Welcome to the City of Angels

I promised you the third instalment of our honeymoon adventure a few weeks ago, and I would apologise for the delay, however, I suspect that with Christmas and New Year in the middle, no-one will have been waiting with baited breath! While we were away I kept forgetting that we had a third week, and I loved Mexico so much that I wasn’t really as excited to get to it. I think my husband was probably more excited, as he’d done a lot of planning for this section of the trip, and it was somewhere he had always wanted to go. Part of the reason we decided to add it on though was because we worked out it would be cheaper to go and stay a few days then fly directly back to the UK from Mexico. That logic potentially disappeared when we’d done a few things there though. In case you were wondering, our final honeymoon destination was Los Angeles!

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To be honest though, the trip didn’t get off to the best start. We got through customs and immigration pretty quickly, which was something I was worried about, not having a US passport; however, after a powercut at LAX we were waiting for over an hour for our bags to come off the plane. The knock on effect of that was that we were then late for the shuttle bus to take us to our car hire, so with no way to contact them we waited outside the airport for another hour or so until another shuttle bus happened to go past. By the time we got to the car depot we were so late that they had cancelled our booking, so we had to go through the whole process again.

Eventually we got our car, which was fairly nice and a lot bigger than its UK equivalent. However, being in the US, it was an automatic so it took a little while to pick up how to drive it. Combine that with the useless scale of the map to get us from the car hire to our hotel, and tempers were fraying pretty quickly. After driving around for about an hour, when the journey should have taken about 2o minutes, we eventually realised we had no idea where we were, and after Steve had flipped out and told me to get out the car, we decided it might be sensible to ask for directions. So we pulled over at a gas station and managed to work out where we were and where we needed to be. Fortunately we did make it to the hotel, but the romantic extra evening in LA that we’d hoped for was out the window, and we went straight to bed.

The following day we were in a much better position to appreciate our hotel. We were staying in the Elan Hotel, which is at the crossroads of West Hollywood and Beverly Hills, near Cedar Sinai hospital, so a pretty good location and really handy for us. The hotel had valet parking so parking the hire car wasn’t a problem. After getting there late we didn’t really take a look at the room until the next morning, but it was quite large and comfortable, with a really useful tablet in the room which we could use to find out what was close, contact the hotel, or even order take-out to the room! There was plenty of storage space for our three weeks worth of luggage, really comfy bed, and the benefit of a huge TV to enjoy all the American TV that is surprisingly more than we get in the UK!

My favourite thing about the hotel was the breakfast. It was generally pretty quiet when we got there, so there was plenty of room. Everything was self service, and there was a mix of cold meat and cheese, bread rolls, fruit, cereal, pastries, eggs, and- my favourite- a waffle machine. We tried to fill up on breakfast as much as possible, to keep us going for the rest of the day when we were around LA. On the one day that we were around at the right time, we also discovered a daily cheese and wine reception, which would have been nice if we were staying longer and wanting to get to know people. They didn’t have the pool and gyms that a lot of the tourist hotels in LA have, but as a base for exploring it was perfect, and a lovely hotel to come back to at the end of the day.

On our first day we wanted to take it fairly easy and have a relatively slow day, so we booked to go whale watching from Newport Beach. We had breakfast at the hotel then drove down to have a look around and grab some pizza before getting on the boat. The boat left from Balboa Pier so we had a look round some of the tourist shops to pick up some souvenirs for the kids before the boat left. We could see it was a popular tour so staked a place in the queue fairly early on. It was just as well we did because it did get really busy and we were able to grab a place on the top deck right by the side of the boat. It was really interesting going through the harbour and seeing all the different houses and people paddle boarding across. Unfortunately we didn’t find any whales, but we did see some dolphins and a load of sea lions sun bathing. It’s always impossible to guarantee seeing whales, but we were a bit disappointed although we did enjoy the tour. We were given a voucher to come back, but decided not to as we weren’t really in LA for long enough.

After a quick drink we decided to take the scenic route back to the hotel to see some more of LA, so we drove back up the Pacific Coast Highway, which runs along the coast (funnily enough), and stopped off at Seal Beach on the way up. I was hoping to see some actual seals on the beach, but not only were there no seals there, there’s a good chance it was named after Navy Seals, as there is a training camp not far away. We had a wander up the pier and contented ourselves watched pelicans and kite surfers, before carrying on back up the highway. We ended up on Santa Monica Blvd as the sun was setting- getting excited before realising that the song actually talks about the sun rising on Santa Monica Blvd- oops. By the time we got back it was quite late so we got a Fat Burger take out- we were very excited about the variety of take aways the US offers, but we were disappointed with Fat Burger. Not helped that Steve walked a couple of blocks at night with no shoes on to get it- don’t ask me why, I have no idea!

The next day was our proper sight seeing day as we set out on a tour on the Rastabus! We decided that as LA is so big (not just Hollywood and the beach as Steve thought), that it would be useful to get someone who knew what they were doing to show us around. We met the bus at Santa Monica beach. It had the potential for being quite chaotic as there were about 11 different tours leaving at the same time, and everyone was assigned to a different bus, but it actually worked really well.

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Our first stop was Venice beach, the home of Muscle beach- where Arnold Schwarzenegger is famous for working out; a lot of artistic graffiti on the buildings; and some of the first skate parks. Apparently the local kids were into surfing, but were limited by the tides and weather, so when the opportunity came for skateboarding, which didn’t have those limitations, they were already really good, and became some of the first skateboarding champions. Makes sense when you think about it.

Next up was Rodeo Drive, the row of shops made famous in Pretty Woman as she is turned away for not looking rich enough. The reality is that they are pretty high end shops. We were told that in House of Bijan you have to pay a deposit of $1500 to enter, and if you don’t buy anything they keep the deposit, however the average spend inside is $100,000. That became more believable when we saw a custom made yellow Rolls Royce parked outside. You can also find Badgely Mischka, the boutique Julia Roberts is asked to leave in the film. At the top of that road is the Beverly Hills sign, in case, like us, your LA geography is getting confused! Keeping on the Pretty Woman theme, the Beverly Wilshire Hotel is also a short walk away. Definitely a bit of a Pretty Woman stop here! Needless to say, we didn’t buy anything, just enjoyed ogling at the prices in the shop windows.

By this point we were getting quite hungry, fortunately there was water on the bus though! Our next stop was the Farmers Market at the Grove. If you’re into food, this is a great place to go. A mixture of food to eat now, and food to take away with you, as we did with some yummy chocolatey things! One of the things that attracts me to the US is the different food you get in different regions, and I particularly love flavours from the deep South. So when we came across The Gumbo Pot that was definitely where we would be having lunch. We had beautiful gumbo and jambalaya, in huge portions, with cornbread and sweet potato chips, but they also offered more exciting things like alligator tail and catfish. Maybe next time!

Following that was a trip up the hillside to Griffith Park Observatory, which also happens to be one of the best places to see the Hollywood sign. I’d love to go back and do some hiking up there, it looked like there was a lot more to see than we had time for just being bussed to the top. We had a great view of the city from up there though, and the observatory would also have been worth more time. It was really busy so there wasn’t much room to move around.

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It was definitely worth going to the top of the observatory though, the view was incredible and really showed you just how big LA is, as it’s impossible to imagine just driving around. The geek in me was also quite excited to find a room named after Leonard Nimoy, as well as the Cafe at the End of the Universe.  There was also a pretty cool exhibition up on space that would have been worth another look, but unfortunately we didn’t have time because we needed to get back to the bus.

Our final stop was at one of the most well known of LAs attractions, the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I’d never really appreciated just how long it is. It’s not just a couple of stars on the sidewalk, it’s a couple of miles long, on both sides of the road! Ryan had asked us to find Vince McMahon, and we were shocked that we did actually manage to! We also stumbled across Donald Trump, who was easy to find as the only star that had been heavily vandalised. The other attraction is the Dolby Theatre along the same road, with the handprints and signatures in the cement outside. My favourite was definitely the cast of Star Wars, although there were a few legends there as well. There were also some pretty interesting buildings: the church of Scientology, Disney theatre, Jimmy Kimmel Studio and Egyptian theatre among them.

That was the end of the tour, but not the end of the day. We split off from the tour after the final stop to make sure we got back in time to go to a rooftop cinema screening of Pretty Woman put on by TimeOut Magazine- can you tell we’re fans? After a quick change we got there super early to get good seats, and make the most of the burgers and cocktails that were on sale. You accessed the roof by climbing up the fire escape, which was exciting in itself, but then it looked very professional, with comfy deckchairs, decent headphones and warm blankets. When it was dark enough the film was projected in front of us, and was so much better watching it a stones throw away from where it was set.

Our third day in LA was probably the one I had been most looking forward to because we were going to Universal Studios! I’m not a rollercoaster fanatic (like Ryan), but the excitement of Universal is that they have the Wizarding World of Harry Potter as one of their lands. That means that Hogwarts is there, as well as the Three Broomsticks, Hagrids Hut, Diagon Alley, and Butterbeer! It was brilliant! They had a couple of Harry Potter themed rides in there- The Flight of the Hippogriff, which is a small roller coaster around Hagrids garden, and Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which is a mixture between a roller coaster and a simulator. You’re given headsets and put onto a carriage that does move a faster and further than a normal simulator. The headsets actually worked really well in making it 3D and taking you through the Harry Potter world- from the Forbidden Forest, through Hogwarts, even playing Quidditch. Definitely a ride worth going on.

Even doing everything we wanted to do in Harry Potter we still had plenty of time to enjoy the rest of the park. We went on all the big rides, and did the studio tour- twice in the end, once in the day and then again at night. The benefit of Universal is that the theming is all really good. There weren’t that many thrilling roller coasters compared to other parks, the adrenaline comes from what’s going on around you. I’d been to Universal in Florida before and could still remember The Mummy ride, which didn’t seem to have changed much since last time, but was still really good. We went on the Jurassic Park boat ride twice as well, staying fairly dry the first time but getting absolutely soaked the second. We went and explored The Simpson’s Krustyland and Despicable Me, whose main attractions were simulator rides. They were very good, but you do get bored of them a lot sooner than roller coasters. We also went and saw the Waterworld show, and Steve went on the Walking Dead walk through- on his own, I’m definitely not brave enough for that! We had an amazing day though and came back tired and very happy.

On our final day we decided we hadn’t had enough of films yet, so headed off to the Warner Brothers Studio Tour, which just happened to be just around the road from our hotel which was handy. It was fascinating to see how realistic the sets looked, what the inside shell of the sets looks like, and how they could be reused for different films without anyone noticing. The school that was Rydell High in Grease is now in Pretty Little Liars. We saw where the Gilmore Girls was filmed and how they used potato to make snow. We stood on the staircase where Rachel walked down to meet Ross for their prom date on Friends. They also had a bit of a museum with props from their biggest films on display. There was a lot from their latest films- Batman and Suicide Squad, but also a lot hanging around from Harry Potter, as it’s always so popular. They even had a Sorting Hat that actually sorts you into houses. I’ve always put myself in Hufflepuff as that’s what I was in the film, but this time I was sorted into Gryffindor while Steve was put into Slytherin. Good day. We also managed to find our way into Central Perk from Friends, as well as the West Wing, and saw the special effects to go into making Dobby and broomsticks from Harry Potter, and the difference in size between Gandalf and Frodo in the Lord of the Rings.

Sadly, after all our adventures it was time to go home. 6 months on it already feels like a lifetime ago, but looking back it’s remarkable how much we packed into 3 weeks. Now we’re working out how to muddle through real life now we’re married, and I’m enjoying writing these blogs as a way of looking back. We’re busy planning our next trip, this time with the children as well, and getting on with life, with the added addition of a new puppy, who I’m sure will be featuring in future posts.

One final excitement from our trip that’s worth mentioning is the amazing Forrest Gump restaurant at one of the airports (I’ve lost track now of which one), where they served the most amazing shrimp (apart from at Cenote Azul in Mexico). I hope this blog has helped to pick you up after Christmas and encourage you to start looking forward to the summer, or your next adventure, or helped you to remember your last one. Happy travelling!

