Friday 30 November 2012

Frugal Friday...

I've mentioned before I think, that a few years ago circumstances meant that with little warning I found myself taking the plunge into becoming self employed, and our household income fell by a third, overnight. Thankfully, three years before that we had (with the aid of a good friend) found Martin Lewis' fantastically helpful  site, and it's excellent and informative forums, had overhauled our finances and started overpaying our mortgage, but most important of all, we had adjusted our mindset. This was what made the drop in income easier to bear in some ways. As things stood, we were paying around an extra £300 per month to the mortgage, and stashing a good sum into savings too - once those were taken into account, the drop in income didn't actually need to affect our day to day standard of living to a great extent, particularly as along with the drop in income, there were also some drops in expenditure - notably me no longer doing around 1000 miles each month commuting to and from my old workplace.

As commutes go, this one would be OK...
For anyone in debt and struggling to get out of it, looking to bring your household expenditure down to a level which more closely matches your income, or simply looking to improve your monthly cashflow, save some pennies, and learn about budgeting,  I couldn't urge you more strongly to visit MSE if you haven't already. There you will find everything from hints and tips for minimising fuel use in your car, to suggestions as to how you might live more cheaply, to advice on how to find the best price for home, pet or car insurance. If your concern is debt-related, then the Debt Free Wannabe board on the forum is your first port of call, this is just a massive fund of really REALLY good advice, from people who understand your situation. I pop in there occasionally even now - it does no harm to remind yourself from time to time just what true hardship is - there are people posting there in utter desperation, having been in many cases left knee-deep in debt through no fault of their own, but as a result of a partner leaving them unexpectedly, or even, in some cases, through bereavement. Some of the tales are truly heartbreaking - I've been left in tears on many occasions and your heart just goes out to these folk. All though, have finally found a place where not only will they be listened to, but where also they can get excellent advice on what to do - and in some cases more importantly what NOT to do - next.

We truly are fortunate. Yes, our combined income is still some way below where it would have been before, but we are still able to make that - for us - all important overpayment to the mortgage each month. It's not massive, it's true, but it's sufficient that if we continue at the level we are, we shall hope to have the mortgage cleared by this time in 2018 - having paid it off in 15 years rather than the scheduled 25. Saving these days is tricky - there is little spare at the end of each month, but what there is gets stashed away into savings, and we make a point of setting money aside each month towards Christmas, car repairs, and the all important Hebrides trips. We refuse to compromise on the food we eat - I've said before, we will not put processed crap into our bodies simply to save money. Nor will we eat foods that we know have been produced more cheaply by economising on the quality of life of the animal they originate from - so this means no battery eggs or EU pork. We have all we need, and a good many luxuries besides. We don't say we "can't afford" things - as mostly, we could, if we wanted to, but we choose to spend our money elsewhere.

"But I'm HUNGRY! Really I am!"

We are well above the poverty or "survival" line - if you are in doubt about how much survival would cost you, then write down all your absolutely necessary expenditure - the things you HAVE to pay - rent/mortgage, council tax/service charge if you pay it, water, electric, gas. If you have central heating then reduce the figure you currently spend on heating by half and go and put a jumper on. (We spend a combined total of £45 per month currently on gas & electric - and bear in mind our heating is electric too - this costs more to run for the same amount of heat than gas central heating. I refuse to allow the house to get so cold that damp starts forming - this is no good for either the fabric of the building or your own health)  Food - we spend £150 per month tops on food for us and HRH The Cat, and cleaning materials - if needed this could easily be reduced to £100. Travel to work needs to be included, as do basic toiletries - and by basic, you can buy a basic set of deodorant, toothpaste, shampoo and shower gel for under £2 from the supermarket value ranges. Insurances too - failing to be insured correctly is a false economy. Finally if you *need* to run a car (in our case our work commute is far, far cheaper by car than it would be by public transport - in fact, we run two cars for a fraction of the cost that public transport for our commutes would cost - we always joke that in effect MrEH's car is "free"!) then the cost of tax, insurance and a basic maintenance/depreciation budget.  Add the lot together - that figure is your survival budget. You can leave out telephone (a cheap PAYG mobile used for essential calls only would be far cheaper than line rental on a landline), TV (the license alone is £12 per month, before you think about the cost of cable or satellite), internet, any travel beyond that which HAS to be done, makeup, new clothes (Charity shops are excellent these days). All these things are nice to have,  and even the most hardened voluntary frugalista is unlikely to actually give up all of them, but none of them are actually essential.
Categorically NOT a luxury!
Next time you find yourself saying "We can't afford...." or "we can get by, but only just, it's a struggle" stop and think - are things REALLY that tough? When you actually have money, but are choosing not to spend it on "stuff", then frugality is little more than a game, essentially. It may be a means to an end, enabling you to save money on mortgage interest, save for things you want, or simply in order to live more simply, but be careful to make sure that you keep realistic and are prepared to acknowledge that, in fact, poverty and real hardship is a long way off. Apart from anything else, failing to do this is nothing short of a downright insult to those for whom life genuinely IS a financial struggle!


