Sunday 30 September 2012

That's saturday afternoons spoken for for a while!

The rugby season is underway again. Due to having various other plans this month Ben has missed the first four matches for his team, but hopes to make most of the rest. As often as I can, I go along armed with the camera gear and get some pictures of the action. It's great fun, and the more you learn about the game the easier the photo-taking becomes, as you learn to predict what might happen next.

I shoot with the fabulous 70-200mm lens on the 40D as a rule, occasionally taking the 300mm along with the 20D body if I suspect my movement might be restricted a bit - that way if I can only shoot from a set position in the middle of the touchline, for example, I can still get some decent shots. Ideally though I follow the action up and down a fair bit, from one end to the other - it's easier if we're playing well enough that it doesn't move too far from the try-line though! I do wonder what the other teams think when the harlow lads turn up complete with "photographer"!

Yesterdays match involved a 150 mile round trip up to March in Cambridgeshire  - the furthest distance we will have to travel for a match this season thankfully. Sadly the days of being in a league with lots of really local opponents are over, and almost everywhere involves a bit of a drive - on the plus side though we do get to visit both Ely & Saffron Walden, both lovely places in their own right.

The result yesterday went firmly in our favour, with the boys walking away with a 54 - 6 win. the majority of our points were scored from trys and convertions too, rather than the boring spectacle you can end up with when the scoreline is mostly from penalties. The opposition learn pretty quickly that they didn't stand much of a chance against our lads in a scrum, although that knowledge didn't help them much as we ended up with plenty of scrums. This is where the Harlow guys teamwork and extensive summer training comes into its own as each member of the pack knows exactly what's expected of them and when to start driving it forwards. great to watch, and photograph!

Well done to the Saints - bring on Cambourne next saturday!


Friday 28 September 2012

Frugal Friday...

It doesn't need to cost a fortune to raise a smile. Even if you're being careful with your cash, there are lots of ways of making your life better, more cheerful, smilier, that are either free or low-budget, or that are a little more expensive but such good value that they are worth far more than their actual financial cost.

Each and every time we arrived home this summer is was hard to avoid breaking in to a grin - For just the price of a packet of seeds and a few reduced-price and (when we bought them) half dead plants, we have an absolute blaze of colour to greet us - look:

Fabulous eh? Not just pretty faces either - the nasturtiums have been going into salads, being used with boiled new potatoes, and undoubtedly will grace a burger or two before they are done as well. If you've not tried them before, then they are well worth it, adding a lovely peppery bite to a salad. Not only are the leaves and the flowers edible, but the seed pods make a great alternative to capers too. By the time we're done, we reckon that they will easily have paid for the cost of that packet of seeds!

Another useful thing to know is the places local to you who dramatically reduce the price of plants when they're starting to look a bit tired. Our local Homebase, for example, regularly knock-down the price of packs of 12 bedding plants to 40p on a Sunday. Take them home, give them a bit of TLC, and before you know where you are, they're repaying you in masses of blooms! Our total investment in plants for the two pots on the front balcony, and hanging baskets on the other side of the flat, was probably about £3. The pots have all come from Poundland and similar, and even our rather sweet wicker hanging basket was a 99p shop bargain! Sunday papers also do vouchers offering a free tray of bedding plants - the Telegraph has done this on a regular basis from spring right through to now - and as MrEH is a regular reader in any case he has been getting these. A good few years ago he took out a subscription which saves him around 33% on the cover price of the paper - if you read the same newspaper on a daily basis this is worth looking into. Of course this means to us, these sorts of voucher-offers are effectively free - so far this year we have had several sets of bedding plants, a rather lovely blue scarf, free cups of tea & coffee, and £10 worth of credit to use on train travel, among other things. A certain well known supermarket beginning with the letter after S in the alphabet have also regularly given us vouchers for extra clubcard points when we "buy" the paper from them - and of course those 40 extra points, when used on deals, become £1.60 worth of fun and frolics!