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Welcome to the Jungle

Last month I wrote a post about the first week of my honeymoon, which was to the beautiful island of the Dominican Republic, and promised more to come. Our honeymoon was three weeks long so this is the second instalment of the trilogy. The first week was wonderful, relaxing by the pool, mixed with a few excursions to various beaches around the island, plus some rum drinking and cigar smoking. The second week was very different.When we were planning the holiday the idea was for the first week to be relaxing to recuperate from the run up to the wedding, and then to take it up a gear so that we wouldn’t get bored. That sort of worked, except that our first destination was more tourist focused, so there were more things to do; whereas the second was in the middle of nowhere.

I’m making it sound so far like we had a boring week. We really didn’t. After leaving the Dominican Republic (very early in the morning, I might add), we flew to Atlanta, and then on to Cancun in Mexico. At a first glance that is a tourist destination. There were a similar number of resorts to Punta Cana, miles of beaches, lots of attractions; except that we didn’t actually stay in Cancun. We drove for 5 hours- about 250 miles south, to the Quintana Roo district of Mexico, just north of the border with Belize. By the time we arrived in Mexico it was night time, so the picturesque drive that we had imagined, along the coast with views of the sea, wasn’t quite what happened. Between us and the sea was a lot of jungle, so we couldn’t see it anyway, and even without the jungle, it was pretty dark. We had the added pressure of knowing that at some point we would need to get fuel, but without many pesos and not knowing which gas stations took credit card; plus the fact that we were getting increasingly hungry; and the ever present fear of being stopped by the police. We had heard so many horror stories of foreigners being pulled over for minor infractions and forced to pay extortionate fines or be sent to jail, that we were fairly nervous. We spent the whole journey not going a single km/h over the speed limit, and getting increasingly anxious with each road block we approached, which were everywhere. Fortunately we were only actually stopped about 3 times, and each time, once the officer was satisfied we had driving licenses and passports, we knew where we were going, and hadn’t stolen the car, we were free to carry on. Phew.

Eventually we arrived at our hotel, the fantastic Explorean Kohunlich.  When we arrived in the middle of the night we were pleased to find we could go straight to our room and sort out all the paperwork in the morning. The accommodation was just what we wanted. A private thatched bungalow to ourselves, with a plunge pool, hammock and day bed outside. Proper shutters kept the sun out fantastically well to allow for a lie in, and although getting to the restaurant could be a bit of a quest with the number of jumping and flying insects, none of them got into the room. Every morning when we came out there would be a basket with coffee and some sort of cake, and biscuits were dropped around in the evening. You just had to make sure the resident fox didn’t make off with them first. We spent a lot of time around the room reading and sleeping, and felt completely at home. The only problem we had was that when it rained, and it was impressive when it did, the drains couldn’t quite cope and the shower and toilet would back up a bit. Never a problem with hygiene or anything, just a bit inconvenient!

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The restaurant and pool were both up at reception. Although you could order whatever you wanted at the restaurant, we wanted to try and eat local food as much as possible, in which case you were given two choices each day, quite often one meat and one fish. Even with my fairly fussy husband, we really did enjoy every meal. That may have been because quite often we didn’t know what we were getting, as we didn’t speak Spanish and the staff didn’t speak much English, so there wasn’t an opportunity beforehand to decide we didn’t like it! There were quite a few families there, so you would often see kids with burgers and chips, but most guests are Mexican, and were entirely used to the food that was new and exciting to us. The pool was a lot smaller than our last hotel, but it was mainly used for cooling down when it got too hot during the day. In the second half of the week there were often quite a few kids in it, so we normally left them to it and went to have a nap! There was also a jacuzzi next to the pool thought that was largely empty, so it wouldn’t have been a problem if we had have wanted to go in.

Probably the best thing about the hotel though was the daily excursions. At the beginning of the week you were given a programme of what was on, and there were multiple programmes rolling at the same time for different guests. You would get a phone call about 10 minutes before they were about to leave in the morning to check if you wanted to go out. The first day we were running to catch up after not realising our clocks weren’t quite on the right time difference! The staff who led the trips were extremely friendly and knowledgeable, and they really made the holiday for us. We took a couple of trips out by ourselves, as we had hired a car to get down from Cancun, but we would never have had the opportunity to do all that the hotel arranged.

There were only a couple of excursions that we ended up doing on our own. The first was to the Mayan ruins in Dzibanche, and that was only because we had missed the hotel trip due to timing issues. When we arrived we started wandering around on our own, and after a short walk came to an impressive temple. I’ve seen pictures of these places before but never really appreciated how tall they actually are. When you climb to the top you can see for miles over the jungle.

When we came back down we were pretty happy, thinking we’d seen everything, when we came across a member of staff, who pointed out a monkey with her baby swinging about in the trees above us. We were excited, as it was the first wild monkey we’d seen. But then he asked if we’d like him to show us the rest of the site. We didn’t realise there was a rest of the site, so took him up on his offer. Again, he didn’t speak much English, we don’t speak much Spanish, but gradually we managed to understand each other. We were so glad we went with him. It turned out the place was huge, he took us under ropes, climbing up parts of the building we wouldn’t have been allowed to on our own, and explaining what we were looking at. He should us parts of the temples where the original red colour had been recently restored; he explained the size of the sleeping areas for the priests; which parts of the site were used for human sacrifice, and how much of an honour that was; and even pointed out a gigantic spider, which I would have rather not seen. Dzibanche turned out to be a really impressive and interesting site.

The first hotel excursion we went on was in two parts, to the town of Bacalar, and to Cenote Azul. We drove to a hill fort in Bacalar, which was unfortunately closed as it was on a Sunday, but had some wonderful views of Bacalar Laguna. We had a bit of a wander around the town, and met up with the rest of the group in a bandstand in the local park to hear a bit about the history of the town. Bacalar was a Mayan city before Columbus but was one of the first to be taken by the Spanish Conquistadors. However the fortress was built to defend themselves against the pirates, so there were cannons aiming over the lagoon to keep them out. While we were listening to all of this in the bandstand, there was an optician setting up shop and performing eye tests across from us, which was quite unusual. He had his eye chart set up on the wall and everything. Watching him kept me distracted while I was waiting for the English translation!

Later on in the week we went back to the lagoon to actually get out onto the lake. We were taken canoeing and through the marshes to experience the quiet that comes with being remote. Fortunately the biggest wildlife in that particular lagoon is tiny fish, so I didn’t need to worry about anything. The problem was the mud/sand that you had to walk in to get through. It was quite deep so you sunk a bit with each step, but very powdery so it felt slimy, and had a high sulphur content and smelt disgusting. When we returned to the proper lagoon we were told the sand had an exfoliating quality, so happily sat and rubbed it all over ourselves- looking a bit like monsters, then waited patiently, laughing at each other for ten minutes until we could wash it off, and then my skin did actually feel surprisingly soft. Mexico may be too far to go for exfoliation though!

We canoed back to the shore where a fantastic meal was waiting for us, having been brought by the hotel, where we started talking to another family who turned out to be Mexican, from the Chihuahua region. It was fascinating to see their perspective on Britain- it turned out to be mainly based around Top Gear and Brexit! After lunch there was an opportunity to go sailing around the lake- fortunately on a small boat manned by the tour guide with 4 people per boat. Those not out on the lake made the most of the small jetty and dived bombed off it into the water. The level dropped off sharply so it was deep enough to not need to worry, but did get very competitive with scoring each jump!

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However, on the same day that we went to Bacalar, we also had a trip to the Cenote Azul, which was one of the things we were looking forward to. Cenotes are pools fed by the underground rivers that run throughout Mexico. They tend to be very deep, and completely clear. There’s very little marine life in them, and certainly nothing dangerous. This particular one was over 90 metres deep. I’m a very confident swimmer normally, but knowing how deep it was did freak me out a little bit, so I eventually gave in and put on a life vest for some extra peace of mind. We tended to stay to the side of the Cenote, mainly because it was more interesting, but there was a rope going all the way across so plenty of people were spread along it. The water was fairly warm when you first got in, and there were hundreds of tiny tropical fish swimming close to the surface. Swimming around the outside, there were lots of trees growing along the banks with their roots in the water. I found it quite eerie swimming through them and seeing the ghostly shapes close to the surface, but then disappearing as they went down and the light to see through the water disappeared. There were some slightly bigger fish swimming between the roots but nothing hugely exciting. We had a go pro camera with us, which I was incredibly nervous about holding, knowing that if we dropped it we would never get it back.

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After swimming we came out and went to the restaurant on the side of the lake to get some food before the bus was ready to go back to the hotel. We needed a bit of help to translate the menu, and fortunately there were some willing volunteers. Even if we could have spoken Spanish, there were so many local specialities it wouldn’t have completely covered everything. The restaurant itself looked like it had seen better days, and certainly fit into the Mexican cantina feel. Everyone coming to the Cenote used the toilets so they weren’t in the best condition, but better than nothing. It took a little while to get anyone’s attention to be able to order, but it was certainly worth it when we did. I had coconut shrimp, which is one of the few specific meals I can actually remember, because it was the best shrimp I’ve ever had. Huge pieces coated in a coconut batter. Absolutely delicious.

We had another lake based excursion later on in the week, this one to a smaller lake called Jelelche, and at night. This was probably the most adrenaline filled excursion of the trip, not because of the canoeing, but because of the journey. We set out in minibuses with one pulling a trailer of canoes. The first part of the journey was along the main road so everything was fine. But to get to the lake we had to drive down a track through the jungle, that got narrower and narrower, and muddier and muddier. We were slipping and sliding all the way down, at one point getting the van stuck in a particularly muddy hole, but eventually made it to the lakeside. As it was getting dark we paired up into canoes and set off across the lake.

The reason for going at night was that the lake contained crocodiles, and we were more likely to see them in the dark. We did see some, although not very close up, so the most we saw was flashing eyes. We were more startled by the tiny fish that jumped into the canoes as we paddled through them. At one point we came to an open stretch surrounded by reeds, and were told to stop paddling and turn our torches off. In the quiet we could hear the crickets, frogs, and bigger creatures moving around in the darkness. Sitting there we could also appreciate how bright the stars looked compared to back home.

When we made our way back to the lake shore we could see torches had been lit, and we were welcomed back to another feast in the dark. We were joined by a local dog and a couple of kittens, which kept us entertained until food was served, and then had a chance to use a toilet shed before trying to make the journey back. In the time we had stopped it had still been raining, so I wasn’t convinced the minibuses would make it back to the main road. There was a lot of speeding up approaching corners to get us through holes and over slopes, and a couple of times we had to get out and push, but after a particularly stressful journey we made it back.

One of our more active excursions was a trip to a ruined Franciscan monastery in the jungle called Chichen Ha. The bus took us most of the way, then we cycled the last few kilometres along a path. I hadn’t cycled for a long time so wasn’t very confident initially, but soon got the hang of it and although I haven’t yet remastered hills- going up or down- I got there in the end! The monastery is in complete disrepair now, but in its day it had been a place of sanctuary for both Spanish and Mayans. We were shocked to find that there were quite a few human bones littered around the site. We were told that this was because if someone came across a body in the jungle, regardless of race, they would be brought to the monastery as a safe place for a decent burial. It was strange to see them in little crevices in the walls, and caught between the roots of trees that had grown out of tombs.

We spent a bit of time wandering around the monastery, and then we headed off for a tour of the jungle. We compared the difference between Mayan and Spanish wells- Spanish being built above ground with complex methods of catching rainwater, and Mayan being deep holes that tap into the underground rivers; saw some bats that were roosting in a well; saw the ceiba tree that is so tall it was considered sacred as it reaches up to heaven; and learned about ficus trees, which grow up around other trees and use their resources to survive. We’d been told there were jaguars and pumas in the jungle, as well as other less predatory animals, such as jungle chickens, but apart from finding a suspiciously long feather, we didn’t come across them- which I was disappointed about!

The final excursion we went on was right on our doorstep, and by accident as we were planning to go on our own but happened to leave at the same time as the hotel guides, so went with them instead. The ruins at Kohunlich are some of the most impressive that we saw on our visit to Mexico. We’ve been to other ruins and been surprised by just how large these Mayan communities were, but this one really brought that home to us. Standing on the ledge looking out from the kings palace you could see the market place below, the different temples, living spaces, and could really imagine the civilization that lived there. We also found out a lot about Mexico as we went through. We noticed a particularly large niche in the wall, and found out that was a priest hole. The priest would go and barricade himself in when he needed some time for reflection or to communicate with the gods. We learned about Mayan football that is played by hitting a heavy ball with your shoulder or hip to get it through a hoop that is more like a quidditch hoop than a basketball hoop. At night it would be played with flaming balls in a manner more similar to hockey. Interestingly, the winner would be given the honour of being sacrificed to the gods.

