Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Bugs in the Kitchen

It has been some time since I put my name forward for a review product. The upheaval of moving and settling into a whole new life has left precious little time for such things. However, when the opportunity came along to review Bugs in the Kitchen, a new game from Ravensburger featuring a Hexbug Nano, I could not resist.

Until quite recently, we were proud owners of a collection of Hexbug Nanos. I found it endlessly fascinating watching these little robotic toys scurrying around in their authentically bug like manner. Unfortunately, my children had an out of control painting session one afternoon whilst I slept, exhausted and oblivious, on the sofa. My son in law discovered the havoc wreaked with poster paint and chubby brush. To say I was not best pleased when he awoke me with the news would be something of an understatement. The Hexbugs were not the only things that had fallen victim to the colourful destruction and ended up in the dustbin. I have regretted my hasty decision to bin everything splattered and covered with paint but cleaning walls and furniture took priority... and my anger needed venting!

The scene of the above crime is in a house that no longer belongs to us. We have a new home now and bygones could be bygones. It was time to get reacquainted with Hexbug Nanos and what better way than as part of a game for all the family to enjoy.

We played Bugs in the Kitchen during our Halloween fun (there might be a few clues in the photograph!) There was a minimal amount of assembly to do before we were able to play. The pieces all fitted together nicely to create a robust game that did not need to be disassembled to pack away.

The object of the game is to trap the Hexbug Nano that is busy scuttling around the 'kitchen'. Each player has their own trap and wins a token every time the bug lands in it. The first player to win five tokens is the victor. The bugs are guided into the traps through a cutlery maze consisting of moveable components. A dice is thrown to see which cutlery item you are allowed to move. A strategic rotation of a knife, fork or spoon will open pathways in your favour or block routes to an opponents trap. I actually found it quite difficult to visualise the effect of a move and more than once disadvantaged myself and watched helplessly as the bug scuttled off into another player's trap - the Bugs in the Kitchen equivalent of an own goal!

It is a fast paced game with lots of excitement guaranteed by the unpredictable Hexbug. Even with my dubious tactical abilities it was a lot of fun. The kids quickly disregarded the rule that the first player to gain five tokens is the winner. They kept playing until all the available tokens had been awarded, counted up to see who had the most and then started all over again. 

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Tandem Triathlon

My little Addy goes to 'Magic Club' one evening a week at her new school. She loves it. She especially loves it because dad takes her to and from school on the back of our tandem bike, weather permitting. As I watched them ride off together this week, I was reminded that I never published the post I had written about the Tandem Triathlon I took part in with my husband during the summer before we moved.  It was a big deal for me so rather than deleting the draft, I have published it here for my benefit more than anything. If you choose to continue reading, be warned, it is a bit of a long one!  Alternatively, here is a little video of Addy practising her magic tricks.

Tandem Triathlon

We had a plan, my husband and I - a plan to find a moment of calm amidst the chaos. A weekend somewhere lovely away from the demands of the family and work - time for us - time to recharge and reconnect.

It didn't happen.

We did, however, have a date in the diary to compete in a Tandem Triathlon. For want of a better plan, that was to become the time for us.

We had not trained properly for this event.

My husband was to do the 1K swim. He is a strong swimmer. This was never going to be a  problem.

He is also a good cyclist but our trips out on the tandem to see what we could do have been few and far between. We hadn't even come close to attempting the 35km demanded by the triathlon and we were slightly concerned by a problem with the gears that may or may not have been sorted by the local bicycle shop.

The run was my responsiblity. My running training had been virtually non existent but I had completed a 5 mile fun run recently which gave me a bit of confidence. I have NEVER run after a bike ride of any length... let alone a 35km one! I was desperately in need of that confidence having suffered a nasty injury to my right leg in an oversized wellies and slippery deck related incident.

The bruise in its yellow phase!

Competitors were encouraged to dress up and decorate their tandems if they desired. We didn't have time to come up with an elaborate plan. I grabbed the artificial flowers that had been used to decorate my car on my wedding day (I could never quite bring myself to bin them) and hastily taped them to the handlebars. Perfect.