There are other easy & cheap ways of cheering up your life. Got any old part-tins of paint lying about? Why not repaint a room, or if there's not enough paint for that, create a feature wall? OR, if there's not enough paint for THAT, spruce up a bit of furniture? Ideally if painting a bathroom you should use "kitchen and bathrooms" paint, as it's more resistant to damp, and cleans more easily, but if you only have ordinary, well, it will still work OK, it'll just look a bit more tired, more quickly, so you'll have to change colour again! Old padded-seat dining chairs can be given a new lease of life by re-upholstering, and if you already have fabric lying about that will only cost you the price of the foam for the seat pads. Even just decluttering can help make your rooms feel lighter, more cheery, and nicer to live in - why not set yourself a challenge to declutter 5 items a day, for a week, and see how you go? Best of all, it won't cost you a penny!


Friday 21 September 2012

Frugal Friday...

You often hear it said that eating healthily can't be done on a budget, that it is cheaper to eat rubbish. Honestly, I have to say that I think this is mostly used as an excuse for people who want to eat crap, but feel the need to justify it to others. There are exceptions of course, Approved Food for example often sell utter junk food at rock-bottom prices - examples currently are 15 mixed muffins for £1.99, assorted tins of that nasty pale pink reformed ham for under £1, and packets of instant mashed potato, which everyone used to eat in the 1970's but no-one who actually enjoys their food does now - largely because it tastes awful! Oh, and a whole case of the Japanese equivalent of Pot Noodles for £2.79 - it could be a tenth of that cost and I still wouldn't want to eat it on a regular basis!

For most of us now the big supermarkets are a way of life - indeed where I live sadly there are precious few independant shops left. We have a few local butchers, but the majority have got lazy and cut corners in order to compete - not entirely their fault, I agree, but I still want to have some idea of where my meat comes from, and a blank look and "errrr...." doesn't quite cut the mustard when the question was "where does this come from please?" If they can't answer a simple question like that, then I'm afraid they don't get my business.

Breakfast Muffins : 90ml Sunflower  Oil
For the most part, buying local, seasonal fresh produce is the best way of eating frugally, and as an added bonus you get to feel better about the way you're living your life too. A campsite we use regularly during the summer months sells their own potatoes - the vegetable equivalent of "rare breed" at 5kg for £3, and the "value" potatoes in the supermarkets usually come from the local area and can be got for about 99p for a 2.5kg bag. Not exactly a bank breaker, that! That same campsite sells eggs - £1.20 for half a dozen from their own free-range flock. This is about the going rate for most farm-gate egg sales. Sure, they cost a little more than the el-cheapo battery eggs in the supermarket - but they taste so much better and can be eaten without a side-dose of jangling conscience. We have a superb local bakers (I've blogged about them before - Mayfield Farm)  who bake artisan bread, cakes etc. Their prices aren't the cheapest, no, but this is  a handmade, premium product. Every now and again, at a weekend, I make a loaf of their bread a basis for meals and that way it can be justified - often that works well - build the meal around a single, more premium ingredient and make every last scrap of it work for you. The same applies to free range chickens - a bit higher in price than the poor, sad, force fed creatures the Supermarkets sell at a bargain price, but the flavour makes that extra spend every bit worth it. Plus, guess what, because of that extra flavour, you can eat less at a sitting, meaning that the bird goes further! For us, a chicken usually makes a Sunday lunch, a second main meal, then the meat stripped off makes another 3 or 4 double-portions of curry for freezing, and finally the carcass will make stock.
Dry ingredients ready for mixing
Remember those "Bargain" muffins earlier on? At the price they are currently available for, they will work out to 13p each. For that 13p you will get a product containing all manner of ingredients that you have possibly never heard of, baked goodness known when, and still edible due to the assorted chemical additive included in the mix. Yum! Just the sort of thing you want to be eating with your afternoon coffee, or starting the day on for breakfast? No, perhaps not. The thing is, muffins are easy to make from scratch - a piece of cake, in fact, and, better than that, they're cheap, too!  I make them regularly as Ben does start his day with one - all joking aside they make a great portable breakfast and work out far cheaper than buying cereal bars or similar:

Breakfast Muffins:
100g porridge oats
180g flour
1tbsp Baking Powder
pinch of salt
115g caster sugar 
Half a bag of chopped dried apricots (Mine were bought from B&M bargains for 39p a bag)
250 ml milk 
6 tbsp sunflower oil
2 x FR eggs 

You want simple? Here goes - throw all the dry ingredients into a bowl and mix well being sure to get rid of any lumps of flour or sugar. throw all the wet ingredients into a job and beat together. Add wet to dry and fold together working swiftly but thoroughly. Spoon into ten muffin cases and bake in the oven at around gas mark 5 - 6 for about 20 minutes or until they're cooked, basically. I reckon that including cooking cost they work out at around 12p each, and you know exactly what has gone into them. Those we mentioned earlier don't seem like such a bargain now, eh?! (I added flaked almonds to mine but haven't included them in the costing as they were a spur of the moment extra.)