We explored all around the site- going up to the kings palace as well as down to the common traders marketplace. We went up to the top of the sun gods temple and looked out over the jungle. We discovered an incredible plant that curls up when you stroke it to protect itself from predators. We found a little group of bats flittering around in a small room.

One of the highlights of the day though, was that when we were leaving we heard some rustling in the trees above us, looked up, and saw a monkey. As we were watching the monkey, he was joined by a few more monkeys, until eventually there was a whole family in the trees above us, eating their tea.

In between all the Mayan ruins and canoeing, we spent a lot of time reading and sleeping. Even though there was so much to do around us, we didn’t want to make ourselves too tired before going back to real life. However there was one more thing we did before moving on. On our final day we got up very early so that we could spend our last 24 hours at XCaret Eco Theme Park on the way up to Cancun. We had read reviews before we came and decided it was something we really wanted to do while in Mexico, and it really was worth it. XCaret isn’t a theme park in the sense that it’s full of rollercoasters. It’s more like a massive zoo. Only instead of walking around, there are three rivers that you can swim around, some of which go through tunnels as well. We were caught off guard suspecting that they would be warm, but in fact they were freezing, definitely worth making the plunge though. We only had time to go around two, they do take a couple of hours each. The first one-azul- was full of bright tropical fish that made it worth snorkelling all the way round, whereas the second- maya- had more interesting things above water. It went through tunnels and caves- with bats- through a mangrove swamp, and at one point we even found ourselves in the middle of a Mayan tribal dance!

They also went way beyond with the level of wildlife on offer if you didn’t want to swim. There was a huge variety of animals, including exciting things like pumas, loads of flamingos, iguanas roaming wherever you looked, and manatees- which I’ve only ever heard even referenced in Florida before. The highlights for me though were the sea turtles- always a favourite of mine, and particularly as they have a sea turtle breeding programme, which releases hundreds into the wild every year, but also means that they have tanks full of babies.

They also had an amazing aviary, that spiralled around 5 levels with a waterfall in the middle. Birds of prey, like a beautiful American Eagle, were kept in their own areas around the outside, but there was a huge variety of colourful birds that were able to fly around the inside. We could have spent a lot more time there if we weren’t trying to squeeze everything in, and we’re not even that into birds!

The other thing that’s worth mentioning is the incredible show they put on in the evening. We didn’t have high expectations, but were taken through centuries of American history by very talented dancers and singers, including a game of Mayan football- complete with flaming balls!- followed by music and dance from particular regions in Mexico- which we never knew had such variety. There were horses, mariachi bands, a village square scene that turned into a picture of the Virgin Mary, it was incredible. It eventually led on to a finale with lit up representations of some of the animals at the park, a display of men dancing around a wooden pole about 40 metres off the ground, and all came together alongside some of the resident parrots doing loops around the stadium. We were so impressed by what we saw, it was definitely worth going early to get seats, the stadium was packed for good reason!

XCaret is definitely somewhere that we would go back to, and even bumps up Mexico on the list of places to go to make that happen! We would particularly like to go back with the kids, who would love it. Particularly Sam with the number of iguanas wandering around. The only thing that we really felt made it more like a theme park were the park photos as you went around. There were a few park photographers in odd places, but loads of automated photo machines. You had a wristband that you could save them all to and good offers to combine days and bands. With the number of things in the water, it would be really helpful if you went without a GoPro or waterproof camera.

So at the end of week 2 of our honeymoon, we’d had a good mix of relaxing and adventure and were in a good place to start week 3. Looking back I think Mexico was my favourite part of the honeymoon, and it’s definitely somewhere I’d like to go back to. I had an image in my head before I went of a bleak, desert like country, where drug barons ruled, and you had to be really careful of the police- what I found was an incredibly friendly, and beautiful country, steeped in culture and history, with so many fantastic places to explore it would be impossible in one visit. I’d love to go to Chichen-Itza near Cancun, which we just couldn’t get to this time, and explore some of the other regions apart from Quintana Roo. Mexico is staying firmly on my list of places to visit.

Next time on to the final installation of the trilogy, and a completely different experience altogether…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Welcome to Paradise

Last month I wrote a post about my amazing wedding day, but the day was followed by our dream honeymoon. As we’ve already got kids, we knew that this would be our only opportunity to have a slightly longer holiday on our own, and as we arranged the wedding so they still had a week left in school we wanted to make the most of it. Fortunately our kids are old enough to understand the difference between a once-off honeymoon and a holiday, so although they missed us while we were away, they weren’t too unhappy that we were going. We wanted to get the balance between relaxing (which we don’t normally get when we’re cramming in city breaks), and making the most of being where we were. In the end, we did manage to fit a lot in. So, to make this a bit more manageable, both to read and to write, I’m going to do the honeymoon in three instalments, splitting them a week and a destination at a time.

Our first week started very quickly after the wedding, as we actually left our reception at midnight to drive to Heathrow airport- massive thanks to my chief bridesmaid Amy who napped during the day so that she could drive us- before flying off first thing in the morning to our first destination- the Dominican Republic. For months we’d been hoping that my new passport and telling everybody we met that we were newlyweds would get us a free upgrade, like Monica and Chandler in Friends, but while that didn’t happen, we did have a lovely air hostess who treated us to a rose, wine and champagne from the first class carriage. We thanked her with wedding cake that we had taken with us and then realised we wouldn’t be able to bring into the country when we landed!

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After travelling all day we eventually arrived in the Dominican Republic in the early hours of the morning, and were thankful to sink into the transfer shuttle to take us to our hotel. We’d paid a bit extra for an upgrade and there was a bottle of prosecco waiting for us in a cooler of ice, which was a nice welcome. After a slight detour to work out how the ATM’s worked to get some local currency, we arrived at our resort about 2 hours after landing. My mother had given us her time share points us a wedding gift, so we were able to stay at a wonderful all-inclusive resort called Zoetry Agua Punta Cana. It was definitely a level of luxury that we weren’t used to. We had a butler called Bayron who was there to make sure we had everything we needed and help us to arrange excursions. In the end, we did arrange a few through him but found it easier to do most of them directly as we could negotiate discounts that Bayron wouldn’t normally need to worry about for his clients, however he also had some insight into which companies were actually worth going with. So, here are the highlights of the week!

Within the resort itself there was quite a lot going on. There were two pools with rivers running along the front of the accommodation. There were a few foam loungers around if you wanted to sunbathe in the pool itself! One of the pools had a poolside bar, where you could get delicious cocktails. They had a special everyday, but the barmen were very knowledgeable and could make whatever you asked for. The other pool was attached to one of the favourites, which actually ended up being our favourite. Although there were 5 restaurants onsite, the poolside one we found to have the most appetising, and local feeling food. A couple of the others were a bit more posh than we were comfortable with, and one only ever seemed to be open at breakfast. We weren’t there in peak season so there was a rolling programme of which restaurants were open at meal times, and we found the menus to get a bit repetitive after a while, although in all fairness the room service menu was quite diverse as well, and we particularly enjoyed having breakfast in our room in the morning!

We were slightly worried about the beach before we came as a few reviews had complained about the amount of seaweed. When we got there though we found it to be a bit of an over-exaggeration. There was some seaweed, which you would expect on a beach, but it wasn’t a problem. There were some interesting fish if you went snorkelling, although dodging the coral could be a bit of a challenge. Steve managed to get stung by something which left a nasty rash for a couple of days. The beach itself was beautiful. The only problem we found was that it could be quite difficult to get hold of the people in charge of hiring out the equipment- snorkels and water sports, but we were more interested in lounging so it wasn’t really a problem.

We were in a fairly quiet resort, for a start it only had 90 rooms, compared with some of the mega resorts up the road. There was a rolling programme of entertainment at the bar in the evenings, which was mainly singers, but one night there was a cocktail entertainer. The advert showed him throwing cocktail shakers around and juggling with fire, which looked very impressive. He was slightly less impressive in person though, knocking a lot of glasses over and eventually ending the show when one of his flaming cocktail shakers fell on him. The bits he did well worked very well, but the mistakes were unfortunately very memorable. However we also went over to Breathless, one of the other resorts, who had a transfer system set up with ours. We had a meal at one of their restaurants and went to a dance show at the hotel. We weren’t impressed with the resort as it was huge and definitely a lot more of a party place, but the show was very good. Initially it just looked like scantily clad women dancing, but it built up to acrobatics and flame throwing, and was actually a very high quality.

When we arrived our hotel offered us a booklet of vouchers towards some of the extras at the resort. One of which was a couples massage, which we took up in the onsite spa, and that was very relaxing, it was so relaxing I think we both fell asleep! The spa was lovely though, with a very quiet and calm atmosphere and really nice staff. We both came away feeling very peaceful! The other activity we took up was horse riding on the beach. The woman in charge was very knowledgeable about the horses, and took us on a short half hour ride along the beach, pointing out the developments coming up between us and the other resorts. It was a good pace for those who hadn’t ridden before, but as always, a horse will do what it’s told if you want to go faster. Nothing too exerting, but a nice experience to have.

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We enjoyed the horse riding so much that we decided to have a longer trip and booked a day out with a company called Horseplay Punta Cana for the end of the week. There were quite a lot of companies who did horse trekking of some variety, but the distinctiveness of Horseplay is that they also offer a trip to a cigar factory, where you can make your own cigar, and a zipline through the jungle. They pick you up from your resort in one of the big tourist trucks- the sort where you climb in and sit on a bench with open sides. One of the downsides of our resort was that it was one of the furthest away so we had to stop at all the others on the way! When you arrive you start with a tour of the cigar factory and a chance to make and smoke your own. There is also a small pool and a gift shop at the initial ranch. You are then matched up to your horse, more on size than ability, before you begin your trek up to the second ranch. There was a family in our group with a young child, so they were able to drive up to the ranch to meet the rest of their family there.

The trek itself is a nice route, through the jungle and along river beds. The horse is really in charge though, if he decides he doesn’t want to stay with the person you came with, there’s not much you can do to stop him! Mine wasn’t too difficult to keep control of, but I think Steve found his a bit more tricky. There were a few experienced riders who had no trouble, but also a few who were clearly just hanging on. Having had a few riding lessons as a child I knew the basics of how to not sit like a sack of potatoes, but I was a bit over-confident and decided to give the optional galloping a go. Big mistake. After the initial plan of gracefully galloping along and pulling to a smooth finish, I found myself holding on for dear life as the horse clearly enjoyed what he was doing, and was ignoring any efforts to rein him in at all! Very exhilarating, but I gave it a miss on the way back.

After an hour or so trekking we came to the ranch, where we were served a meal of soup, and Dominican fried chicken, rice and beans. All very delicious, and even Steve ate it! Our main guide then gave us a chocolate demonstration, which is always a good thing. He had some cocoa beans and showed us how to split them, roast them, grind them down, and then mix them with sugar to give us something close to the chocolate we buy in the shops. We were able to taste it at every stage, which helped us to understand exactly why each stage is necessary! We then had the option to try the zip-wire, which was brilliant. It was in three parts, the first one through the jungle, the second over the plantation, and finally back over the river. I felt confident the guides knew what they were doing, so I felt completely safe and really enjoyed it. We were given the option for another go before the trek back down to the first ranch. There we had the obligatory gift shop before heading back to the resort on the truck. Definitely one of the highlights of the holiday!

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One of the other memorable excursions, although not quite as good was a trip to Saiona Island on a speed boat and catamaran with Living Punta Cana. Although the island itself was beautiful, definitely the idyllic beach you imagine when you think of a tropical paradise, there were a couple of niggles that took away from the day. Firstly, we were picked up in a minibus from our resort, but had to change three or four times to join with ever larger groups. The last stop was at a tourist gift shop where we had to wait 15 minutes to try and encourage people to buy things, before joining the final bus for the last part of the journey. It probably took at least an hour and a half to get from the resort to the where we were meeting the boats. It all felt a bit chaotic when we arrived as there were suddenly lots of groups there all going to different places. However, we eventually found ourselves wading on to a speed boat, and were plied with rum and coke- more rum than coke- which made it all better!