Thursday 29 November 2012

Farne Islands...part 2.

As I mentioned previously, well, some months ago when I wrote the first of these two posts, the seals were only part of the wildlife we saw on the Farne Islands trip recently. The Farnes are also home to a vast number of seabirds, from Guillemots and Razorbills, via Terns & Kittiwakes, through to the adorable but extremely strange looking Puffins of course...

Although they are National Trust Islands, the regular boat trips only really run out there during the breeding season - May, June & July, allowing people to visit, and photograph these amazing birds when the largest numbers of them are present on the islands. The majority of the Puffins are resident on Staple Island (the one we visited previously back in 2008 - see the album on the main site for photos from this) while Inner Farne (where we landed this time) is the main place for the Terns. Indeed, on coming ashore from the boat one of the first things we realised was that you REALLY need to watch your step - the things are everywhere!

There were Terns on the walkways, fences, gateposts.....wherever there was something to perch on, there was a Tern. Some of them were rather young and helpless looking, too - this one for example cried steadily for food all the time we watched - periodically Mum or Dad would arrive, ram something into the waiting beak, and then fly away again, at which point the cries resumed!

There were a good number of Puffins about, but nothing like as many as we saw on Staple Island on our last trip. Those that there were seemed content enough to pose for photos though thankfully...

Mostly though this trip was about the Terns - it's only when you see them close up that you realise how stunningly beautiful they are...

Fabulous colouring, and that amazing almost transluscent wing structure. They're feisty little devils though - in the main breeding season you are advised to wear a cap and old clothing as they have a habit of dive-bombing and pooing on people...thankfully by the time we got there they had remembered their manners and mostly behaved, except for one which took a dislike to MrEH and went after him. No photos I'm afraid - I was laughing too much. 

We certainly want to make further trips to the Farnes, and hope one day to manage to do both Islands, although as things stand we well and truly got our moneys worth from this trip, getting much MUCH longer than you usually do on the Island itself, and a fabulous cruise round in stunning weather, too. 


Tuesday 27 November 2012

Hebrides 2012

Do you know, it occurred to me the other day that I have LOTS of Hebrides photos from this year's trip that you've not yet seen, so I thought I'd do a sort of skip through the trip - with lots of pics and minimal text, so you can look at all the pretty stuff without me waffling on.....

It all started here..... well, no, it all started at home actually, and then RAF Scampton to watch a Red Arrows Practise session, and then a long drive north.....but in terms of actually heading across to the islands it started here - Mallaig...

I took that shot shortly after removing my shoes and socks and swapping to sandals as it was BLOODY hot. Seriously - short sleeves, cropped trousers and very definitely sandals hot. The feet stayed bare and the trousers cropped for the next several days in we wandered on beaches and admired some rather snazzy sun patterns in the sea....

One of the real plus points of being up later in the year was the sheer amount of flowers making an appearance...

...and the lack of internet signals across the Islands (the new lodgings don't have broadband) was but a minor inconvenience when you took into account that one of the places that DOES have a signal also has this view to look out while you're waiting for blog posts to upload...

There were masses of birds to be seen, including for the first time, one of these...

About time too!  We've spent years wanting to see one of those in the wild! (pssst! It's a Corncrake!)  

