Not all beer and baubles

Christmas preparations at the Rose and Crown started in February this year (yes, really!) when we received our first table reservation for Christmas Day. Slowly, more enquiries and bookings trickled in and in August we realised we had better get a menu together! The business side of Christmas pays for the family side of Christmas and this is what we are often asked about during December – how do we celebrate Christmas when we are working throughout it?

The boys, now 12, 10 and 4, started thinking about Christmas in when they returned to school after half term and the school preparations for nativities, plays and concerts began in earnest. Our youngest, James, has been practising very hard for his role as an innkeeper (typecasting?) by shouting “No!” at every given opportunity. “I’m practising for my play, Mummy!” This is wearing thin. However, I’m hoping it will provide less room for public humiliation than a few years previously: his older brother at the same age was excitingly cast as Joseph. As the other children sat looking angelic, heads bowed towards the baby Jesus, Charlie-Joseph raised his crook, aimed, and fired with a resounding ‘pow!’ as he shot his gun-crook at the plastic infant in the manger. He was relegated to a camel the following year.

The Mayfield Christmas Tree Festival has brought Christmas preparations at home forward as we have been busy making decorations for the tree. We have had quite the production line going! November is usually the quietest month in the pub so I have had plenty of time to do ‘Mummy’ things with the boys which we have all enjoyed (even our almost-teenager although he is far too cool to admit it!).

December is the month which sees the boys go feral! As they get older it is becoming easier to manage bedtimes and working in the pub although we do occasionally still get a pyjama-clad night-time visitor in the bar. This usually causes some amusement to the customers but is less amusing to said child’s mother when she is trying to find a table for the party of 10 that have booked in Sussex (yes, there is a Rose and Crown in Mayfield, Sussex) and we are full here to the rafters! This has happened on more than one occasion and we do sometimes suffer conversely when people book with us but don’t show. I’m sure the Sussex pub has the same problems!  Christmas time is very much all hands on deck as we clad the beams with red and gold baubles (several hundred of them, literally!) and negotiate ourselves through somewhere in the region of 1000 turkey dinners.

We watch the weather avidly, desperately willing that any snow forecast will fall on a Sunday evening or a Monday in order to avoid cancellations – large parties who are unable to make it can be a costly affair. Another common problem is the journey home. Fortunately most of our customers are fairly local and well-aware of the unlikelihood of getting a taxi home unless it’s pre-booked. We did chuckle when one guest from the city asked for the WiFi code so that he could download Uber in order to book his cab back!

Christmas itself is spread out for us. On Christmas Eve the children come into the pub to choose what they think Father Christmas might like with his mince pies. It is occasionally a case of round the optics! If the boys can’t agree, we are quite happy to let them choose a drink each. Drink driving laws don’t apply to Santa! Once the children are in bed, I spend much of the evening wrapping up mince pies for our Christmas Day guests. We offer coffee and home-made mince pies at the end of Christmas lunch but find that many of our diners prefer to take them home. Having them pre-wrapped makes it a whole lot easier to send them home on the day (the pies, not the diners, of course!).

As soon as the children are awake, they open their stockings and after the oohs and aahs of excitement about their contents Danny and I are back in the pub and preparing for the day ahead. The majority of our Christmas Day customers are regular diners who we have good relationships with so it’s actually a lovely social day for me front of house. Danny gets the raw end of the deal at the hot plate! For the last two or three years various members of my family have stayed with us and looked after the children but beyond the stockings in the morning there is little ‘traditional Christmas’ occurring.

We celebrate our Christmas on the 27th when we close for 3 days. At this point the boys’ excitement is at fever pitch, their friends posting pictures of parties and presents on social media (the boys are more interested in the presents than the parties) whilst theirs are still wrapped tantalisingly beneath the tree. Any chocolate bauble that may have adorned the branches is long-since gone, instead they are decorated with bald golden threads and the gifts below are cloaked in remnants of gaudy foil. I try and instil an old family tradition from when I was growing up where the presents are handed out one at a time by the youngest child in the family that can read but the practice is not as effective as the theory; consumerism has consumed my boys and despite our best efforts we are usually so tired from working throughout December that by this point we just let them get on with it, consoling ourselves with the knowledge that they are having a lovely time and they’ll coo appropriately over each others’ gifts later in the day! We have a lazy breakfast and a late lunch, usually with Danny’s Mum who comes to join us. Danny cooks this – I have offered but he says it’ll be far quicker and easier for him to just get and do it. I’m not going to argue! We usually have Beef Wellington – by the 27th December we have well and truly seen enough turkey. I insist on Christmas pudding (despite the fact that nobody likes it), but lighting it with brandy is one of my childhood traditions that I’m unwilling to forego. Crackers, party hats and poor jokes are a given. Some of these are still churned out by little James several months later!