The day was advertised as stopping at a natural lagoon where we could hold starfish. This was sort of true. We stopped in a shallow part of the sea with a barrage of other boats, and were given the opportunity to hold starfish that the crew had already stopped to pick up, while they took our picture to buy later! Scepticism aside, the break to go swimming was nice. The sea was warm, it was just sand- no coral or seaweed, so we could just relax and float around a bit before carrying on. When we eventually got to the island it was what we expected. Palm trees, long beach, jungle behind, rum punch and a very generous BBQ with chicken, ribs, rice, pasta, salad- enough to keep everyone going! There were other groups there so you had to keep an eye on what yours was doing, and reserve a deck chair as soon as you got to the island. There was also a man selling coconuts, which was not too overpriced, but did become so when he “forgot” to give you change!

We made the most of the crew having decent cameras and had a few more photos taken on the beach. We both worked hard on our weight before the wedding so wanted to make the most of it! The pictures were really nice, in all fairness, the photographer clearly knew what he was doing. He had his laptop with him to make a CD of your photos on the day, which he was initially selling for $70, but we managed to barter him down to about $40 for over 70 photos, and the CD even worked when we got home!

The trip back was then switching boats to the catamaran. By that point a lot of people were a bit on the sunburnt side, so it was nice to stretch out on the netting, watching the people who had a few too many rums dancing, and watching the sea flash by underneath.

The journey back wasn’t as long as before, but it took a little while for them to work out where we were going as they split everyone up to go in the appropriate shuttle buses. It did feel like they had forgotten us. There were less changes on the way back, but it was still a bit of a mystery trip with little communication. Looking back on the main body of the day, we did have a good day, and we came away with some fantastic photos, but the planning and transportation for the day left a lot to be desired.

Fortunately we did have a better boat trip with Ocean Adventures- Caribbean Pirates. To be honest, the selling point was that it was on a pirate ship, always awesome. They even did a live action show as we were sailing along. There were pirates attacking from another boat, sword fights, map swapping, exactly what you would expect from pirates. There was the added advantage of the convenience of getting there- picked up directly from the resort, although it was quite a long way from ours, we didn’t have to worry about switching vehicles multiple times. When we arrived the checking in system felt a bit chaotic, but everyone seemed to end up in the right place at the right time so they must have known what they were doing. We had to wait a little while for the groups to be arranged, but there were toilets, drinks to buy, and entertainment for the children so it was ok.

The boat itself had an upper and lower deck so there was plenty of room for everyone, and the complimentary drinks and fruit were very welcome- particularly the rum punch, it was lush! Our first stop was snorkelling off the boat. It was a bit frustrating because there were other boats there so you had to stay near your own group, which was a problem because it meant that you couldn’t get to a spot of sea away from people. They put bait in the water but it wasn’t really necessary because there were so many fish!

After some more entertainment we had our second stop, where there were some bigger fish. We were split into three groups on a rotation. First up we met some sting rays. The boat stopped at an offshore pool which had an open layer at the bottom so that the rays could swim in. We then all sat on a ledge around the outside and they would bring a couple up and guide them around for people to touch and take photos with.

On the other side of the pool was the shark tank. We were expecting that the sharks would be swimming around freely, and while there were some in cages, others would have been able to, had they not been asleep. There were actually about a dozen sharks in the pool, as well as some pretty impressive shoals of fish, a few more rays and I’m sure I spotted a swordfish. The smaller fish could swim in and out but the sharks were kept confined. I’m not sure about the ethics of keeping sharks in cages, and I didn’t ask to find out if they were ever released and others captured, or kept there all the time, but I’m guessing people are less bothered about sharks than dolphins.

The third section was lunch, which was sandwiches and salad so not the most exciting we had on our trip, but very welcome after all the swimming! When everyone had finished up we regrouped on the boat, had some more rum and fruit and headed back. The system for everyone leaving was much more straightforward and we got back pretty easily. There was also a chance to buy various pictures that you could have had taken throughout the trip. Definitely one of the better boat trips out there.

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I think our favourite excursion though was one that was a little bit different. For most of the tours available you are only seeing the tourist face of the island, whereas we prefer to find out what life is actually like in the places we visit. So when we came across Punta Cana Mike we decided that was just what we were looking for. Mike is Canadian and has been living on the island for several years. He started off in the tourist industry but married a local woman, and now knows the island very well. Mike’s tours are a lot smaller, taking a maximum of 12 people, partly because that’s what you fit in a minibus, but takes you around a lot more interesting places on the island.

We started off visiting one of the hoyos, the general residential areas for local people. Mike has links with a local school, that he helped to open and continues to support. We visited the school, which was on its summer holidays, but were still able to meet a lot of the children who go there. They were so sweet, instantly interested in you, following you around and holding your hand. A couple of the cheekier ones asking for money, but in the same way that cheeky kids at home would ask for sweets. Mike explained a bit about the way they live, what their parents do, and some of the politics of the island- particularly in relation to Haiti. We met the local shopkeeper and his family, most of the kids go to the school, and he had a beautiful new three week old daughter who we had lovely cuddles with! There is a lot of poverty in the area, and it’s a completely different way of life to here, but the people were so happy and welcoming. You want to do something to help them but without being condescending or patronising, or suggesting that your standard of living is better than theirs. Definitely an interesting and worthwhile experience.

Our next stop was a chocolate, rum and cigar factory. There was a chocolate workshop which explained where the beans come from, how they’re grown, and then how they become chocolate. We were then able to try some of the chocolate, hot chocolate, and chocolate liqueur that is made onsite, and it was fantastic. There was a shop selling all sorts of chocolate products, and a wide variety of things made with coconut oil, which has all sorts of uses and is really good for you. Apparently.

On the same site was the rum. Not a factory, just a bar, but we won’t hold it against them. And if we did before, then we certainly didn’t by the time we sampled whichever rums they had on sale that we wanted to. We tried some ‘normal’ rum, as well as various flavours, some strong ones, some old ones, we lost track after a little while to be honest. We ended up bringing home some flavoured rum and some black rum, as well as the bottle of fairly normal rum we had been given by the hotel. Oh, and some chocolate liqueur and mamajuana- a mixture of rum and various spices that is supposed to be good for fertility, or maybe just the process that leads to it!

Finally was the cigar sampling. We were talked through the process of how to make them, as well as the different strengths, ageing process and flavours. We also had the chance to try them, which some people found easier than others. I found that it was actually quite difficult to light, and to keep it going. Although I got used to it after a while, the experience didn’t convert me to smoking cigars. I brought a couple back that we were given, and while I considered a few flavoured ones, I didn’t consider them seriously enough to go anywhere with it!

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We then moved on to lunch, which was the best meal we had on the island. We headed to Playa Macao, which used to be a fairly untouched beach, but has become more common knowledge now. We headed down to the far end where the fishing hauls were brought in, and had freshly caught and cooked fish for lunch. You pay by the pound, so we had a pretty large portion of Mahi Mahi for about $20, along with rice and beans, as we had come to expect. Considering Steve doesn’t like fish, and yet liked this, I think we did pretty well. While we were waiting for the food to cook we went for a swim in the beautifully warm water, and later on made friends with an iguana with no sense of personal space. We then headed back, tired and full but very happy! If you ever go to the Dominican Republic and only have a short amount of time, then this is definitely the tour to do.

So that was the first week of our honeymoon. The excursions were interspersed with hanging out in our wonderful suite at the hotel, swimming at the hotel and drinking cocktails, chilling out on the beach, napping and reading on the balcony and just generally unwinding. We had a fantastic week and were really sad to be leaving, until we arrived for week 2. More on that at a later date….

Today was a fairytale

Over the last few months, specifically since March, which is 6 months and completely rubbish, I’ve been really bad at blogging. There have been a couple of blog posts that I’ve been thinking about writing but never got round to. My last post was about preparing to run the London Marathon. That happened, back in April. We survived and ran the 26.2 miles in 6 hours. Pretty awful timing really. I was originally going to write a blog on what it is like running a marathon when you’re not a runner, but that’s going to have to wait for another day, because something even more exciting happened between now and then, which is that I got married!

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Obviously getting married is an incredibly special day for the couple themselves, but being a vicar has taught me that people do get married all the time. In fact, it’s a huge industry, and looking back it’s been really useful seeing how other people have done things, what worked, what didn’t, and specifically, where you can get the stuff you need. As much as I love Pinterest, it’s really not useful when you’re trying to find things firstly in the UK, but more specifically in Wales. There’s a load of stuff in London, but we initially really struggled to find local suppliers, which was something that was pretty important to us.
So to try and be helpful, I’m going to start from the beginning and try to include everything in case it can help someone else. Please leave a comment if something is useful or you’d like more information about anything!

We had a really long engagement, we got engaged on the 13th April 2014 (my 25th birthday), and then married on the 15th July 2016, so we ended up sending out two lots of invites- save the dates and the actual invites. The Save the Dates were from Snapfish- we ordered them online with some of our engagement shoots photos (more on our lovely photographers later), and they cost us about £30 for 40 cards. As we hadn’t worked out most of the wedding details yet they just had the date and the town on them, and we only sent them out to people who were absolute definites to invite, pretty much family and close friends. We’d looked at a few ideas before we went on the shoot so we had a few more ‘speciality’ shots in case we went down that route, for example:

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The wedding invites themselves were a bit more complicated. We sent them out in January 2016 but there were two different types. The easiest ones were the main invites, so for people who were invited to both the wedding and the reception. We decided to do those the easy way and ordered them from a company called Norma&Dorothy, which was a bit more pricey at around £300 for 50, but we decided on the exact wording that we wanted, we loved the design, and the team over there were really easy to work with. I must have about 30 emails going backwards and forwards until we were happy with everything! They came really quickly and looked awesome.

There were also a small handful of people coming to just the evening reception so I decided to try out my artistic side and make those myself. As with everything else, the first thing I did was go on Pinterest. There were so many really quirky and creative ideas for invites it was tricky deciding what to do. In the end I filtered them down by what I could actually get the materials for, and what wouldn’t take me forever or be too fiddly. In the end I came across an absolutely fantastic blog post from a blogger called Mrs Fancee, who not only provided really clear instructions but also downloadable fonts. The materials were really easy to come across and were actually all at Hobbycraft- not the cheapest place but really convenient. All I needed was brown craft card, a stamp and ink pad, paper lace doilies and ribbon. They were quite straightforward so came out looking pretty good and didn’t take too long to make.

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Once the invites were sorted we needed to work out the details of the wedding itself. Firstly was the date. We wanted it in the summer because the Welsh weather can be pretty unpredictable, but as I was half way through my curacy (training post) at the time, we decided that we would wait a little bit longer and get married in 2016 when I was due to finish, that way we would avoid any disruption to our parishes. We also wanted to have the wedding close to the end of the summer term so it wouldn’t be distracting for the children, but also mean that they had a bit of time left in school so it wouldn’t feel like we were going away for too long! We checked the terms dates and decided on the 15th July, a Friday to make life easier for our clergy friends, and with just another few days before the end of term. I asked for my Bishop’s permission- another peculiarity of the Church in Wales- and then we started looking at venues.

There were three that we were particularly interested in. We already decided we wanted to get married in Llantwit Major Church, which was where I was working, so needed somewhere near there, but neither of us wanted a hotel- we both wanted somewhere with a bit more character. We had a day out at Bryn Garw Country Park for Steve’s birthday, and had a look round there. It was beautiful and had lovely gardens which would have been fantastic for photos, but the inside wasn’t quite exciting enough if it was raining all day! The next place we looked was Llanerch Vineyard which had a lot of character, you could have their own wines with your meal, and they even had llamas in the vineyard! At the time though they were just starting out with weddings so there was a little bit too much DIY involved for sorting out catering and decoration.

The last place we looked was Rosedew Farm which is just outside Llantwit Major. It’s a converted white washed barn based on a working farm, they supply the meat for the butchers in town, but also with converted cottages and lodges so that the majority of guests can stay on site. They now also have camping and glamping so even more people can fit in! When we first went to look they were also just starting out so you could choose whatever catering you wanted, which we loved so we could still choose the style of our meal; there was space out the back for extra things; kitchens were onsite; you could dress up the venue but it would have looked beautiful with no added extras; also because it was just down the road I could get there whenever I needed to sort stuff out. The benefits had clearly spread because the farm was completely booked at weekends for the next year, but fortunately the date we wanted was free, so we pretty much booked it on the spot!