The triathlon took place in picturesque Bishops Castle in South Shropshire - picturesque and hilly. I don't know why but I had the impression that the competitors would be mostly long bearded, dressed in the style of Morris Dancers and possibly smelling slightly of incense. I couldn't have been more wrong. Admittedly there were a few couples who had embraced the dress up element of the competition but there were some serious looking lycra clad athletes too.

We signed in, wrestled the bike off the roof of the car and tried to organise everything we needed for the various stages of the event. It was warm and sunny so plenty of water and suntan lotion were among the necessities.

Before long, it was my husband's time in the water. I watched him for a while before going to the transition area to wait with the tandem. It was a very shallow pool. My 6' 4" husband looked quite ridiculous standing in it waiting for the cue to go. His swimming style did not have his usual effortless grace. This may have been attributed to the fact that his arms must have been scraping the bottom of the pool with each stroke!

It was a beautiful day and it was lovely chatting to the other competitors waiting for their partners to emerge from the pool complex ready for the second discipline. The transition was quite relaxed and then, we were off.

I love being on the back of the tandem. I can't see a great deal and have to have total trust in my husband but that isn't difficult at all. The countryside was whizzing past me and I was smiling at marshalls and other tandems coming back the other way. It was glorious. We were picking up a good head of speed going down the hills and  that gave us enough momentum to climb up the hills without too much of a problem.

Then the hill happened.

The hill that went on forever.

The hill that saw our speed drop so slow we were barely moving.

The hill that required every bit of effort we could muster just to stop ourselves from rolling backwards.

But we made it. Somehow, we made it.

The bad news was that we would have to climb that hill again. Not all the way to the top but about three quarters of the way up was the run transition. My leg muscles were screaming. The idea of getting off the bike and running after climbing that hill a second time seemed impossible. On top of that, after the run there would be a further 5km on the tandem to reach the final finish line. I didn't even want to think about it.

So I didn't.

We were on our way again in a landscape that rewarded you with some downhill for the uphill exertions. The sun shone, but not too much. It was wonderful. I was loving it again.

Going up one hill, we were overtaken by a shiny red high performance sports car that made a throaty roar as it accelerated past us. This somehow added to my elation.

Unfortunately, my elation could not last forever. I had been worried about my injured right leg and had maybe been allowing my left leg to take on more of the strain for that reason. My left leg decided it had had enough. My knee started to hurt. My knee continued to hurt. The hurt intensified. I wanted to cry. Our dodgy gears were behaving fine but my knee was a different story.

I thought that if I was able to stretch my leg for a while it might ease the pain. I took my foot out of the toe strap, off the pedal and felt wonderful relief as I straightened my sorry limb. We also felt the disconcerting bumping of the toe strap hitting the road with every revolution of the pedals.  Vaguely reminiscent of my husbands awkward swimming style in the shallow pool, we were losing our rhythm  and at risk of coming off the bike. Lovely as it was to have relief from the pain, my leg had to go back on the pedal.

I was reassured that the pain had disappeared as soon as I had changed position. It was back now, with a vengeance, but I felt more confident that it was just muscle cramping and I could pedal through it. We free wheeled when we could so I had the chance to stretch it out again and it felt great. Mostly, I put up with the pain and prayed that I wasn't doing any actual damage.

When we got to the hill for the second time, my emotions were all over the place. I had the pleasure of knowing that this part of the bike ride was nearly over, the excitement of knowing that my leg was soon going to be free from the crippling constraint, fear that we still had to make it up the hill somehow and the absolute leap of faith that I would somehow still be able to run.

I could only push up the hill with my one good leg. Three legs pedalling failed to do what four legs had only just managed to do the first time. The bike did literally reach the point that the upward forces were less than the downward forces. We stopped. We walked the bike up the hill and I was hugely gratified that I could in fact walk! Maybe I'd be able to run. The gradient of the hill became slightly flatter at the turn off into the forest for the run transition so I bravely suggested getting back on the bike to ride in with dignity.