I often wonder whether the boys feel hard-done-by as they miss out on a ‘traditional’ Christmas. However, for them, our Christmas is their tradition – they don’t know anything else. Everybody’s Christmas is unique with their own quirks and customs. This is ours. It works and we enjoy it.

Happy Christmas!

Country Mouse in the Big City

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Everyone needs a fishbowl G and T!

Hot on the heels of our French adventure, we have ventured away from the relative calm of Mayfield and treated ourselves to a 3 day city break. After much umming and ahing, we settled on Manchester. My only experience of the city to date has been a fleeting visit to Primark and a Take That concert at the City Stadium. There has to be more to see!

Travelling without children (I had almost forgotten what that felt like!) meant that it was less McDonalds and more Margaritas. Neither of us can remember when we last went out to eat alone, never mind stayed away for 2 whole nights, due to the constraints of 3 children, a teaching job and a pub. What would we have to talk about? Well, actually, we largely talked about 3 children, the lack of a teaching job (this is currently a good thing!) and the pub.

As I’m sure all hoteliers do, we spent most of the time comparing our experiences with our own offer. We have come back with all sorts of exciting ideas to try out and to implement. Whilst I’m sure the Rose and Crown will never compete with Manchester’s cocktail bars I am just as sure that I will have fun devising a few cocktails even if they will never make it on the menu! The copious amount consumed was purely in the name of market research, you understand.

We ate out in a variety of restaurants. San Carlo in Spinningfields is a fabulous award-winning Italian restaurant that serves great food in a chic, contemporary setting. The staff were attentive yet not overbearing and the service was impeccable. You may see some new Italian influences on our specials board in the coming weeks! Breakfast the next morning was, coincidentally, in another San Carlo venue. They appear to have taken over Manchester! This time we ate in the San Carlo Gran Cafe at Selfridges. Good coffee and a tasty breakfast set us up perfectly.

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Poached eggs and avocado on toast

Whilst we loved San Carlo, our hands-down favourite was a small, unassuming Vietnamese restaurant we discovered purely by chance in Chinatown called I Am Pho. Walking down a small staircase we reached a modest room with long tables, simply decorated with a few plastic flowers adorning a ‘tree’ created from a steel pillar. What this place lacked in decor it made up for with the quality of food. We arrived at 6:45 and were the 2nd table in there. By 7pm the place was buzzing, packed with South-East Asians who clearly knew a good restaurant!

Continuing the international theme, our final meal was at another inconspicuous but lovely restaurant just around the corner from the Museum of Science and Industry (we visited, it was great!). Dimitri’s Taverna is a Greek tapas bar – just my sort of thing as I can try lots of dishes without feeling too greedy! We were enchanted – you may see more of these Greek influences on the menu here soon!

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Tapas at Dimitris Taverna

Having fallen in love with Ile de Re last month our fickle hearts are changing allegiances. We spent the journey home discussing the Great Escape (retirement plan). Perhaps rather than settle in a whitewashed idyll in a sleepy French village we should experiment with the excitement and bustle of a city apartment?

Two hours later, Danny is in his whites, I am fending phone calls from breweries, sales reps and suppliers all the while buried beneath an excited but clingy four year old, checking homework has been completed by the older boys and ensuring the euphonium (at what point was that a good idea?) is in the car along with swimming kit and other requisite gubbins for school in the morning. Family life has resumed. Retirement – whether in the country or the city – seems a long way off. Right now, all I need is the gum shield for school tomorrow. Although a fishbowl of gin wouldn’t go amiss!