The only other things we organised a long time in advance were the catering and the music, things that book up quickly! I was pretty keen on having live music rather than a DJ. My cousin Katy had a fantastic band at her wedding that played a lot of 1950’s style swing and rock songs, that was amazing because everyone knew them. Steve wasn’t keen on that idea, he wanted something a bit more modern, so when we came across a band called Coverland at a Wedding Fair, they were exactly what we were looking for. They did sing a variety of music, but with a lot of up to date tracks, they weren’t a massive band so fit well in the venue, they were nice lads, and really good. They were lovely to work with, really friendly, efficient, professional and reasonably priced! We hardly noticed when they were setting up and all our guests said how good they were. I would definitely recommend them to anyone!

The other thing we arranged early was the food, one of the most important things! Gaynor (the brilliant woman who runs Rosedew) recommended a few people to us, and the first one we looked at was the increasingly popular Hangfire Smokehouse. These are more people who have come a long way since we were first engaged! Hangfire use the meat from Rosedew Farm and turn it into American BBQ. They were initially just available through pop-ups at local pubs, then bought a shop in Llantwit Major where they did all their cooking, and recently published a cookbook and opened a restaurant in Barry which has since done incredibly well. We love the girls and we love their food, we go to their restaurant whenever we can and had their food for Christmas dinner last year! However, wedding catering isn’t their thing. Although they would have been fantastic, it’s just as well we didn’t go for them because there is no chance they would have had time by the time our wedding came round!

In the end our catering was done by the wonderful EJ Catering  EJ are based in Cardiff, have a wide range of menus, including some really interesting ones, including BBQ, Mediterranean and carving dishes; their desserts are delicious, and they even do drinks as well. They have a professional team who know exactly what they’re doing and can be really flexible with what you want. On the day they were so efficient, even when things went wrong in areas that had nothing to do with them they were on hand and did their absolute best to sort things out, because they actually do care about you having a good day. When we first planned the day we met with Emma who put our menu together, and then on the day we had Kate who liaised between us and the kitchen. Everything they did was perfect, the food was wonderful and the service went beyond being professional. If I were ever to need catering again I would definitely use them and recommend them to anyone else.

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There were of course plenty of other things that we had to buy in advance so they were ready in time. Probably one of the first we organised was my wedding dress. I went on a diet after we got engaged so as soon as I reached my goal weight I went dress shopping! I lost 3 stone with Weight Watchers, some of which I’ve put back on now, but I managed to keep it off for the whole time before the wedding. Cardiff has several wedding dress shops so that’s where I went- along with my Mum, and two of my bridesmaids. They did have slightly different opinions on what to get- one of the bridesmaids favouring a meringue dress. But in the end I went for a beautiful Lillian West dress from Laura May Bridal on Crwys Road in Cardiff. It was the most luxurious shop we went to, the staff were lovely and there was a good variety of really beautiful dresses. My Mum was kind enough to pay for my dress for me, and everything was really straightforward.

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To go with the dress I had a pair of custom shoes from Lace and Love. I’m not used to wearing heels so I decided to play it safe and get a pair of flats, but I also had them as my something blue, with a silver sixpence in there as well. They were completely unique and so easy to order. Plus, because they’re not specifically bridal shoes I can wear them again.

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I couldn’t decide on what length of veil to go for- I originally wanted a cathedral train but also wanted my hair loose which wouldn’t support it, so realised that a shorter veil would be easier. My lovely bridesmaid Bethan offered to lend me the one that she wore for a wedding, which was a perfect length and had little gems in it so it glittered. It went really well with the dress and doubled up as my something borrowed.

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I was originally planning on wearing a pearl necklace I had bought in China when I was a child, but on the morning Steve sent me a beautiful Clogau necklace- a heart with a rose twisted around it, so I wore that instead. I also wore a bracelet that my parents had given me on my 18th Birthday.

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The bridesmaids dresses were a little more difficult. As one of my bridesmaids was my 10-year old stepdaughter, I wanted a style that would look good on all of them with differing body sizes. I also wanted something that they would be happy to wear themselves after the wedding so didn’t want anything too formal. After we threw around a few ideas, we eventually found some dresses from an online Vintage dresses supplier called Lindy Bop. We went for their ‘Sally May’ style, which matched the lace styling of my wedding dress, wasn’t too short, wasn’t too low cut, was the right colour and was a style to fit most people. We did have a slight issue with the sizing as the sizes were smaller than advertised, so we had to order a couple more and do some switching around. We also had to have my stepdaughters altered as the body was a bit too long for her. On the day they all looked perfect though. I asked the girls to pick their own shoes so they could choose what they would be most comfortable in, as long as they were the same colour. I bought Katy-Grace a pair of blue lace Toms which went perfectly but that she could still walk in!

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The other girly parts were of course the hair and make-up and flowers! I don’t usually wear make-up so I wanted somebody who would be able to make it look naturally but still cover up blemishes for photos. I eventually found a girl called Jess Mac who is based up in Brecon. I went up for a trial and she was absolutely perfect. I felt really good but not overdone, and she worked out a style of hair that was nice and loose but still felt under control. The girls had asked for up-do’s so she came and got them all looking the same while they did their own make-up, and did some soft curls and lip balm for Katy-Grace. Jess was also really useful in making sure all the girls bows were tied the same, and being an all-round calming presence.

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Flowers were something that we wanted to source locally. Partly because we believe in supporting our local communities, and partly because the less distance flowers have to travel the better! We used Pastures Green in Llantwit Major, where Joanne was really helpful and accommodating in helping me work out what I wanted- as I know nothing about flowers. She spent time looking at print out bouquets with me, worked out which flowers would work in the waterfall shape I wanted, and what wouldn’t look like I expected it to on the day! She also needed to point out which ones were actually fake flowers! She came and dropped them off right on time in the morning, and they looked wonderful- even if my stepson (the ring bearer) did object to wearing a buttonhole because ‘they’re too girly!’

One of the other major decisions we had to make was about our wedding rings. I didn’t think there would be too many options for these, but even within plain rings there is colour and thickness, and that’s before you move away from plain! One of the things I felt strongly about was that I wanted a fairtrade ring. These were quite difficult to come across in Wales so we had to look further afield. We found a company called Cred Jewellery who are based in Chichester, and have a brilliant selection of Fairtrade gold rings. I’d already decided I would prefer white gold to yellow, as it goes with my engagement ring, and I eventually found a ribbon twist style that fits around the stone in my engagement ring and has little diamonds around the front. Steve originally wanted to look elsewhere for his, but after we tried a supplier Bristol and their prices weren’t transparent or anywhere near what was advertised on their website, we went back to Cred and bought his from there as well. They came much quicker than expensive and I definitely feel it was worthwhile paying a bit extra for Fairtrade.

Another thing that was tricky to sort out was Steve and the boys suits. We wanted something a bit different, and decided on a grey tweed suit, but after we’d decided that we found it was quite difficult to actually source! After a while I found, through someone else’s blog, a company called Victor Valentine who are based near Southampton, but when we went to visit them they were probably a level above what we were after. Beautiful suits but more if you’re looking to buy a nice suit than hire for a one-day wedding! Eventually though, we noticed on Facebook that one of the local Swansea men’s wedding suppliers had started stocking tweed suits. Crush Menswear introduced a blue grey tweed suit that was exactly what we were looking for, and hire, including shoes, was a lot more affordable than Victor Valentine. We booked in and got everyone measured up, and that all sorted itself out as well!

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Another couple of people who need mentioning are people who contributed to the venue itself. When we were working out how to decorate the venue we quickly realised that the cost could go up very quickly if you were to buy everything you wanted. So we found another local company called Dear Florence who hire out rustic wedding decorations at reasonable prices so you can actually get everything you want, and have things that are normally hard to find. They are also really useful because they’ll put things up for you which is great when you want bunting on high ceilings! We hired vases, log slices, bunting, banners, chalkboards, sweet jars, table runners, lanterns, and easels. What could have cost us hundreds of pounds cost a fraction of that and was all put together for us.


The other thing we hired in was a tent for the children to play in from another (!) local company, Goodyhoo Glamping. Goodyhoo (Gwdihw) means owl in Welsh, and their bell tents have a cute, rustic feel to them. If we had been staying on site on our wedding night we probably would have hired their bridal tent, but instead we hired the Little Hoots tent for our younger guests. It was filled with toys and colouring and kept the little people (and some of the bigger people) entertained all evening.

But the reason we’re able to look back on all these wonderful people is because of our fantastic photographers, Nom and Malc at Mustard Yellow Photography. The benefit of having a couple, is that there was someone to be with both us in the morning, and make sure nothing was missed. They were at the front and back of church, inside and outside, all around the venues. They came out for our group meal the night before to get to know everyone. They were generally really friendly so everyone was so relaxed. Malcolm helped to sort out the men’s ties, while Naomi helped with my dress. We felt comfortable around them all day so they caught pictures of us looking natural, not with forced smiles all day. They were really good at getting through the arranged photos that we wanted without it taking all day! Definitely a pair to recommend to your friends and family! Because we’d had an engagement shoot with them as well we knew that their photos would be really good, and that they would do their best to help us feel at ease so that we actually wanted to smile, nothing was forced, they were a pleasure to have around during the day, and I think that came across in the final photos, which you can see for yourself throughout this blog. They took all these amazing photos and I really would recommend them to anyone else.

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Nom hanging out with my chief bridesmaid Amy at the end of the night

So that’s how it all came together, this is what it looked like:

Jess Mac got to the girls at about 6.30 in the morning- waaaayyyy too early, I didn’t realise my clock had that time. She worked through the girls hair before moving on to mine.

Meanwhile the boys had a nice relaxed morning, going out for breakfast, having haircuts, getting to church nice and early. The service was at 12.30- it was originally at 12 but I managed to get an extra half hour out of Steve when he realised how long it would take us to get ready. The boys were driven to church in a limo which was a gift from Rees Davies Funeral Home in Swansea, who Steve works with, and driven by Arthur at Brown’s Funeral Home in Llantwit Major, who I work with. The car was decorated with flowers and ribbon, and looked very smart!

Arthur then came back to collect the girls. By that time the flowers had arrived, I was in my dress, and my Dad had joined us. The bridesmaids and my Mum then left to go to the church in the limo, and my Dad and I went in Ed. Ed is our friend Alex Grace’s orange VW camper. Ed had been decorated with bunting as well and was in his element!


When we got to church our parking space had disappeared so there was a bit of quick thinking! I re-united with my bridesmaids and we went into the Galilee Chapel to wait for them to be ready. The night before Steve had decorated the church with more bunting, and one of the ladies from church had prepared some beautiful flower arrangements. We had a few photos in the Galilee and then my music started playing. I’d had so many options, I eventually decided to walk down to a piece called ‘Who is She?’ from the recent Disney Cinderella film, and composed by Patrick Doyle. It was the floaty-serene piece of music I was looking for, hasn’t been used by everyone else, and reminds me of the day every time I hear it.
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My Dad walked me down the aisle behind my stepdaughter and –son, my bridesmaids, chief bridesmaid, and my Godfather, who took the service. My plan was to walk nice and slowly and make the most of the music, but I found myself welling up and trying not to cry, so I didn’t walk as slowly as I was planning to! We sang our favourite worship songs in the service, from an order designed by our lovely friend Bethan Wigley.

 

My brother and our eldest stepson read the readings, my Godfather led the service and preached, and our friends Chris Bowler and Caz Ellis-Gowland prayed for us. It felt like it went so quickly I can hardly remember what happened! After the service we had refreshments, which people from church had brought, in the back of church so that we could talk to people, and while that was happening the bell ringers were ringing the bells for us. My friend Abi Marchant brought a cake for us to cut in church, and then we went for some photos.

Unfortunately the weather wasn’t everything we were hoping for. Our two photo stops were Ogmore beach and castle. When we arrived it was raining and windy, so we got some very picturesque but windswept shots with the kids and then sent them back to warm up!