Yes, they tasted good, too!
Come on then - what's your favourite trick to eating frugally but well? Do you agree that we owe it to ourselves to eat mindfully and with a sense of conscience about where that food has come from, or do you think that so long as it's cheap, that's all that counts?


Monday 17 September 2012

A new tent, fun, frolics & FOOD!

So last weekend we headed off to Ludlow for the annual Food Festival. A fabulous weekend of yumminess, is how it can best be described. Ludlow if often described as the Food capital of Britain, and it's a well deserved title as a wander around the town reveals heaps of independant butchers, bakers and small grocers as well as more specialist delis and the like. Oh, and not a McDonalds to be seen - hurrah!

First stop was the campsite - one of our favourites, and the place we've stayed on each of our visits. This time though we had a new tent to play with...

 ...thankfully being a larger version of our old one, pitching it was no problem and we were soon up and running, and ready for a trip into town to see what was going on, and collect food for our evening meal. So far as possible we try to buy food locally when we're away - it's incredibly damaging to the local area when people turn up for a weekend having brought a car full of food from their local M&S or Waitrose. Better by far to explore the local shops and put something back into the area.

Looking down onto Ludlow and its castle.
Parking in Ludlow itself is at a bit of a premium, so we've developed the habit of parking at the opposite side of the valley and walking down the hill and back up the other side - it all helps to work off some of the calories from a food-filled weekend, anyway!

A browse around the town netted some local sausages, some lovely fresh seasonal veg, and a loaf of lovely bread, which pretty much set us up for a sausage stew for tea, and toast for breakfast! The campsite is on a working farm, and they keep hens, so fresh eggs are always for sale,and when I saw "fresh" - I mean quite often they have to actually go and gather them for you!

After dinner, with no internet connection or TV to sit mindlessly in front of, we simply sat, and chatted, and read, and watched it get dark.....bliss!

The following morning dawned bright and cheerful - what a fabulous sky!

Look carefully though and you can see the heavy blanket of mist down in the valley...sure enough when we got to town the view from yesterday proved somewhat different...

There is a castle there somewhere...! there was a little while to go before the gates of the festival opened we went and had an extremely lovely cup of tea in a very posh Tea room...

 Very generous was that teapot, and its accompanying pot of hot water! 
 As everyone knows, with tea should come cake, and just look at this beautiful array we found on one of the stalls....
Much scrumminess!
 ...Yes, of course we did - one of those delicious looking meringues from the far end!

So there you have it - a lovely weekend, with glorious weather, in a fantastic environment, and one or two friends along the way. (This is the beauty of these sorts of events - our involvement with CAMRA means that very often, and with no pre-planning, we stumble across people we know!)

We'll be back next year!


Friday 14 September 2012

Frugal Friday...

Some honest to goodness frugal cooking has been happening this week.  It all started with a marrow. Quite a large one, which Morrisons were selling for £1, and I bought. I like marrow, I especially like it baked, and stuffed, or baked, with a sauce over it. the intention was that it would slot nicely into last weeks meal plan on Wednesday evening - there it was, in black & white "Stuffed marrow & couscous" (We have quite a lot of couscous, thanks to some very cheap Approved Food prices and a slightly overenthusiastic order earlier in the year). Only I had forgotten that we were out on wednesday evening - to be exact we were out at the Olympic Stadium, enjoying some some paralympic Athletics, and very good it was too! however, it left the marrow feeling neglected in the fridge. Poor marrow. Altogether now, ahhhh!