As usual we managed to fit in visits to some of the other Islands while we were across - as well as our base North Uist we spent time on Baleshare, South Uist, Benbecula, Grimsay, Berneray, Barra, Vatersay, Harris & fact we made it to the very top of Lewis - the Butt as it's known, complete with rather impressive looking lighthouse...

So thats "Below, looking up" dealt with - let's switch to an "Above, Looking down" - a shot from the top of Burrival (You remember, the little humpy hill next to Eaval) in fact...

Now as you know I don't do climbing hills just for the sake of it, for a view like that though I will quite happily tackle a bit of a steep scramble. Fabulous isn't it!  Also fabulous were these fantastic waterlilies we spotted on Grimsay - "Stop!" yelled Ben "You HAVE to go back at look at that Loch - it's full of waterlilies!" and so it was...

And then, before we knew it, it was time to start thinking about heading home. One last walk in the sunshine that had been with us almost all the way through our trip...

Then as dawn broke the following morning it was time to go to the ferry - with the hills still shrouded in mist just across from us...

...and then all too soon we were off across the water back to Skye to start the long drive home, with the hills of Uist rapidly vanishing on the horizon.


Sunday 25 November 2012

Whipps Cross....

This rather impressive looking building is Whipps Cross hospital in Leytonstone, East London. It was our local hospital when I was growing up, and as a child who enjoyed things like gymnastics, and horse-riding, I did spend a fair amount of time feeling bored in the A&E department there. I've always loved the architecture of the building and it featured in several projects I did at school, including taking centre stage in one section of my "History of medicine" project and being drawn for an art & design module.

Construction started in 1900 and was completed in 1903 - initially  it was a Work House Infirmary, however the name Whipps Cross Hospital was used from 1917 after it had been used to treat injured WW1 soldiers.  David Beckham, Jonathon Ross, and Graham Gooch were all born there, as was renowned photographer David Bailey. I remember being told some years ago that Whipps was the first hospital in the South East to be built to the pattern recommended by Florence Nightingale, and certainly the design of the part pictured above would fit with this theory - the wards are large, open plan, with large windows to let in lots of natural light and air. I've been unable to find anything to back up this suggestion though so shall have to leave it as simply a possibility.

The first time I can remember being at Whipps was when, aged about 6, I tripped and headbutted a doorpost in the passageway of our house in Walthamstow. A trip to A&E with my longsuffering Dad followed - we waited AGES to be seen and the eventual verdict of concussion was no surprise to anyone. I was more upset about having to miss the last day of term at school than about the bash on the head though, and it never stopped me running up the passageway either! Visits for various other reasons followed through the year - at least one more with concussion I think, and a quite thoroughly broken elbow when I was 13 (Too swollen to put in plaster much to my annoyance - I did have fun getting other people to write rude things on my sling though!). My final visit there on my own account would have been a mysteriously sprained ankle when I was about 20 - I went to bed and it was fine, by the following morning I was unable to put it to the ground and spent a week on crutches.

Injuries and illnesses weren't the reason I spent the most time at the hospital though - from aged 14 I spent most of my school holiday time doing "duty hours" there as a St John Ambulance cadet. Based in the Connaught Day Hospital, a day centre for elderly and disabled people, doing everything from just sitting chatting to people, to helping them with their meals, answering the telephone and running errands around the hospital, it was all great fun and I got to know almost all of that wonderful old building (and in chilly weather got to borrow one of those fabulous warm swishy nurses cloaks like they used to wear in "Angels"!) I learnt all sorts of things, not least that much as I enjoyed it, I didn't want to take up nursing for a career, and that most ambulancemen have a filthy and irreverant sense of humour. I also learnt the entertainment value that the A&E staff found in dispatching a new student nurse off for a "neck tourniquet for the head injury patient" (think about that one) - we used to get at least one of those every time there was a new rotation of students down there!


Friday 23 November 2012

Frugal Friday...

Check, Check, and Check again...