We then went on to the castle where it had eased off a bit and had a few more photos between the ruins and among the sheep. While all of this was happening people were arriving at the barns and having drinks and canapes, the drinks we’d bought at Bookers a couple of weeks before. When we were cold enough we headed back as well and met everyone there.

When we arrived we checked out the dining room. Dear Florence and EJ had helped to lay the tables up, and the place names were pebbles that I’d been collecting and had written people’s names on with quotes on the other side. I’d also ordered little children’s packs to keep the little ones entertained. The table plan I had made using an old photo from a charity shop, a map from eBay of Europe, the same font and card I’d used for the invites, pins and wool. Each table was based on a different country or place that we’ve visited so the map included them all. We had the top table as Clovelly, where we were engaged, which had fudge, Gran Canaria had sangria, Barcelona had mojitos, Amsterdam had stroopwaffles, Paris had macarons, Cardigan had welsh cakes, Moscow had raspberry vodka, London had gin and elderflower and Edinburgh had Baileys hot chocolate.

Before we sat down to eat we had some group photos that we’d wanted. We both prefer the more natural photos that were taken throughout the day, but there were a few groups of people we wanted to make sure we had. Our families were key, as well as my friends from university and our friends from college. There’s also a Simpson family tradition of having a whole family and a cousins picture at weddings. I have a collection that I’m adding to as each of us gets married, it’s interesting to see how we’ve all changed over the years!

 

After dinner we had formal speeches from my Dad, Steve, our eldest Ryan, Steve’s best man Ben and his groomsman Chris. They were all really lovely. Ryan was only 13 and really nervous, but spoke extremely confidently, reacting to people’s laughter and ad-libbing as he went along, speaking for the three children. He’s got a potential career in public speaking ahead of him! Chris is a judge and got into character for his speech, sentencing us to a life sentence. My brother Dan also came up with a surprise speech from him and his wife Anna. She is very artistic and had drawn a cartoon strip which they projected onto the wall and narrated as they went through, telling the story of my family’s reaction to our relationship, which was really funny.

We finished off the evening with some dancing, cake, sparklers and bacon sandwiches. Our first dance was I won’t give up by Jason Mraz and then the band kicked in for the rest of the evening. By that point I was quite tired and my dress was more structured than I’m used to so I wasn’t feeling great. We both went around chatting to a few people, but in hindsight there were loads of people we missed, which was a shame as there were so many people there we don’t see very often.

After a while I decided there was only one thing for it, and went to change into my pyjamas. We left the reception at about midnight, through an arch of sparklers, then my amazing bridesmaid Amy drove us to Heathrow, where we stayed the night before flying off on our honeymoon the day after- more on that later!

So there you have it, I can’t see how I could have possibly left anything out but I probably have. You can see now why it took me so long to get around to writing it, well done if you’ve managed to read it all the way to the bottom! Our wonderful friends and family have been really generous both with their time, helping to clear out the barn the day after the wedding when we had left, and also with their money- our wedding gifts enabled to have an amazing honeymoon. We had a fantastic day and it largely due to everyone who came to celebrate with us. If you’re reading this and want to know more about anything then please feel free to get in touch and I will do my best to answer any questions. Particularly any brides to be who are finding it a bit overwhelming, just take it a step at a time and remember that at the end of the day, it’s all about you and your husband. If something is important to you then prioritise it, but don’t waste your time trying to please everyone else or juggle opinions because you’ll never win. Just enjoy it. Don’t stress when things go wrong because inevitably something will. Our day was perfect even with the things that didn’t work out. Looking back you’ll remember the things that worked, not the things that didn’t quite come together. Good luck!

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Do the work of an evangelist

Last week in the lectionary we had the wonderful passage from 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5 in which Paul is telling Timothy how he should lead his church. We also had the persistent widow story with the encouragement to keep praying. My husband was preaching so he preached on prayer, but the Timothy reading really struck a chord with me so I brought it back to church this week to look at it again.

For some people this passage may be familiar, it is quite a well-known reading even when you don’t have it two weeks running. It’s very memorable because it is very strong, it leaves no room for doubt. “Preach the Word. Be prepared. Correct, rebuke, encourage. Keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.”

It’s quite easy when we read the New Testament letters to build up a picture in our head of who is talking. Paul comes across as very confident, not afraid of conflict, he is willing to risk everything and challenge anyone for the sake of the gospel. But Timothy, who Paul is writing this passage to, is not like that.

Timothy is a pastor who has been put in place in Ephesus to put false teaching straight. The church was still very young and was finding its feet in what was true, and what was misinterpretation, or just plain wrong, so Timothy was there to keep the church going down the right path. But unlike Paul, he was timid, he was young, he was frequently ill, he led by quiet example, his strengths were in preaching and teaching and he had a firm faith which was handed down to him by his mother and grandmother.

Timothy was an excellent witness to Jesus, but he was not an evangelist like Paul. He was not confident in going out and telling people about what Jesus had done for him, and the reason why he had become one of those first followers. But Paul knew that evangelism- which is literally just sharing the good news- was part of his role, which is why he writes to do the work of an evangelist. Paul is admitting that he is not an evangelist already- and telling him to become one, to construct and make himself into the form of an evangelist.

There will be some of you for whom the idea of talking to other people about your faith, about why you are a Christian and the difference that makes to your life, is really exciting. I’m sure there are lots of Paul’s sitting in congregations all over the country. However, there will also be lots of Timothy’s. And I would be the first to say that I’m one of them. I hate talking to people I don’t know. The idea of having a conversation with someone about my faith is terrifying, it makes me really nervous and is generally the last thing I want to do. Which is why it’s even more amazing that I ended up ordained!

The problem is, that I firmly believe that as a Christian, it is part of my job. Not as a leader, but as a Christian. I think that if the message of the bible-that God created the world and loved those who follow him; that the people God chose were incapable of loving him back and so kept pulling themselves away from him; that God cared enough to send his Son to die on a cross so that everyone who follows Jesus can have a relationship with God even though they still pull themselves away; and that one day Jesus will come back and create a new heaven and a new earth; I think that if you become convinced of that message, then it is so big, so important, so life-changing, that you should do something about it. That I should do something about it.

If I believe that if I really love my neighbour, as I claim I do, then I should want him to become convinced of all that as well, because in the end it will save his life. Evangelism is the vital task of every single Christian, not just the ones who stand at the front of church or wear silly clothes. I think part of the reason that we switch off as soon as someone talks about evangelism is because we don’t really understand what it is, and we’re scared of doing it.

How many of you have been through your local high streets and come across people preaching on the street corner, or singing outside Primark, and thought, ‘that’s not for me, I could never do that’, and assumed that’s what evangelism is? For years I thought that was what the word meant. For a certain type of person that way of sharing their faith is what excites them and where they feel confident, but that’s not for everyone.

We all have our own gifts, temperament and passions, and we will each have a way of sharing our story, because that is all we are doing, in a way that fits with how God has made us. That will initially stretch us to grow our faith, but that is relaxed and natural to us.

When I was on the CPAS Arrow Leadership Programme residential last week, which is a course specifically for Christian leaders so has a big emphasis on sharing our faith in that context, we had a day on evangelism. As a leader, the way and the opportunities we have will be different. The pastor J John, when he’s asked what he does, replies by saying that he works for a global enterprise, with outlets in every country, that runs hospitals, hospices, homeless shelters, does marriage work, runs orphanages, feeding programmes, educational programmes, is involved in justice and reconciliation, looks after people from birth to death, deals in behavioural alteration, is intergalactic- including everyone who’s come before us, and it’s called the church.

I mentioned that at a discussion on Arrow and was asked if that’s how I reply, and I had to be honest and admit that I probably can’t pull it off. As much as I love how exciting and hardworking he portrays the church, I don’t have the guts to respond like that. If you ask my husband, I’ll have conversations with random strangers all the time, but what actually happens is that I only manage to talk to people when they talk to me on a train.

In the last five years I’ve been on a train on my own twice, and in both those journeys people have approached me to talk about faith. I made the mistake of praying on Arrow last week that God would give me opportunities to talk to people. Last Sunday my husband preached that prayer is powerful and is answered. Annoyingly, God did answer that prayer, a good lesson to only pray for things you actually want to happen. On my first train I was with 2 other Arrow participants and we were asked a lot of complicated questions by an astrophysicist. On my second train a visiting American asked me what a vicar does after I accidentally let slip that I can find my way around a graveyard. And in the gap waiting for my third train a young professional started asking about the church and service, leading onto our role in baptisms and funerals, and finally Christianity in schools. I was exhausted by the time I got home, but fortunately there was a pizza waiting.

The benefit that I have as a leader is not that I’m automatically more confident or better equipped to give answers, but just that when people ask me what I do, I have a way in to talk about my faith. That’s it. But that’s not an excuse for not talking about your faith. 1 Timothy says to Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have, and our reading this morning also says to be prepared in season and out of season.

To cut a long story short, always be prepared to tell your story. What motivates your life? What gives you hope? What difference does it make that you follow Jesus?

Jesus himself gives us a pretty good clue what difference he makes: “The “Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

Jesus is good news. If we don’t believe that then why are we coming to church? If we do believe that Jesus is good news, then why aren’t we sharing that good news with the world?

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I recently heard this story called the Parable of the Candles told by Max Lucado, which is in the back of one of his books:

There was a blackout one night. When the lights went out, I fumbled to the cupboard where we keep the candles for nights like this. I lit four of them. I was turning to leave with the large candle in my hand when I heard a voice, “Now, hold it right there.”

“Who said that?”

“I did.” The voice was near my hand.

“Who are you? What are you?”

“I’m a candle.”

I lifted up the candle to take a closer look. There was a tiny face in the wax. “Don’t take me out of here!”

“What?”

“I said, Don’t take me out of this room.”

“What do you mean? I have to take you out. You’re a candle. Your job is to give light. It’s dark out there.”

“But you can’t take me out. I’m not ready,” the candle explained with pleading eyes. “I need more preparation.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. “More preparation?”

“Yeah, I’ve decided I need to research this job of light-giving so I won’t go out and make a bunch of mistakes. You’d be surprised how distorted the glow of an untrained candle can be.”

“All right then,” I said. “You’re not the only candle on the shelf. I’ll blow you out and take the others!” But right then I heard other voices, “We aren’t going either!”

I turned to the other candles, “You are candles and your job is to light dark places!”

“Well, that may be what you think,” said the first one. “You may think we have to go, but I’m busy–I’m meditating on the importance of light. It’s really enlightening.”

“And you other two,” I asked, “are you going to stay too?”

A short, fat, purple candle with plump cheeks spoke up. “I’m waiting to get my life together, I’m not stable enough.”

The last candle had a female voice, very pleasant to the ear. “I’d like to help, “she explained, “but lighting the darkness is not my gift–I’m a singer. I sing to other candles to encourage them to burn more brightly.”

She began a rendition of “This Little Light of Mine.” The other three joined in filling the cupboard with singing. I took a step back and considered the absurdity of it all. Four perfectly healthy candles singing to each other about light, but refusing to come out of the cupboard.

 

As Christians we are candles, and it is our main purpose to shine the light of God into the world. We will all have our own way of doing it, we will all shine to different levels of brightness and different colours. Some of us will burn brightly and fiercely like Paul, others will burn slowly and steadily like Timothy, but all of us share light with those around us. Our choice is not whether or not we do evangelism, but how we do it. How we share our faith, how we lead others to share their faith, and how we keep the desire to share our faith central to the rest of our lives.

Are you a Paul or a Timothy? What are your gifts and passions? How can you use them to do the work of an evangelist and carry out your ministry as a Christian fully when you go out into the world at the end of the service?

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It’s all about the pace

It’s been a few months since I’ve posted anything, so I thought now would be a good time to catch up. You may remember that in one of my last posts, I announced that Steve and I had signed up to run the London Marathon for a charity called the Lullaby Trust. That was in August. Since then, we’ve started to actually train for the marathon, and opened up a whole new world of pain we never knew existed!

I mentioned in August that neither of us are particularly into running, but I don’t think anyone really appreciates just how true that is. We are not fit and healthy but just haven’t turned our minds to running, and we weren’t amateur joggers and have just stepped it up to another level. We hadn’t run at all. We started in August by doing the NHS Choices Couch to 5K Programme. That took us in 9 weeks from no running at all to be able to run 5 kilometers. The only problem, is that the Marathon is more like 42km.