On Tuesday I remembered it again, and reinstalled it onto the meal plan for this week, for that very night, as "Baked marrow with bolognese sauce" which sounded delicious, but meant that I would need to actually cook some sauce to go with it, as previous supplies has been exhausted. A quick freezer-raid revealed a small (250g) pack of mince, and everything else I needed was in either the larder or the storecupboard.

I started off by frying four smallish onions and about three cloves of garlic gently until they were softened and had started to brown. The mince got thrown in to cook through, along with a green pepper from the depths of the fridge (the beauty of this sort of cooking is that it enables you to use up all these odds and ends of fridgey vegetation) and half a pack of "basics" mushrooms. The whole lot was then fried until everything was softened and cooked through. A third of a bag of frozen mixed peppers was added, along with a large handful of porridge oats (these not only bulk out the sauce and make the relatively small amount of meat go a lot, lot further, but also help to thicken and add a lovely creaminess. Oatmeal will do the same job) and a beef "Stockpot" stock concentrate (much nicer than those cubes, although slightly more expensive, but with less hidden salt and nasty chemicals, so well worth the money in my view).

The liquid was provided by a huge catering sized tin of chopped tomatoes...

...bought for the bargain price of £1.50 from Approved Foods a while ago. Once that had come to temperature, I added a good shake of dried basil (if you have fresh, use it, but stir it in at the very last minute in the cooking process) and a couple of heaped teaspoons of mild smoked paprika - which adds a subtle background warmth. I also seasoned with salt & pepper at this point.  An hour of simmering produced a lovely thick silky sauce with masses of flavour, and on ladling out into plastic pots we proved to have enough for 6 meals for the two of us. Full ingredients and estimated costs are below:

Frugal Bolognese:
250g British beef mince - £1.40
2.2kg tin toms - £1.50
Third bag frozen peppers - 40p
1 x fresh green pepper - 25p
Half pack value mushrooms - 40p
Beef "Stockpot" - 25p
Large handful porridge oats
Garlic - as much as you like
Dried Basil (fresh at the last minute if you have it)
Seasoning - salt, pepper, smoked paprika

Call it £4.50 all in inc cooking costs for the whole batch - it has made six meals for 2 people, so 37.5p per portion. Frugal food indeed, and all without any nasty "fake" foods, or cutting corners on taste!


Friday 7 September 2012

Frugal Friday...

We hear a lot about what "Being Frugal" means to various people on the internet - via website, blogs etc. My reading list contains a good number of blogs on the subject - some very similar to mine, where there is a mix of general stuff, photos and frugality, and some where the frugality is the sole reason for the blog. In their own way, most are a good read (although some are just downright hilarious - the "Car Crash TV" of the internet, if you will!). Then there are sites like MoneySavingExpert, and it's associated forums, where many of us started out, which will help to refine your finances down to the N'th degree, and blogs, like the marvellous "Down To Earth" where Rhonda gently plants the seeds of frugality and Simple Living without ever preaching, getting on a soapbox, or surreptitiously ripping off other peoples ideas and claiming them as her own. "Living a Slow & Simple Life" is another in the same vein, just a good, entertaining read, that every now and again makes you think "Oh yes! what a good idea!"

The simple things in life...
So it's easy to find out what various people consider to be "being frugal" - but how about what it doesn't - or shouldn't, in any case - mean? To me, being frugal with money is very different being "tight" with it. Miserly behaviour dressed up as being frugal makes me cringe. We give to charity - regularly by way of memberships (National Trust, RSPB) routinely in passing (RNLI boxes always get a contribution from us, and we shop regularly at charity shops) and occasionally on the spur of the moment (collections at speedway, for example, for injured riders, the St John Ambulance or Speedway Riders' Benevolent Fund). What I won't do though, is be "guilted" into donating, so the tin-thrusting OAP outside the supermarket, imploring me to "give to the poor little kiddies cancer fund" won't be getting a bean I'm afraid. I've done charity collections myself (for the Guide Dogs For the Blind Association) and I know for a fact that all the reputable charities ask that their collectors do NOT approach people directly to give - they know full well that it's counter-productive. By the same token the person collecting around the pub, or coming into an office I'm working in will be leaving empty-handed so far as I'm concerned. I DO donate, but I choose where to, and when.