How often do you check your receipt after you've visited the shops? We all know we're supposed to, but judging by the quick surveillance operation I carried out at Tesco on Friday, very few folk do. I'm guessing that even those who check their supermarket receipts on a regular basis tend to do it less often in other sorts of shops (My quick check of my Boots receipt on my big stock up recent revealed one item (which I had three of) mis-charged, and another which was meant to be being cancelled through the till, not credited, but not in my bag either!  Tesco receipts regularly reveal goods that are over-charged (oddly enough, less so ones that have been charged below what I was expecting!) and as they will refund you "double the difference" of anything you have been wrongly charged for, a quick scan over the receipt can sometimes prove lucrative! Other supermarkets also offer price guarantees which can pay more than just a straight refund if you are incorrectly charged on your shop.

View from Burrival, North Uist
How about bank statements? I have blogged before about how we got caught out some years ago by being charged someone elses water rates for a while - a significant sum which, as we'd not checked the statement regularly, we had simply failed to notice the going of. At that time I used to check quarterly, but it was only when I broke that pattern for some reason that I noticed the unexpected debit from the account, and investigated...why? Because the payment out was also quarterly, but didn't happen within the same statement-month that I was routinely checking, so each time it happened, my check missed it. Either a monthly check or at the least an irregular one would have caught this much sooner. Credit card bills get scrutinised every month - and always have. We use a single account with one of us as a second card holder (NOT a joint account - these do not exist in the world of Credit cards) so as all our spending goes to the card to maximise the cashback earned, it's necessary to check through to allocate who needs to pay what.

Sunset - Locheport, North Uist
Gas, electric and water meters - left neglected, these can result in either you being a long way into credit and paying more than you need each month, or worse, getting caught out paying insufficient to cover your use and owing your supplier a large sum, which they MAY demand back in one go! A lot of energy providers will also offer an incentive for you keeping them up to date with your readings too, either by way of a reduction on your bill or by giving you loyalty points for one or other of the schemes out there. On that same subject, it's worth checking out whether your supplier are part of one of these schemes - British Gas for example have a tie-in with Nectar and I believe EoN are partnering with Tesco Clubcard. Cook your food and be rewarded with points to help pay for it, while being accurately charged only for what you have used - that's a win/win situation surely! Of course it also goes without saying that it's well worth checking whether your current tariff is the best you could be on!

Beach - Balranald, North Uist
On the subject of those annoying plastic cards that end up filling your purse - do any of those have points balances on them you've forgotten about? How about those clubcard vouchers you have on the fridge - are any of those risking running out of date? If so strike quickly to either spend them in store, or better still exchange them via the current "Clubcard Voucher Exchange" for double their value. (This is one of the best of these they have done, with frozen food being included).  Better still use them on rewards for meals or days out that you would have paid for anyway - this multiplies their value so you can get - for example - a £20 Pizza Express voucher or £10 to spend on travel with Red Spotted Hanky or Megabus  in exchange for a £5 clubcard voucher.  You can check for any Clubcard Vouchers you had forgotten about or lost via Tesco's own website too. Nectar have a smartphone App these days which allows you to check your points balance, and of course Boots have their "Advantage Kiosks" which not only let you check balances but also dispense tempting money saving vouchers!

Stornoway - Isle of Lewis
Have you ever been taken by surprise when you've checked a receipt, statement or bill? Or worse, been caught out like we were by NOT checking one? What other things do you make a habit of checking to ensure that you're not missing out?


ps - yes, totally unrelated photos to subject matter. Nice though, aren't they!

Tuesday 20 November 2012

A little trip South...

A few weeks back I made use once again of one of those super-cheap train tickets to travel to Devon for the Dartmouth Food festival.  As you might remember we have family down there, and I went down at Mum-in-Law's urging last year for the festival and thoroughy enjoyed myself, so when she asked if I fancied going again this year I had no hesitation in saying yes!

Amazing tiled signs at Exeter St Davids Station.
Firstly a cheery train journey - they were giving away rather delicious yogurts at Waterloo Station when I got there so I grabbed one of those - there's no such thing as a free lunch, but it seems as though a free breakfast is perfectly doable! Then the train through lovely countryside - alongside the Thames for a bit, Wiltshire, a lovely view of Bath, then down through Dorset and finally into Devon. A change of trains at Exeter St David's - one of the most beautiful stations in the country - before heading onwards to Paington along THE most beautiful section of railway line in the country. I blogged about this trip last year and no matter how often I do it it never gets old! A brief stop in the pub in Paignton before going to get the bus, and finally the ferry across the river Dart from Kingswear - a journey best done on the open "float" of the "Lower" ferry (So named because it's lower down the river that the "Higher" ferry) so you can truly appreciate the scenery. Mum & Dad-in-Law meanwhile were on their way back to Devon from a holiday, so in fact I arrived at the house before they did - no matter though, simply meant I could settle myself in with a cuppa and a good book and ensure the kettle was hot for their arrival!