I made use of a portaloo. I gagged on a warm, gloopy energy gel. I grabbed a water bottle and I was off. I was running. Slowly, but I was running.

I knew the run was though forest trails which is my favourite kind of running. What I didn't know was that it was through forest trails up a mountain. (Maybe it wasn't exactly a mountain but it was a very big hill). My leg didn't feel too bad but my heart was pounding and I was so hot. I drank sips of water, ran when I felt able and walked (briskly) when I needed to. This was going to be a slow 10K but at least with all this uphill I was guaranteed some downhill where I could hopefully make up some time.

My run/brisk walk strategy degenerated into a slow walk/drag strategy. Even the feeding stations with their generous rations of jelly babies, crisps, biscuits and drinks could not energise me. But I was still standing and slowly making forward progress up the incline that just kept inclining!

Looking rough at the halfway point selfie

Eventually, and not a moment too soon,  the gradient flattened out. I had reached the top and saw before me a plateau. A gently undulating meadow plateau. It was what I had been working for and there it was. My slow walk/drag turned into a shuffling jog. I shuffled and I jogged and my heart sang. A short way further and I could see the inevitable downward gradient. All I had to do was let gravity carry me down the hill to the finish. I might even make up a bit of the time I had lost on my ascent. How could I have known that the pain I had felt climbing the hill would be insignificant compared with the pain of coming down?

As soon as the downward gradient became noticeable, my left leg seized up completely. Bearing in mind this happened mid stride and was as shocking as it was painful, I did well not to fall over. With a  series of comedy hops to keep upright, I managed to slow myself to a stop and then tentatively tried to take my weight on my left leg. It was having none of it. I was quite scared for two reasons: firstly, had I done some real damage here that I might never recover from and secondly HOW THE HELL WAS I GOING TO GET DOWN THIS BLOODY MOUNTAIN?

The limit to how many swimmers could fit into the pool at any one time meant that the race was organised with staggered start times over a long period of time. There was never much of a sense of competing with anyone other than yourself and the spread of other competitors throughout the entire course meant there was not a great deal of camaraderie or support available. I was pretty much alone up that mountain. Alone and in trouble. All I could do was man up and face the challenge of getting down. I rested. I massaged the offending limb. I eventually braved walking. It was an awkward walk but it sort of worked.

All the way down the mountain I kept thinking how wonderful it would be to be running but was also grateful that I was at least moving in the right direction. I may have looked like an extra from a zombie apocalypse movie, I may have been grimacing, but I was making progress again. Dragging my bad leg painfully behind me, hop limping... I was making progress.

After a long, torturous time, my spirits lifted when I recognised the terrain that I had run through at the start of the ordeal which meant it was nearly over. My mind was taken off my trials when another struggling runner caught up with me and walked with me for a while. We chatted and commiserated with each other and then the finish line came into view. I encouraged him to go for it and do a good finish. As I watched him muster all his energy to pick up pace I decided to take a chance and do the same. The elation of seeing the finish line combined with the brief respite that the company had given me combined to give me super powers when I needed them most. By 'super powers' I do of course only mean coming back from the Walking Dead to the elevated status of Broken Runner... but I was mrunning. I felt amazing. I felt like that shiny red high performance sports car that had overtaken us on the cycle ride. I let out my own throaty roar and it was over. My husband waiting in the transition area was paying no attention. My triumph was mine alone.

We still had the 5km bike ride to the Final Finish before this triathlon over. There was no way that my leg was going to be fit to pedal. Using the tape we'd attached our 'fancy dress' flowers with (resourceful!), my husband fixed the toe strap so it would not hit the road with every revolution and I 'one-legged' cycled the final stretch.

I would love to say that crossing the final finish line was everything I dreamt it would be but I was in far too much pain. We did not stay for the celebrations which included a BBQ and a Ceilidh (which to my shame I had pronounced Sea-Lid anyway). All I wanted was to have a nice hot bath and to rest in the comfort of my own home... which we did.