We eat good quality food - although I shop on a strict budget, on a week to week basis almost everything I spend (in the region of £20, usually) is spent on milk, and fresh fruit and veg. Fruit and veg varies with what is seasonal, and good quality, and as much as possible is British grown. Eggs are free range, meat is British - I simply will not buy imported meat just because it is cheaper, while knowing full well that the animals that have provided it have suffered unnecessarily. My conscience won't allow it, and by shopping around carefully you can get better quality for relatively little more cost in any case. I care about what we eat, and refuse to eat crap, or "engineered" foodstuffs, just because they are cheap. If I want to bulk out meat in a stew, or mince in a bolognese, a handful of porridge oats or oatmeal does perfectly well thank you, I'll pass on artificially grown forms of protein! I want to pay off the mortgage, but not at the expense of seeing British Farmers lose their livelihoods and us all be beholden to Europe for all our food, or not knowing what the foods I put into my body might do to it in the longer term.

Buy British! (Or grow your own!)
Heating is another subject often raised on Frugal types of blogs - and oh so often this creates the image of the "frugalista" (or frugalisto, there are a few out there!) hunched over a tiny heater in the one room they "allow" themselves to heat, or worse, bundled in 17 layers and tucked up in bed at 7am because they are insistent that they "can't possibly put the heating on!" Our heating definitely goes on when it's cold - it's better for us, better for the flat, and means that we don't spend all night with the cat wrapped round our heads! Yes it costs (more for us than for the vast majority of those whinging that they "can't afford" to put their central heating on - we have storage heaters which cost a small fortune to run!), and we have it set at a level which just takes the chill off, not one that means we are running around the place in January in vests and shorts! Modern housing (by which I mean anything built within the last 100 years or so) simply isn't designed to be left unheated, and will get damp pretty fast. Once damp gets hold, it brings with it all sorts of health problems, and is incredibly difficult to eradicate once it's set in, and will cause you problems down the line with selling the property should you wish to do so. We monitor the weather forecasts for a few days ahead, and set the heaters up accordingly, if we're away for a few days they get turned right down, and if we're in, and cold to the point that wearing a thick fleece and snuggling a throw round our feet doesn't fix, we have auxiliary heating which can be used for short periods - a low-cost oil filled radiator which gets used in the bathroom and bedroom, an electric "Bar heater" in the front room (old fashioned but effective!) and a small convector heater ideal for foot-warming in the spare-room-come-office!

I refuse to be cold for anyone!
As a result of all the profligate spending above (Yes, you can laugh, but there are plenty out there who would considering it to be exactly that!) it might take us a little while longer to pay off that mortgage, but as and when we have we will have done it without having years of misery to look back on, or (hopefully) medical complaints as a result of eating food which is cheap for a reason! Saving is great, but we refuse point-blank to sacrifice a decent standard of living for it.

That pretty much sums it up for me - frugal should mean "careful" - not tight, or miserly, certainly not eating crap to save a few pennies, and definitely not sitting freezing to death! Watch where the pennies go, and pay off debt wherever you possibly can, but not "at all costs" - your health and wellbeing, both physical and mental, are far more important than that! What does Frugal NOT mean, to you?


Thursday 6 September 2012


That word got said a lot yesterday. Also Amazing, Incredible, Fantastic. Inspiring too, although that was mostly later. Yesterday we had tickets for the Paralympic Athletics at the Olympic Stadium. In the interests of making the most of it, I arranged my work so that I could go and spend the afternoon wandering around the park as well.

Walking out of Stratford tube station in the sunshine, the atmosphere hit me right away - there was a sort of a buzz in the air - and the closer we walked to the park itself the stronger that became. The volunteers are all along the walking route from Station to Park, some on the ground, some perched up in sort of "umpires chair" type affairs, but all smiling, happy, cheerful, reassuring us that it was "not much further" and "Worth the walk!". You go through a line of volunteers who are checking tickets - that is, checking that people have GOT tickets, gently turning away anyone who was hoping to buy one at the venue (there are no tickets for sale at the Park itself) then you reach the screening area - rather like airport security you empty your pockets into the plastic tray, put your bag in, and walk through the xray hoop.....if you're lucky, like me, it stays silent, others were getting a thorough rub-down from a male or female member of the armed forces though. Only after you have passed all the screening do you finally reach the person who "blips" your ticket barcode with their scanner thing, and you're in!