The Lower Ferry with Dartmouth in the background
The following morning dawned grey and drizzly - not ideal for a day when we planned to spend a fair amount of time outside wandering around! We headed down to town regardless though, there was a demonstration we wanted to see in any case, with James Tanner, and as by the time that was finished it was pouring down with rain, we moved to a slightly warmer area of the marquee and stayed for the next one, too! Some fabulous food being cooked - which we got to sample as well - and some really interesting and informative stuff being talked about. At the opposite end of the scale later in the day was the fantastic Hardeep Singh-Kohli who was truly hilarious and had us rolling about, but sadly all his food was chilli-heavy and neither MiL or I can tolerate much chilli. we'll forgive him though as his jokes were great!

Hardeep Singh Kohli
Saturday was much brighter day, but BITTERLY cold with it - scarves were the order of the day and I was wishing I'd taken a hat! The cold wind off the river made its presence felt all day although it was chased away rather at lunchtime by the wonderful street food on offer - Tartiflette for me and Butternut Squash soup fort MiL, both the perfect warming, seasonal antidote to the chilliness about. We were spoilt for choice on options for eating there and then - the range of fabulous and inventive street food out there now is just amazing - Bennetts by the Waterfront (the fish & chip shop which championed the mackerel bap for Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall's "Fish Fight") were there serving sustainably fished cod in ciabatta, fried whitebait, and of course those Mackerel delicacies, someone else was doing filled pancakes, and another stall offered freshly baked wood-oven pizzas. To wash it down there was a tent with a cocktail bar and also a bar from one of the local breweries, although I have to admit that due to the temperature when a drink was called for we were tending towards the cafe in the market square and a cup of tea instead!

This amazing display of infused oils was stunning in the sunshine!
The festival itself was excellent once again - although it does feel a little like some larger marquees are called for - particularly the one behind the market feels crowded and cramped and at times being able to move around it was practically impossible. The range and choice of different types of foodstuffs was superb - and limiting the numbers of each type of stand (Bakery, meat etc) means you don't end up with six places selling bread to make a sandwich but only one option for cheese to go with it! My "Product of the festival" vote can be evenly split between "Wonky Kitchen" fudge, and Sharpham Estate cheese - both utterly delicious and very reasonably priced for the quality of the product. Best demo was Mark Puckey from Padstow Seafood School (Yep, Rick Stein's gaff) and the Seafood restaurant, who with his apprentice Charlotte cooked up an absolute feast of shellfish of varying types - meaning I got to try razor-clams for the first time - and managed to admirably combine the actual cooking with what was effectively a teaching session too. MiL made her living cooking for cafes, pubs and hotels for all her working life and even she came out saying she'd learnt masses from him.

Gorgeous Olives!
Great few days, great to catch up with some of the family too, and a nice relaxing journey back on boat and train (the ferry up the river from Dartmouth to Totnes is a fantastic trip not to be missed - I jumped at the chance of taking that route!) and some tasty bread, cheese and cake to nibble on while I travelled!


Sunday 18 November 2012

Flying High...

Phew - what a weekend! Packed full of fun and entertainment, for surprisingly little dosh, which is always a winner!

First off yesterday - an early kick off for the boys down at the rugby club. Just a friendly match but hard-fought against local rivals Bishops Stortford, a team playing in a league of a substantially higher level than ours, who started the first half by banging in three tries in the first ten minutes. Not quite the start we'd planned. We blamed the early start as frankly it appeared that some of our boys were still asleep! Thankfully they woke up quite fast after that and it all started coming together, helped along by the opposition insisting on chatting-back at the ref, who didn't like it, so after warning them several times he helpfully sin-binned the worst offender for ten minutes. Good job that doesn't happen in football or the fans would be watching an empty pitch while all the players sat on the bench!

