiting my sister and brother-in-law, and it’s always fun spending a weekend with them in Tunny Wah Wah (aka Tunbridge Wells), especially at Christmas.

Our weekend started on Friday night with the Muppet’s Christmas Carol (here comes Mr Humbug!), prosecco and Christmas tree decorating (while wearing a turkey shaped hat, obvs).

On Saturday we wrapped up in our hats and scarves and headed over to Rochester for the Dickensian Christmas Festival. Apparently Dickens loved Rochester, and based some of his novels around the area so the town goes pretty Dickens mad this time of year.

All wrapped up in our woollies!

Ben was convinced we were going to walk into some live action cosplay thing where he’d get dressed up as Tiny Tim, but luckily it wasn’t quite so interactive. Standing with a cup of hot mulled wine we watched the parade, with people dressed in awesome full-skirted Victorian dresses, or going all out and dressing up as their favourite Dickens character. I think Nancy, Bill Sykes and Bullseye were my favourites or the ghost of Christmas future who was amazing.

Come ‘ere Bullseye
Ghost of Christmas Future being accompanied by the Ghost of Christmas present, as you do

We then took a wander up the road, got a bag of roast chestnuts (which were way trickier to peel than I remember, I made SUCH a mess!), and browsed some of the craft stalls and performances they had going on throughout the day. They also have a huge Christmas market up by the cathedral where we bought the most delicious brownies. It was super busy by this point, so after a quick stop to meet the reindeers (Oh hi Rudolph!), we made our way back to Tunbridge Wells for a late lunch.

Dasher, Dancer and Rudolph

I’ve written before about the delights of Gusta and when someone said the words ‘cheese platter’ we knew there was only going to be one option for food. So off to Gusta it was for this epic platter of meat and cheese.

SO good!

And the fun literally kept coming as we spent the evening at the Moonlight Drive-In Cinema at Hop Farm. If you’ve never been to a drive-in cinema before I would totally recommend it. We went to watch Bad Santa 2, which was entertaining but not exactly one to add to the ‘watch every Christmas’ list, but really it was all about the novelty of the experience. Having thought it was going to be freezing in the car we had ALL the blankets with us (plus a sleeping bag) but actually it wasn’t too chilly at all. We also took loads of snacks and drinks so we had a real feast while we watched the movie.

The weekend was rounded off with possibly the best roast dinner I’ve ever had at The Chaser Inn in Shipbourne. Cat and I went for the turkey dinner (see I told you it was a non-stop festive weekend) which came with all the Christmas dinner goodies – loads of bread sauce, pigs in blankets and a giant Yorkshire pudding. A huge wedge of Sticky Toffee Pudding pretty much finished me off. A big turkey dinner followed by a snooze – it must be Christmas!

Light up Reading

Before you read this blog post, open up YouTube, search for Kayne West’s All of the Lights and crank it up.

There couldn’t be a better soundtrack for this post which is quite literally about ALL OF THE LIGHTS. Like this dazzling cube of multi-coloured goodness:

lights4

That’s just one of the exhibits which form part of Light Up Reading, a trail of illuminations which are dotted around the town from now until Saturday, 17 December.

I was so excited to be invited to the launch on Thursday and to see the town lit up in a real rainbow of colour. There are 11 stops on the map, although some are events running on specific dates only, and we started at the Thames Tower High Striker by Reading train station.

lights6

Anyone who lives in Reading will have seen the Thames Tower gradually taking shape, and to now see the entire building dominating the skyline and lit up in a rainbow of colours really is spectacular. The lights change in different sequences, running in pinks, blues, purples, greens, reds and yellows, and it’s all a bit like a gigantic Rubik’s cube. There’s also a bit of fairground fun with a platform you can strike to send the colours running up the building.

The Thames Tower High Striker illumination is definitely the showstopper but there are also some nice little installations tucked around the town. Our second stop was the Box of Hopes, which is in the lobby of 3 Forbury Square.

lights5

The box features squares created by children from Polehampton Infant’s School in Twyford who were asked to draw their hopes and dreams for the world. Some of them are very sweet, very charming, and a few, like the one simply asking for love and peace, are very poignant too.

At the top of 3 Forbury Square there is a second installation, Reading’s own Northern Lights. Although it was way too high for a decent picture, it’s a clever little idea, with blues and greens changing slowly, way up in the sky.

Our next stop was the Abbey Ruins which were glowing with blues, pinks, reds and purples. Seeing such an historic area of Reading lit up in a very modern way was really quite dazzling, but there was also something a little eerie at seeing these old buildings brought to life in the night.

lights1

After a quick stop off at the Oracle to see the shopping centre’s beacon glowing on top of the car park, we headed over to the bridge near Queen’s Road Car Park. We almost decided to give it a miss, as it was so cold, but I’m so glad we didn’t. Turning the corner we saw lots of tiny candles dotted all over the bridge, lighting up a walkway for passers by.

ll1

And as we got closer a chap invited us to take a splint and help keep the flames going. It was quite a challenge as it was pretty windy, but it felt so…calming. Each of the 500 candles was actually a terracotta dish created in collaboration with art students from Reading College and there was something quite magical about all of the lights flickering in the darkness. It was the perfect end to our trail.

lights3

Light Up Reading is the grand finale of the incredible Reading Year of Culture, which has seen so many amazing performances, speakers and events taking place. Reading has well and truly been put on the map and the year has demonstrated how vibrant and culturally rich our town really is. It’s been a total joy to experience the year of culture, from making biscuits with the incredible Bompas & Parr to interviewing George the Poet on stage and the organisers have really done our town proud.

I’m so excited to see what happens next in Reading and to find out how the Year of Culture’s legacy will live on and continue to make our town a brilliant place to live.