Empty-nester MICHELLE TOMPKINS finds you don’t need the kids around to have fun

THIS empty nest thing isn’t half as bad as people tell you, you know.

Sure, with one grown up son at uni and the other out in the world working, life is a little quieter these days. There are some evenings when I can read a book peacefully without the thud of a heavy bass rattling the light fittings... and even the odd occasion when I can watch MasterChef repeats instead of MTV.

Far from spending my days listening to Ken Bruce in my fluffy slippers, having no children to cook or clean for has opened up a world of possibilities that might previously have seemed frivolous or out-of-the-question.

Last weekend, for example, I spent my time hunting ghosts and killing aliens.

Yep, you read that right, boys — your sensible, boring old mum went out (after dark, don’t you know) on a spooky search for spectres, then spent Sunday morning zapping extra terrestrials at the arcade.

And no, I don’t think I’m getting a little old for that.

The scene of all this foolishness? Nottingham, no less, where I met a friend for a weekend break; a weekend filled with all the usual things women of a certain age get up to when left alone — afternoon tea, plenty of shopping and several bottles of wine — but also some crazy, off-the-cuff activities... just because we could.

Our room for the night was at the St James Hotel in the city centre, a remarkably swanky place given that rooms there start from just £64.

As an independent boutique hotel, the designers had free reign to create a signature style and really let their creative juices flow — think silver leather seating, purple glittery walls and funky lighting.

Getting into the lift, with its psychedelic carpets and colour-changing spotlights, felt like walking into Willy Wonka’s elevator, but fitted perfectly with the bold concept, and our room had the same quirky touches, with black leather cushions studded with diamante and brave, in-your-face wallpaper.

So it was something of a respite when we stepped into Debbie Bryan’s gift shop and tea room in Nottingham’s Lace Market area, where afternoon tea is served up in quaint (but oh-so-fashionable) vintage china amid the relative peace and quiet of her design studio and craft shop.

Delicate egg and cheese sandwiches and dainty little triangles of lemon drizzle cake and chocolate brownie are the forerunner to gorgeous homemade scones, topped with lashings of clotted cream and jam, of course.

Determined to be decadent, we also indulged in two helpings of apple crumble and custard, brought to the table in little tea cups (so cute). Our excuse? Well, we needed to build up strength for the shopping marathon to follow.

As a born and bred Swindonian, I hate to discredit the town, but as a shopping destination Nottingham knocks socks off us.

Browsing the blend of big high street stores and small independent shops selling that ‘little bit different’, four hours (or was it five?) slipped away with no trouble at all, which was just as well for our credit cards.

Back at the hotel there was just time to steel ourselves before heading out on the Nottingham Ghost Walk.

My children will tell you I’m the biggest scaredy-cat on the planet, hating all horror films and still hiding behind a cushion during Dr Who, so booking on the tour was well and truly out of my comfort zone. I may be sceptical about things that supposedly go bump in the night, but I’m not prepared to take any risks either. It was only when I read that the tour was unsuitable for under-nines that I began to relax.

The ghost walks set off every Saturday evening from Ye Olde Salutation Inn, which itself is said to be haunted by more than 60 spirits (presumably seeking spirits of a different kind).

The heavens had opened over Nottingham this night, but intrepid ghost hunters aren’t deterred by a drop of rain and our party of 40-odd people set off under a trail of umbrellas.

Our two guides certainly looked the part, with their long cloaks, top hats and plaited beards, as they led the way to the local graveyard and regaled us for as good 90 minutes with tales of lost and tortured Nottingham souls still said to be roaming the city streets.

Did I see or feel anything to make me shift in my scepticism? That would be telling, but suffice to say I needed a stiff drink to recover from the ordeal... or perhaps just to warm me up after standing in the rain.

Oaks restaurant and bar provided just that — several stiff drinks, in fact, to accompany a sensational dinner in one of the city’s newest and liveliest places to eat.

The place was full to the rafters when we arrived, with a DJ spinning some jazz funk tunes and big parties of 20-40-somethings noisily tucking in.