That's going to hurt....
End result was a narrow win by 6 points to our Harlow boys and our unbeaten run continues. We're under no illusion that we're likely to go through the season without losing any matches - nice as that would be - but it's doing wonder for morale at the moment. My morale wasn't so great after the match though as in the course of 80 minutes I'd seen my beloved Canon 40D stop working altogether and my 70-200mm lens playing up too. Thankfully I always carry a spare camera body in the bag in any case, so I was able to switch to that, and the lens problem, while annoying, wasn't insurmountable. The 40D will be heading off to canon shortly for what I hope won't be too high a repair cost. My good pro-photographer pal has always impressed on me the importance of having gear in reserve "just in case" and yesterday his point was proved, in spades. Thanks Steve!

I think the chappy in blue might appreciate some help.....
Anyhow, victory secured, it was off to the clubhouse to watch England fail to beat the Aussies - a good match but disappointing result, especially because for the first 20 minutes or so we looked by far the better team. Oh well, it could be worse, we could be Wales, who got beaten by Samoa the night before, or indeed Scotland, who get beaten by pretty much everyone......

On to today then - a lovely bright day, albeit quite crisp and cold - Autumn with a distinct nip of Winter! This afternoon we were expected in Balham for a friends birthday bash but as we were going into London anyway we decided to make the most of the train tickets by heading in early and taking a ride on the still quite new London Cablecar across the Thames. What a ludicrous idea this is - I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall in the planning meeting when the idea was first voiced...!

 It is truly bonkers, made all the madder by being reached on the North side by that other bonkers mode of London transport, the Docklands Light Railway - aka the best low budget theme park inside the M25.  The ultimate prize when riding the DLR is to get one of the coveted front or back seats - allowing an uninterrupted view along the track and some rather alarming sensations when cornering. It's not just kids desperate to sit in these either - when we alighted today our seat was instantly grabbed by two adults with not a tot in sight!

Excel Centre & Royal Docks
 Initially I think a lot of people expected the cablecar to be horrendously expensive - the sort of thing that your average family could go and look at, and maybe travel on once as a treat, but nothing more. In fact nothing could be further from the truth - our fare across today, using a Pay As You Go Oyster Card, cost just £3.20 each. A family of four, Mum, Dad and two kids can cross for under £10 - less if the littlies are under 5 as they then travel free. The views are comparable - if not better than - those from the London Eye, although of course the crossing takes only 5 minutes as against the 30 minutes the Eye takes to do a full revolution.

Air Line Southbound looking back towards the Royal Docks

We crossed from North to South - Royal Victoria Dock to North Greenwich, meaning the Millennium Dome was just down to my right, and the Thames Flood barrier to my left. Although the cabins can accomodate up to ten people I should imagine that would be a bit of a squeeze - they were putting a maximum of eight in today. We were lucky, being the first to board our cabin and then being joined by a family of Mum, dad and thee small children, all of whom were wildly excited at the idea of crossing so high above the river, and by half way across were asking if they could do it again!

The Dome & the City of London beyond
Having come back to earth - literally - it was time to head further south to join friend B in celebrating her 50th birthday - the venue was a lovely little Moroccan restaurant just a short distance from her flat, our party had a whole section of the restaurant and B had brought in masses of wine and beer (the restaurant is not licensed, but allows you to bring in your own bottles at no charge) and had arranged food for everyone too - we had assumed it was going to be a meal with everyone splitting the cost at the end, but B very kindly picked up the tab for the whole thing which was a lovely surprise. The food was stunning - mixed starters with traditional breads, dips, houmous and little filo parcels filled with meat or vegetables, followed by a main course of the restaurant's signature Tagines - I had lamb and it was positively falling off the bone and cooked to perfection. I was utterly stuffed at the end, but in a good way! The place itself had a marvellous atmosphere, with stacks of character and some of the most amazing lampshades you can imagine - blown or twisted glass in all manner of shapes and colours - I did try take some photos but they're not good enough to use, annoyingly - you will just have to imagine! There was much chat with old friends, and some new acquaintances too, and most importantly B had a great time too!

All in all a great weekend - although I think we'll both benefit from getting back to our respective workplaces for a rest tomorrow!