Most people seem to be drawn in the direction of the "Orbit" first off - and that's not surprising, there is a certain fascination about it. I kept finding myself drawn back to it, and have countless photos of it from various different angles. It's beautifully lit up at night too, with a sort of pulsing red light that makes it glow. Quite mesmerising.

The wildflower meadows must have been stunning when they were at their best for the opening of the Olympics - even now, when the bulk of the flowers are a little way over, it's an attention grabbing mix of colours from blues through yellow, deep orange and even black. In places there are walkways through the flowers, and in others, low benches so you can sit and just admire.

Having watched the park evolving from derelict ex-industrial wasteland into its current form over the past 7 years, there are certain buildings that you feel a bit of an affinity with - the stadium is obvious as it's such a clear landmark on the skyline from across east London, but to me the Velodrome is the one I was really curious to see close up. The velodrome is one of the buildings that is designed to be permanent - as it was growing it looked quite strange - a sort of wibbly flying saucer atop an angular, oval shaped building. Then as the timber cladding started appearing on the outside, suddenly it began to make sense. The lines started flowing, the angles were gone, and there it sat, alongside the main A12 Blackwall tunnel approach road, looking absolutely beautiful. Apparently the design means it is also an energy efficient building too - something to do with it maximising interior space in order to minimise the amount of air needing heating or cooling. walking through to there took quite a while as there were so many distractions - from a 5 piece band to a troop of morris dancers. (They were rather fab & cheery actually, I could have watched them for quite some time!)

The Park itself is cleverly laid out. Although a large site, there are so many things to look at as you wander about that nowhere actually feels that far from anywhere else. There are also seats absolutely everywhere, and for those who are unable to walk far at all there are comfy looking little 8-seater trucks chuntering about the place. Every now and again you hear a cartoonish "beep! beep!" from behind and you step out of the way to allow one past. For those with some time to kill, "Park Live" with its double-sided big screen, is the place to go, with a mix of flat grassy areas and giant wooden "steps" to sit on, there is plenty of space even on a glorious day like yesterday - it was a great place to sit and watch the "Quad Doubles" tennis taking place.

One thing you can't get away from as you walk around the Park is the close links with water. You are almost always within view of some form of water as the river & waterways wind their way around. The necessity of the bridges required as a result of this has been turned into a virtue by the addition of various waterfalls, from the obvious:

To the extremely clever and rather well hidden:

Great eh?! Thanks to Hayley & Bonita for telling me about that one - well, for announcing "You HAVE to see THIS!" and dragging me there, actually. No complaints though!

One of the challenges the designers faced when working on construction of the stadium was how it would be possible to fit it into the space available - it needed to be able to seat 80k people, but the ground space did not at first appear large enough. This has been got round by means of a "compact" stadium - the amount of seats are achieved on a small floor-plan by means of rising higher into the air - the steepness of this means that everywhere in the stadium has a superb view. (So far as we could see there were NO restricted views at all). Access to the stadium itself comes via four main Bridges as yet again it is almost entirely bounded by waterways.

As usual, Ben & I were determined to extract maximum value from the smallest amount of money. Tickets were £20 each - this was the bottom-priced ticket band but as mentioned above, the views were fantastic, we were actually a lot further from the very top than we expected to be!

We took our own food - sandwiches and snacks - and an empty water bottle which we could refill free inside the park. Had we needed to buy, we noted that food costs were high, but perhaps not as high as they could have been (fish & chips, as an example, was £8.50, ice creams were £2.50). Due to the policy of only selling foreign lager rather than proper British beer, we weren't tempted by a drink. As a result of this there was no problem with using the car as we normally would and parking near my clients office. This meant travel was limited to the cost of a short journey on the tube using Oyster I had downloaded the free App on my iPhone which saved us paying £5 for the "daily guide" whilst still meaning we knew what was going on. The only money we spent inside the park was £10 for the Official Paralympic Programme - which came with a free Olympic Programme as well, and which we felt was a good souvenir of a once in a lifetime and thoroughly memorable day out.