Hoteliers on Holiday

So, this was it – our first proper family holiday in 13 years. It wasn’t without some degree of trepidation that we set off in the early hours of a Sunday morning in August for our much longed for holiday. It wasn’t quite the holiday of a lifetime – a tent on an island somewhere off the west coast of France and a few days with the children’s grandparents – but it was our holiday, at last.  

People often ask us what it’s like to be looking after holidaymakers rather than being the holidaymakers ourselves. I tell the children that we don’t need to go on holiday: “Other families actually pay to stay in your house and you get to live here for free!” They don’t buy it. So, on holiday, did we eat out? Did Danny still do the cooking? Did we compare and contrast other places to our own? The answer to all of the above is, unsurprisingly, yes! 

We started our break in the culinary gem that is McDonalds. Oh yes, we live the high life! Full up on syrup and sausage pancakes (yes, together!), a rocky crossing across the channel ensued and we soon arrived in Dieppe. Heading towards La Rochelle and knowing that Danny would have been working all day Saturday, driving through the night and then continuing our journey with no sleep in France, I had (after a considerable amount of nagging) managed to persuade him that we ought to book a hotel room to break the driving and get some rest. This turned out to be not quite what we expected. Using booking.com, I had booked a room for 5 in a hotel just outside Le Mans. What we actually got was a small wooden lodge on a campsite in deepest, darkest France down the narrowest, windiest lanes which could compete successfully with some of the local single track roads. If ever there was a reason for having SatNav, this was it! I haven’t yet had my phone bill showing my international date usage but I suspect the hour spent navigating on google maps will have dented the bank balance significantly. That said, the lodge was actually very well-equipped and suited us perfectly for a one-night stopover. I would love to be able to tell you that we had our first meal in France sitting outside, overlooking a beautiful valley, drinking a cold crisp white whilst the children played happily… Actually, we had warm beer and a couple of tins of Heinz soup with a few handfuls of rice thrown in to fill it out whilst the children squabbled about who had the most juice in their glasses. Family bliss!

Our lodge in Mezieres sous Lavardin

After an early start the next morning, we set off towards Ile de Re. We didn’t really know what to expect but as soon as we crossed the arching road bridge from the mainland to the island we were blown away. This little Atlantic-coast island of dunes and pine forest has won our hearts! The leafy squares and vibrant villages are best accessed by bike – the island has 100km of dedicated cycle paths linking the villages with their narrow streets of green-shuttered, whitewashed houses. 

The secret streets of St Martin de Re

Every village, park and beach has neat banks of bike racks, allowing you to park up and enjoy a coffee whilst soaking up the sunshine before continuing your ride, exploring backstreets lined with hollyhocks and winding through fields, salt marshes and oyster farms, all set against a fabulous Atlantic horizon. 

                             Rose and Crown on tour!

The village we stayed in, Ars-en-Re, was chosen by Danny purely because of the comedy value he thought the name would provide for 3 young boys. As you can imagine, the joke wore thin! Our campsite was ideally placed with private access to the beach, a pool and most importantly for the boys, free wifi. We decided that having been outdoors and on their bikes all day they had earned their iPad time as much as we needed our grown-up wine time! After the first day’s stresses of erecting a tent in 38 degree heat whilst trying to contain 3 boys with cabin fever, having been cooped up for the best part of 36 hours, we learnt quickly. I’m sure we weren’t the only family on the site who tried to instil discipline in stage whispers for fear of being overheard by others who might question their unruly children! 

The end of the first week saw us taking down the tent and moving on to my parents’ house near Bordeaux. This half of the holiday was slower-paced – less cycling and sightseeing and more swimming, sunbathing and snoozing. 

Poolside loveliness 

We celebrated my mother’s birthday whilst we were there with a bottle of Bollinger and Lobster Thermidore – I recommend that everyone takes their own chef with them on holiday! 


Lobsters ready for the pot

Four days, four adults and 21 bottles later we returned home. This may have been our first summer holiday but it isn’t the last. We will be back on Ile de Re in August next year. Will we return to Bordeaux? Well, that depends upon the contents of my parents’ wine cellar!

Where we stayed:

http://www.campingsmileetbraudieres.com 

http://www.campingessi.com/

The best place for crepes in Ars (yes, the boys liked that one): http://augouterbreton.fr/