So we came up with a plan. We decided that each week we would run three times, a 5K, a 10K and building up a mile each week. We were quite good at doing that all the way through September and October, but at the end of October we did a 9 mile run, from Swansea Marina along the sea front as far as West Cross- which was a huge achievement for us- but Steve injured his foot, and we were out of action over Christmas. Looking back, we didn’t do any stretching either before or after our runs, we only took water with us, and afterwards we were refuelling with a chocolate milkshake and a Chinese takeaway, so it’s a miracle that it took that long for us to get injured.

In the time that we stopped running we did a bit more research into what runners actually need to make it those long distances. We learnt about the importance of stretching, particularly after the runs; about eating sensibly beforehand, leaving time to digest food, and having little bursts of sugar along the route; about drinking enough on the run without drinking too much; and about having the proper kit.

In January we were ready to get back on it. We went onto the London Marathon website and committed ourselves to a training plan- Martin Yelling’s 16 week training schedule for first time finishers. We also headed over to Run and Become in Cardiff to have our gait analysed and invest in some proper trainers and running gear. We researched running nutrition and stocked up on SIS energy gels and protein shake. We were starting to become a bit more professional.

Unfortunately, no-one told our bodies that. Our heads had so much trouble getting over the idea that we would have to go outside in the cold to run, that for months we did all our running at the gym on the treadmill. We both now have gym memberships at the LC Swansea, which I’m not convinced are going to have much use after April! Although the treadmill was a lot warmer, drier, and easier on our knees, it was incredibly boring, and as the runs got longer we realised we would eventually have to go back outside again.

The other problem with the runs getting longer, is that they were taking more and more time. We started off doing our long runs on Saturday evenings after we’d dropped the kids back home, but as we were getting closer and closer to the gym closing on us, while the sea front path was dark with no street lights, we realised it wasn’t going to work for much longer. So for the last couple of weeks, the mini-Buntings have been pulled into our training as a support team, and have come alongside us on their bikes. Initially they found the idea really exciting, but after they realised just how far we were running, they were less enthused, and we the bribery of sweets was the main thing that got them out. It was a huge help for us though knowing that they could carry extra water and kit, and that if we needed to take off a layer, that we could just load it onto a bike. Despite the complaining they did really well- and we didn’t make them go the whole way, there’s a couple of useful ice cream shops en route that we could meet them at!

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As our runs got longer we started to discover quite a few niggles and aches, and problems that came up at the same point in each run. Both of us tend to have pretty sore calves the day after, and thighs hurting when we get above 14 miles or so. I’ve found that between an hour and an hour and a half I’ll need to toilet- which I later discovered is because that’s the point when your body is starting to divert energy away to keep your core organs going, and one of the places it takes it from is your digestive system. Now, I know that it’s going to happen and I can run through and ignore it, but I did panic the first few times, particularly as most of the public toilets are closed at this time of year!

The most difficult run we’ve done was the first 13 mile run. I wasn’t feeling well before starting, and so couldn’t stomach the idea of taking any energy gels. I had water with me, but that wasn’t enough to keep me going for that distance, so by mile 9 I hit a wall. I was feeling sick, dizzy, tired and cold, and I just sat down by the side of the path and didn’t want to get up. It was only because Steve was there shouting at me that there were only (!) 4 more miles to go, that he couldn’t leave me there in the dark on my own and there was no other way to get home, that I managed to get up and finish. It taught me an important lesson about nutrition though, and that week I did more research and discovered the wonder of jelly babies. They have the perfect amount of sugar, they’re easy to carry, they dissolve in your mouth, and you don’t have the eat the whole thing in one go. For the following two long runs- 15 miles and then 17 miles, I took jelly babies and didn’t have a problem again.

A few weeks into our training we decided it would be a good idea to sign up for another race before the marathon so that we could experience race conditions, and so we signed up for the Cardiff Half Marathon- although this year it happened to be the IAAF World Half Marathon. After doing a 17 mile run the week before, we were pretty confident about our ability to do it; but what we hadn’t factored in was that it was at the end of Holy Week, which for us vicars is pretty busy, and so we were already fairly tired. We also didn’t realise how nervous knowing you’re in a race makes you, so both of us had trouble sleeping and were packing and re-packing our bags the night before- despite the fact we were only going an hour by train, we took way more than we would normally need!

The day of the Cardiff Half was wet and cold and windy. We’re used to just starting to run whenever we want, so we found standing at the starting line in the wind and rain for an hour was not a pleasant experience. It gave us far too much time to think about all the things that could go wrong!

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The course itself was quite a nice one, you started at the castle, ran down to Penarth through town, across the barrage, through the docks to the Millenium centre, back up towards Roath, around the lake, and ended up outside the University. There were a couple of little slopes, but no serious hills or anything remotely approaching an obstacle to avoid. However, when we got to Penarth Marina the heavens opened and we were drenched within seconds. It was so wet that my sweat band got too heavy to stay on my head and fell off, so that I had to carry it for the next 5 miles, using it to wipe the rain out of my eyes and squeezing the water out. The weather also wasn’t very helpful as we crossed the barrage, and the wind tried to push us back to the other side.

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It was a completely different experience running with so many others though, one that I found encouraged me rather than pulled me back- even when I was being overtaken by Spiderman! It was also fantastic having a crowd there cheering you on- particularly for Steve who had his name on his vest, that’s definitely something I need to sort out before London! Fortunately the rain eased off for most of the run. Steve was doing really well, pulling energy from the crowd, and somehow managed to notice where every photographer was and make it look like he was enjoying himself!

I was not so good at enjoying myself. My leg started hurting pretty early on, and even though I knew that I could do that distance, I started struggling. Steve was amazing though and pulled me through the race. He could tell when I really needed to walk and when to push me to keep going. He grabbed drinks and jelly babies for me from the crowd. He never left my side and made sure that we started and finished together. Just before mile 12 he was pushing to not stop until the end, but then we turned a corner to see a huge (or seemed to be!) hill, and that idea quickly disappeared. We walked- quickly- up the hill, carried on running, and then came to the cemetery where one of our college professors was playing the sax, so a much needed hug kept me going a little bit further. For the last mile we knew that we were nearly at the end, but couldn’t see the finish line. As we came about 500 yards away I saw another slope in the road ahead of us and was completely gutted. But Steve took my hand and pulled me up, and didn’t let go until we crossed the finish line. With about 20 yards to go I finally heard a shout of “Go on Steve and Rachel!” and saw Jeanette from St Thomas shouting in the stands. That was enough to finish off, and we crossed the finish line still holding hands and still running.

20x30-WHMI5588After the race we were given medals and t-shirts, which we still haven’t taken off yet (!) as well as the all important bananas, water, foil blankets and protein bars. It was such an incredible feeling to cross the finish line that it makes me equally nervous and excited for London. Excited because of the extra pride that will come from having completed a whole marathon, and nervous from the knowledge of how painful the half was, how much pain will be in and will we even finish it? We also discovered that, despite the fact we were side by side for the entire route, somehow our timing was logged as completely different from each other. As they lost my race pack and I was given a new bib number, I’m going to assume that Steve’s is more accurate- also because it makes more sense, and so we had a finish time of 2hr 33 mins. I’m hoping that for the marathon we’ll be able to finish in under 5 and a half hours, but just finishing will be enough for me!

We’ve still got a bit of training left to do still- a 20 mile run at the end of this week and then we’re starting to taper towards the marathon. Over the next 4 weeks we’ll be checking in quite frequently with the physio, eating a lots of carbs, and trying to get a lot more sleep than normal! We’ll also be making a final push towards our fundraising target, with a Charity night on the 9th April in St Thomas, and our sponsorship page still open at Virgin Money Giving. If you want any more information on the charity we’re sponsoring, you can check them out at The Lullaby Trust,  or see back to my previous post Run, run as fast as you can (mind the pacing!)

We’re happy to take any advice, prayers and support in the meantime for all you seasoned runners who know what you’re doing! Anything that will help us complete the marathon and not die would be very useful!

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Baking catch-up

I know I haven’t posted for a while, but I promise my life hasn’t ground to a halt! I just need to get back into the habit of blogging a bit more regularly. So I thought to ease myself back into it that I would do a nice easy post about some of the baking I’ve been getting up to, both because it’s something that I really enjoy, and also so I can tempt you with pictures of cake!

At the end of August/start of September the kids all had their birthdays, which is my more inventive baking time. This year I was slightly sneaky and stole some ideas off Pinterest, although in my defence, it was just pictures, I had to work out the rest for myself. Katy-Grace and Sam had a birthday party this year at the LC in Swansea- so basically a pool party. So I decided to make a minion pool party cake for them to fit in with that, based on the bit in the second Despicable Me film where all the kidnapped minions are enjoying themselves on the beach. So I ended up with a chocolate cake, for a change, marzipanned and covered with blue fondant icing. The beach was made of shortbread, and the figures all made from coloured fondant as well. The palm trees were the most difficult part- I ended up making a sausage shape out of chocolate flavour fondant and cutting it into little pieces, then threading them onto a kebab skewer to make the trunk. I made the leaves out of green fondant and put them on top, then discovered they didn’t stay up very well, so made a frame of cocktail sticks that went underneath that they rested on, they were pretty fragile though! The kids thought it looked great, which was a bit touch and go after the car journey getting it to them!

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The next birthday was Ryan’s, just a week later. His party’s tend to be sleepovers and video games, so I kept with that theme and found a design for a retro space invaders cake. I’m not sure he ever played space invaders, being pretty technologically advanced, but he thought it was cool anyway. His ended up looking a bit like a slab initially, as it is a long flat cake, rather than the built up one the other 2 had. Black fondant icing wasn’t particularly appealing to work with, but it did the trick. After that there were some tiny fondant icing things to make, but the main effort was in piping. It took at least 2 hours and left me with a very sore hand, it was worth it in the end. albeit a little bit messy. Now that he’s getting a bit older, I think Ryan’s starting to lean towards flavour rather than design and has requested a cheesecake for next year, so that’s a new challenge!

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After the excitement of the birthdays was over I had to find another reason to bake, but fortunately we decided to run the Big Bake competition in church again this year, which is an event to support Tearfund’s No Child Taken campaign. We ended up raising £110 for Tearfund, and I got to do loads of baking and eating other people’s yummy cakes, so it was a win-win situation really. The event was split into three rounds to make it more challenging, and someone was eliminated at each round so by the final there were only 2 bakers left. The first round was the cake round, which is always interesting to see the huge variety of cakes, as that was the only guidelines we gave. We had a smarties pinata cake, caramel apple, chocolate, coffee and ferrero rocher (baked in, it was amazing), pineapple upside down cake, lemon curd cake, butterscotch and caramel and an amazing chess board cake. Fortunately they were spread over a few weeks, or it could have been a cake overload.

When it came to my turn I decided to make an angel food cake, which I’ve never made before but I wanted to take the opportunity to try something new. The recipe is Mary Berry’s from the Bake Off book from last year. It’s basically a very light cake with highly whisked egg whites, which you then fold the flour into very carefully, which gives it a fantastic consistency. I didn’t have a ring mould to make it in so I had to improvise, and found the recipe quite a fun one to follow, as the cake cools upside down! The icing was light and creamy, with a lemon curd and passion fruit coulis to go with it. I was up against the coffee and ferrero rocher cake, and it was very tight, but I won! Phew!

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The next round was the biscuit round. I made something I had made before this time, but that had a few stages- Millionaire shortbread. The shortbread is my favourite recipe, using cornflour and icing sugar to make it really light. The caramel was one that used condensed milk and golden syrup, so was fairly straightforward but nerve-wracking working out whether you’ve got the right consistency. Then melted dark chocolate to top, and I did some white chocolate as well to make it look a little bit prettier. My opponent that week wasn’t as keen on making biscuits, so I made it through the semi final as well.

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The final then was the bread round, and I was against Eleanor, who is a very good baker, so I decided to make a very complex recipe, that I have made before but had help last time, to see if I could beat her. The recipe was an apricot couronne, which was a technical challenge in last year’s bake off. You have to make a dough and leave it to prove. While it’s proving you make a filling with butter, sugar, orange, walnuts, apricots and raisins, and then when the dough is ready you roll it out and spread the filling on it, then roll it into a long sausage shape. Then you have to cut it vertically down the middle and weave the sides together to make a crown. When you’ve got the shape you leave it to prove again before baking, then when it’s baked it’s glazed with apricot jam, drizzled with icing and scattered with flaked almonds. Eleanor had made savoury rolls, so it was a nice complement, but the recipe won out, and the couronne won.