Friday 16 November 2012

Frugal Friday...

I was determinedly trying to hold off posting anything in relation to Christmas for a bit longer, but looking around the other blogs I read, I can see that I'm on a losing track there!  Everywhere I look on my reading list at the moment there are tales of recipes, moneysaving home-made gifts, and in some cases a marked determination not to spend a penny on anything related to the festive season!  FrugalMummy over at My Beautiful Life has written an excellent series of posts on planning for the festivities, and there are many others out there writing in the same vein too.

For us, Christmas could more aptly be named "Mid-Winter-Mas" - as we are not religious in any way, so for us, the season is about getting together with friends and family to celebrate, well, being with friends and family, as much as anything else! Before anyone starts huffily suggesting that in that case, we shouldn't be celebrating at all, pipe down  at the back, there has been a celebration around December 25th since long before the Christians cottoned onto the idea of joining the party, and in fact research has shown that it seems highly unlikely that Jesus Christ was born in December at all!  We'll let you keep the celebration if you allow us to borrow the name - deal?!

Whilst we mostly choose to be frugal in our daily lives, we are happy to spend extra on one another at christmas. As a family though, we lean generally towards buying presents that are needed by the recipient, or items which will be a nice little treat that the other person would not be able to justify for themselves. We are great fans of the "gift list" too - what better way to know what the other party would most appreciate?   My Mum's list thus far includes a new dressing gown, a hairdryer (hers is suffering from a nasty case of impending death!) a tube of the makeup she likes, and underwear, among other things.  For us to buy her these things means that her personal spending money throughout the year won't have to be tied up by purchasing necessities. Likewise, one of MrEH's presents from me for the past few years has been a box containing so far as possible all the toiletries he will want for the year - toothpaste, soap, shower gel, shampoo, deodorant, toothbrushes, all the odds and ends that he loathes having to go and buy for himself. The shaving oil he likes, and odds and ends of rugby kit that are needed are likely to get bought by someone for him also, and likewise with me - my list this year will no doubt include clarinet reeds, music,  memory cards for the cameras, the Clinique powder I love (and which I'd not found anything cheap that even comes close to being as good as) and more than likely underwear and socks, too! If there are recipe books we fancy then the inlaws usually come up trumps - and my great Aunt - who at over 80 is finding it increasingly difficult to get the the shops, usually gives money on the basis that we all know what we want and can go and get it easier than she can, and it means we get something genuinely wanted, too. MrEH and I usually pool any money we get given to go towards visits to other islands while we're on holiday - the last two years Auntie D's money has paid for us to go and visit the gorgeous Islands of Barra & Vatersay.

There is genuine pleasure to be had in buying things for people that you know they are going to be grateful to receive. I understand entirely why folk are kicking back against the commercial aspect of Christmas - and indeed every other "festive" occasion, and yes, we do generally give some home made presents, and even odds and ends picked up in the charity shops - the last two years Mum has had a cardboard box full of books for example, all picked up for 40p each from the local hospice Shop (She knows, I'm not giving away any secrets!) it keeps her in reading material for a couple of months, and helps the Hospice too - what's not to like? Mum-in-Law benefited from a rather gorgeous blue earthenware dish the other year - just the sort of thing she collects for serving food in, and a bargain at another local charity shop at £2.  We buy odds and ends in the sales too and put aside, it all helps to whittle down - and more importantly spread - the cost.  We don't spend extortionate amounts on one another - we never have, really, and all the family kids knew when growing up that we would stop getting presents from the Aunts and Uncles when we hit 18 - something which we will apply to nieces and nephews as well.

So, by all means kick against the commercialism if that is what you want, or restrict presents to "token gifts only" if that is your desire, or what your budget will allow, but remember that the same as we respect your wishes for this, so you need to respect the wishes of others doing things differently. There is more than one way to skin a cat, as the saying goes, and so there is more than one way of achieving the same objective, your way might be right for you, but it might not be right for everyone.

How do you choose to celebrate Christmas (Or Mid-Winter-Mas if you prefer)?


Thursday 15 November 2012

Oh no it didn't!