The grillhouse menu offers everything from marinated chicken to porterhouse steaks, but Oaks prides itself most on its homemade sausages and they looked too good to resist. I tried the lamb, aubergine, tahini and garlic recipe, while my friend had the beef, gruyere and red wine and both were out of this world.

Another highlight was our shared starter of beef Scotch eggs with quails eggs in the middle; dipped in Oaks’ homemade mustard and horseradish sauce, they were just.... Mmmmmm.

We shouldn’t really have had room for breakfast the next day, but we gave it a fair shot. In keeping with the hotel’s quirky-stylish theme, the St James breakfast is a step outside the norm, with its own granola taking the place of pre-packaged Cornflakes, and the chance to watch tropical fish projected onto a TV screen while you eat.

All of which set us up nicely for the least-eagerly-anticipated-yet-most-eagerly-enjoyed highlight of our weekend — a visit to the National Videogame Arcade. Opened just under a year ago as a spin-off to Nottingham’s hugely successful GameCity festival — which brings in 50,000 visitors a year — the arcade is billed as a ‘cultural centre for video games’. In other words, it’s an educational facility spread over five floors which aims to not only educate youngsters and their parents about the world of gaming, but also — crucially — to show how gaming has evolved over the years.

And therein lies the attraction for us empty nesters, us exasperated mothers of grown-up boys who have spent years wondering just what could be so special about the XBox that it keeps them in their bedroom for days (and nights) on end.

Among all the modern-day games like Minecraft and Guitar Hero, and the chance to create games of your own, are the ‘museum pieces’; the Space Invaders, Track and Field (remember how it made your fingers sore?), Pacman and even an old, fully-operational Spectrum ZX with its familiar rubber keys.

For us children of the 1980s, it was a real trip down memory lane and we threw ourselves at the games as if they could somehow turn back the years.

It was several hours later when we emerged into the sunlight, a little bleary-eyed but very, very happy, and headed for the Crafty Crow pub for a rest and a roast before hitting the road.

Who needs kids in tow — even grown up ones — to have a good time? Age is only a number, after all. Just like 1070... my highest score in Space Invaders.


  • Michelle Tompkins was hosted by Experience Nottinghamshire. For more information of what to do in the county, go to www.experiencenottinghamshire.com. Twitter: @ExperienceNotts Facebook: LoveNotts or contact Nottingham Tourist Information Centre on 0844 77 5678
  •  The St James Hotel is in Rutland St, Nottingham NG1 6EB. Double rooms including breakfast start from £64 per night. See stjames-hotel.com
  •  Debbie Bryan’s is in St Mary’s Gate in the Lace Market. wwwdebbiebryan.co.uk. Afternoon tea costs £14 per person.
  • The Nottingham Ghost Walk takes place 7pm every Saturday, from outside Ye Olde Salutation pub on Maid Marian Way. Tickets are £6 for adults, £3 for children (9–13 years). The walk is not recommended for children under the age of nine. See thenottinghamghostwalk.co.uk
  • l Oaks restaurant and grill is in Bromley Place, Nottingham, NG1 6JG. Call 0115 947 7244 or go to oaksnottingham.co.uk
  •  The National Videogame Arcade is open weekly from Friday to Sunday, and every day during school holidays. Entry is £8.50 for adults or £6.50 for concessions. http://gamecity.org/
  •  The Crafty Crow is in Friar Lane, Nottingham NG1 6EB. Call 0115 837 1992 or go to craftycrownotts.co.uk


    A nice little run-around

    AS the driver of a teeny-tiny (and quite old) Peugeot 107, it was a real treat to cover the 270-odd round trip to Nottingham and back in a brand new Honda HR-V.

    The model is the latest to join the fleet which keeps 3,500 people in work in Swindon (although the HR-V is actually built in Mexico).

    From the automatic full beam lights to the crafty sat nav which steers you away from any hold-ups, this is a car with all the gadgets you can shake a stick at. But, best of all, in this diesel version, and sticking to the speed limit (of course), the whole trip cost me just under £25.

    There are 11 variations of HR-V to choose from and prices start at £18,000.