This was supposed to be 'time for us', my husband and I... time to recharge and connect. My leg may have let me down badly but honestly, it ticked all the other boxes. Would I do it again? Definitely. But next time, I might just do the swim and let him take on the run!

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Fat Balls and Tits

Since moving, I have had very little direct contact with my dad. My mum emails regularly, comments on Facebook statuses and reads this blog. Now I know that my parents share everything and communicating with mum is indirectly communicating with dad, but it can never be the same as direct contact. I will be visiting them shortly which will facilitate the sort of exchange that my dad does best: a hug that might be compared to the embrace of a boa constrictor, a chat about nothing and everything and probably a fiver slipped into my hand. This is how my dad communicates. It does not translate well into the sort of electronic communication that we have to resort to now I live too far away for the weekly visits we used to enjoy. Until I see him again, this post is dedicated to my dad.

When I first arrived at this house and my father in law came to have a look around, he commented that there were no birds in the garden.

It was true. For such a quiet, idyllic, woodland location there was a distinct lack of any sort of life in the garden apart from the massively overgrown hedges, shrubs and trees.

The neighbouring garden was beautifully neat and a bird feeding station was always busy with feathered visitors. Clearly, there were birds around somewhere... just not in my garden.

I bought a bag of bird nuts and a feeder which I hung in a tree near the kitchen window (after I'd pruned it to manageable proportions in scale with the setting and thus began the pile of trimmings that now occupies a sizeable portion of the bottom of the garden).

It did not take long for the first adventurers to discover the new food source. It was a delight to see the garden coming to life. What we were lacking in interest from good planting, we were making up for with an enchanting variety of little birds. I bought a second feeder for fat balls. (Fat balls! Really! Couldn't they have been called Energy Rich Bird Cakes or something. Fat balls just brings out the juvenile, too easily amused side of me!)

I wouldn't want anyone to think that this was becoming an obsession but a third bird feeder was purchased. In my defence, it was a matter of necessity because my father in law brought round a huge bag of bird seed and the feeders I already had were not suitable for seed. The three bird feeders hanging in one small tree were soon rarely free from hungry birds.

Washing up takes much longer now. My attention is continuously drawn away from the dirty dishes and out of the window to see who is feeding. I have a Garden Bird Identifier book on my windowsill and often I will abandon the soapy suds, dry my hands and frantically search the pages trying to name an unfamiliar species. I am becoming quite the expert!

The most abundant variety is the dainty, delicately hued Blue Tit with the more thuggish Great Tit a close second. I had heard of Coal Tits but had never really understood the difference between them and the other Tits until my book helped me make a positive identification. How many times can I say 'tits' before the juvenile rears its mindlessly giggling head again?  I must say it one more time because today a pair of Marsh Tits came to see what was on offer. (Thanks again trusty book!)

A Nuthatch generated a bit of excitement. I'd never seen one before and it seemed very exotic to me. It is a greedy feeder, tugging at the nuts to pull them through the mesh. Chaffinches and Goldfinches wait their turn in the branches and a little Wren has not quite plucked up the courage to feed while I've been watching but hops about on the periphery.

Feeding on the ground below to pick up any dropped scraps are Dunnocks, a Robin and the occasional House Sparrow. Sparrows were always so abundant when I was a child growing up in the seventies. I don't know when or how those squabbling flocks of 'spuggies' disappeared.

As well as the small birds, I have seen Pigeons (which are somehow hard to get excited about - sorry pigeons), Jackdaws, Jays (love them) and for me, the Holy Grail of birdwatching.. a Woodpecker. This was a Green Woodpecker and I quite literally held my breath when it settled on the trunk of my apple tree. I have only seen it once but I can always hope that it will return.

I feel slightly guilty that I may have stolen some of the birds away from my neighbours' bird feeding station but the guilt is quickly buried under the glorious feeling of absolute pleasure it gives me every time I look out of the window.

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