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As a way of phasing out the baking rather than stopping straight away, I also made some apple and raisin crumble bars, and chocolate and orange muffins for a church bake sale raising money for the refugees, but didn’t get round to taking pictures of them. So, that’s the autumn baking update complete. I’m hoping to get some fundraising baking in at some point for the London Marathon and the Lullaby Trust, but at the moment I think my church are still full up!

Run, run as fast as you can (mind the pacing!)

Most of you who know me well will know that the mere thought of exercise brings me out in a cold sweat! But as many of you will know, earlier this year in Steve’s community, we lost a beautiful little girl Erin from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). At the time the best source of information we could find on this was published by The Lullaby Trust. This charity supports families who have lost children, supports families as they have future children (with monitors), offer days out to families who have lost children and invests a huge amount in research to try and reduce the number of children who sadly die each year. Since the loss of Erin, we have been made aware of others in our friendship groups and parishes who have also lost children, which we were completely unaware of. Because of this we have decided to try and raise as much money as possible for the Lullaby Trust. To do that me and Steven will be doing various fundraising events leading up to April next year with the hope of raising £5000. This money will train 25 A&E staff in how best to support families when a baby dies suddenly and unexpectedly and also provide 450 information packs to raise awareness of safe sleep messages among young parents.
Our fundraising will culminate in something that scares the life out of both of us! Running the 2016 London Marathon. For two people who don’t even run to the car in the rain, this is an absolutely massive thing! Dont take my word for it…instead listen to Stephen Fry. If you see me running around the Parish…please be nice…..and please give generously here!  www.virginmoneygiving.com/team/Vicars

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Half the person you used to be

I know I haven’t blogged for a while. Things have been quite busy the last few weeks, what with the end of term and now the summer holidays. But that’s partly just an excuse. There’s been a blog that I’ve been sitting on for a while, but it’s taken me until now to actually dedicate the time to sit down and write it. It’s quite a long story, so I’m going to start from the beginning. There’s not many people who I’m friends with now who have known me for more than a couple of years, so there’s not many people who will have seen this story through from the beginning, but it will have been one that you’ve heard before.

Like most girls, I struggled with my weight throughout my teenage years. Granted, I was pretty cute when I was little:

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Seriously, what happened to the curly fair hair? One of the few conversations I can remember from when I was about 11, was with a friend and we were looking forward to growing out of our puppy fat, and wondering how you could tell when it wasn’t puppy fat any more. It only went downhill from there though really. It all came down to the fact that I enjoyed food and didn’t enjoy exercise. I didn’t suffer any traumatic event that led me to over-eat, and I wasn’t particularly bullied. I had some great friends when I was growing up, a lot of whom I’m still in touch with. But nothing really changed, I moved schools a couple of times, and before I knew it, I was 18 and weighed 18 stone. I’d managed to pretty much keep my weight at the same level as my age all the way through my teenage years, since I was about 11.

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This is a picture of me at my Sixth Form Prom when I was 18. I find it difficult to reconcile it to how I look now, but there we go. Before I went to university I took a gap year and went to Antigua for 6 months working for St John Ambulance. When I was there I lived with the woman who had been working to start the organization up in that region, and fairly soon after I arrived was told in no uncertain terms that I needed to lose weight, and so I was put on the same diet as she was on. In all fairness, she was right, and I did need to lose weight. But being 18 years old, away from home from the first time and on the other side of the world to anyone I knew, she maybe could have chosen a kinder way of saying it. So, for those 6 months I ate a cheese and ketchup sandwich for lunch, and boiled squash, broccoli and carrot for tea. Saturdays were treats and we would get rice and peas and BBQ chicken from the community barbecue. And occasionally we would have friends over or go out for dinner and I’d get to eat a bit more. Not surprisingly, this did the trick, and I lost 6 stone in the 6 months that I was away.

When I got back my family managed to keep the drama to a minimum, but when I went back to work in the pub, the old farmers didn’t recognise me. For the first time I started enjoying shopping with my friends and felt less out of place when we went out.

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That one was taken in Antigua, so you can see how dramatic the difference was. A couple of months after getting back I went off to university in Bangor, with a level of confidence that I hadn’t had before. I wasn’t worried about meeting new people and what they would think about me, although how I thought I looked still hadn’t quite caught up with how I actually did. It caught me by surprise when people found me attractive, and I didn’t really know what to do about it. While most of my friends had been maturing in this way at school, it was brand new territory to me, and I made quite a few mistakes along the way. Fortunately I had a really strong group of friends through all three years at university, and they were so supportive when I made stupid mistakes. They helped me to feel good about myself regardless of what my size was, and I was really happy while I was university. Not surprisingly, the student lifestyle took its toll and my weight started to creep up again, but I didn’t really mind that much.

When I was in my final year at Bangor I started going through the selection process for ordination in the Church in Wales. I went through my provincial panel in the April of 2011, was accepted, and started at St Michael’s Theological College in Cardiff in the September. The problem that I had at college, was that our meals were provided for us. The people who made them were good at their jobs, and made particularly good desserts, so I started getting bigger again. I still didn’t mind though, because while in college I met Steve. We started dating in my second year, when he had begun his curacy, and we got engaged in April 2014.

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The day that Steve proposed was a brilliant day. We were staying in Cornwall to celebrate my grandparents diamond wedding anniversary, and on my 25th birthday he took me to Clovelly and proposed in a beautiful little hut on the cliff overlooking the sea. We went back and my family were all there, we had loads of attention and got to retell the story a ridiculous number of times!

But this is where the problem re-emerged again. Looking back at the pictures from our engagement, what I felt was not the happiness that we had on the day, but embarrassment at how big I saw myself. I decided that I wanted to feel slim on my wedding day, and be at a healthy weight to enjoy my marriage, so it was time to do something about it. I had no intention of going back on the eat-nothing-at-all diet like I had done in Antigua, so I signed up for Weight Watchers just a couple of weeks after we got back.

Walking into my first meeting on my own was so nerve-wracking, but I eventually stalked someone else inside, and once I was in, it was fine. I had 3 stone to lose to get to my goal weight, and it seemed to take forever. I’d have weeks where I’d only lose half a pound, or nothing at all, or even gain, which was so off-putting. But then I would have weeks where I’d lose 4lbs, so it made up for it. I finally got to my goal in January 2015 and have been working on maintaining that weight ever since.

What I’ve found probably more difficult than losing weight has been accepting that I have, because, to be honest, I still don’t see it. My parishioners will jokingly tell me not to lose any more or they won’t see me any more, and people who I don’t see very often are still shocked at how different I look, but I don’t see it. There are still areas of my body that I’m not happy with. But I’m now working to get to a place where I can accept that the weight I am is what is healthy for me, and all the things that I think are wrong are just that- just me.

The important thing is that Steve thinks I’m beautiful, the children think I look thin. Although Ryan says he doesn’t really notice the difference, I’m just Rachel. And that is absolutely fine. That’s what I want to be. I need to get into my head that I don’t need to be a size 6 for them to love me because they do anyway. It has nothing to do with what I look like. There would be more of a problem if I stopped baking!

I’ve also been extra aware recently that Katy-Grace is getting closer and closer to being a teenager, and I don’t want to be encouraging her to have an unhealthy attitude to food. I want her to enjoy eating, and not worry about what size she is. Of course, I’d rather none of the children ended up obese, but that’s more for their own health than anything else. I want to show them that it doesn’t matter what you look like, as long as you’re happy and healthy. That for some people that will be at a different size for others. I want to show them that the models they see on the front of magazines aren’t representative of real women, and that they should neither be encouraging the girls they know to be that size, or be tempted to suffer to look that way themselves.

I’m getting married in less than a year. I’m confident now that I will look stunning in my wedding dress. But I’m also confident that even if I didn’t look the way I want to look, that my fiance and my stepchildren would think I looked beautiful anyway. I’m working now on getting fitter (more on that later), but from now on, how I control my eating and my exercise will be entirely based on being healthy, not on being thin. I don’t want to go back to the size I was when I was 18, I’m already back to the weight I was when I was 11, I see no reason to go down any further than  that.

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(Yes, I am enjoying a massive piece of cake!)

Confirmation Polka-Dot Rainbow Piñata Cake

Last week my fiancé found a new baking project for me by asking me to make a cake for a group who were being confirmed in his church. As they were all adults he asked for something that looked quite traditional, but gave me free reign of what to do on the inside. As it was for a big group of people I decided not to have fun with different flavours as I was worried about allergies, and just fussy people, but still found a way to make the inside of the cake quite exciting. I did some searching around and found ideas from Richard Burrs (from Great British Bake Off) over at richardburr.london and pinterest of course. So what I ended up with was a Confirmation Polka-Dot Rainbow Piñata Cake.

The first step was making some cake pops. Fortunately I have a cake pop maker and one batch of mix makes 24 pops so I had plenty. It’s just a basic cake mix with 1 egg, then the batter goes into individual moulds in the maker, about 1 teaspoon in each, and after about 5 minutes you have little balls of cake.

The next step was the sponge, I just used Delia Smith’s all-in-one sponge cake recipe, which is really quick and easy and made 2 batches. The recipe can be found on deliaonline.com, but I took it from her Complete Cookery book. I wanted to make 4 layers so made 2 batches and weighed the mixing bowl before and after making it to make sure I had exactly half. Maybe a bit excessive but I’m rubbish at guessing. I used a slightly smaller tin than Delia suggests because I wanted the layers slightly deeper to cover the cake pops. When each batch was in half I coloured them different colours- red, blue, green and yellow, and put 6 cake pops into each tin then the batter around it. I found with the colouring that normal shop bought blue and yellow were fine if you used the entire bottle, green didn’t come out very well at all, and the gel red was fine but always takes more than I’m expected. The layers when baked come out looking like this:

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You need to even off the top of the layers before you start to assemble the cake otherwise you’ll be able to see massive gaps around the outside. To sandwich the layers I used a basic vanilla frosting recipe from the Hummingbird Bakery book, which is basically just milk, icing sugar and vanilla essence. Make sure you sieve the icing sugar though or it will be lumpy. For the icing you can pretty much just use your own favourite butter icing or frosting recipe. If you’re going for different flavours in the layers then you’ll need to think about what will go with all of them and now overpower them.

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This stage of assembly is also important because it’s when you add in the piñata. I decided to just use one layer of cake to fill, but with 4 layers you could use two if you wanted more sweets. I used a biscuit cutter to make a circular hole in the middle of my second layer, then put icing onto the first layer as normal, put icing onto the ring of the second layer, and filled the hole with M&Ms before putting the third layer on. This means that you can’t see the chocolate from the outside, but when you cut into the cake it will all spill out.

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So you finish assembling all the layers, ice around the outside of the cake- I used a palette knife for this as the cake was so tall- then you can come on to decorating the outside. I went for a fairly simple but still quite time consuming design of a silhouette of a cross from sugar butterflies, which I bought from Co-op. The first job was covering the cake with a layer of fondant icing- again, shop bought as I just didn’t have time to make it. I bought 2 packets as I expected to need lots, but only ended up using one. My original plan was to roll the icing big enough to drape over the top of the cake, but my kitchen counter wasn’t big enough, so instead I had to cover the top and sides separately, which made it look a bit messy. I smoothed it over with an icing smoother but you could still see the join where the top met the sides in places.

When it was covered I very gently scratched the shape of a cross into the top of the cake, then made some thin icing with icing sugar and water, and set about the slow task of sticking all the butterflies onto the top and sides of the cake. It took about half an hour, but I got there in the end and then just finished the cake with some blue ribbon around the bottom, secured with a pin.

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Unfortunately I couldn’t be there to actually cut the cake as it was a Sunday and I was at my own church, but I’ve been told that people were impressed, and there was a second round as they tried to work out how the spots got into the cake. If I made it again I would probably be a bit more adventurous with flavours, particularly as you have the opportunity of making the cake pops a different flavour to the rest of the cake, as well as the layers. For a first try though I was happy with what came out.

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