BBC Radio has reached the grand old age of 90 years old this week. That's older than the oldest person I know, and more than twice my own age. At about 5.33pm on 14th November 1922 the first broadcast was made from the 2LO transmitter at Marconi House, London, initially just to the London area, but rapidly spreading coverage across the country as more and more transmitters were turned on. Now there are 56 BBC Radio stations across the UK - 10 National, 6 "National Regions" and 40 more local radio stations.

There was quite a party on Radio 2's Drivetime show last night, as well as the special arty-composition put together by Blur's Damon Albarn, there was also a rather splendid compilation entitled "90 Years in 90 seconds" put together by the Drivetime team themselves, which, for my money at least, was rather better than the official offering. You can listen to it from iPlayer via THIS LINK. Jumping directly from classic comedy which had me chuckling, to the terrible chillingly sombre address to the nation on the outbreak of war in 1939, and the panicked, frenetic broadcast from the scene of the awful 9/11 attacks in 2001 "If you go over there you can see them jumping out the windows oh my god they're jumping out the windows!" - this combination really should not have worked, but did, stopping any form of complacency in its tracks and forcing you to actually stop and listen for just a minute and a half.

Robbie Vincent - picture from
Radio has played a big part in my life - from Mum listening to Radio London when I was a child....the Robbie Vincent Phone-in at lunchtime was a favourite and when we did our family fundraising for Guide Dogs for The Blind for a few years we were able to get the Radio London team involved and Dad and I were fortunate enough to be invited to the station to meet them all. My autograph book still bears Tony Blackburn's autograph as proof of this! One of my most treasured possessions as a child was my little battery powered Transistor radio - brilliant for illicit late-night listening to Capital Radio, but I used to spend a fortune on batteries as I invariably fell asleep without turning it off! As soon as I got my own car the radio became all important - always in use far more than the tape deck, or later, CD player, although I confess that the 10-CD changer system I bought for a later car usurped the wonders of the broadcast medium for a while. From Capital, through Heart, Magic and Virgin, on to now alternating between Radio 2 (weekday mornings and early evening) Absolute (weekday afternoons) and Classic (the rest of the time). Back in the mid 90's we went through a patch of going to lots of radio recordings too, from the Masterson Inheritance (A rather splendid improvised comedy drama with the likes of Paul Merton, Caroline Quentin and Josie Lawrence) to Just a Minute - classic Radio 4 comedy. Back in those days recordings were held in the rather fabulous  "Paris Studio"  in London's Lower Regent Street - a fabulous building, it was as exciting knowing you were going to that building as the recording itself ever was! Sadly in 1995 it opened its doors for the final time, and while the purpose built "Radio Theatre" within Broadcasting House is lovely, but not a patch on its grand old predecessor.

Masterson Inheritance - picture from
Back in the late 70's there was much speculation that the age of video would spell the end for radio - and indeed for a while there did appear to be a waning in interest in the audio, in favour of the visual. Over time though things settled down again, and the next major impact on the popularity of radio was with the introduction of Internet radio and Digital Broadcasting - several of the BBC's stations are now internet/DAB only - that is, not available on the standard FM/AM wavelengths. In fact since these innovations radio is probably at its most popular since Wartime when families had a regular date with the "Wireless" as their main link with news on the conflict.

Video killed the Radio Star? Oh no it didn't!


Monday 12 November 2012

A bit of fun...

The lovely FrugalMummy over at My Beautiful Life tagged me in this game - she tells me that it works like this:

Here are the rules:
  • every tagged person has to tell 11 things about themselves
  • answer the 11 questions from the person who tagged you
  • list 11 questions for the folk you are going to tag, and they should have fewer than 200 followers if possible
  • don't back-tag
Hmmm....11 things about me then, well  here goes!

1) I was about 8 when I got my first camera, and I have been obsessed with taking pictures ever since.
2) If I could choose to be anywhere in the world, I would choose here:

3) I am currently reading "Beyond Chocolate" in order to hopefully get over my issues with food - namely eating more of it than I should!
4) I have recently picked up and begun playing the clarinet again after a break of over 30 years. I have now reached the stage where all of a sudden things begin to fall into place again and I am remembering the joy that playing an instrument brings.
5) My No. 1 food weakness is crisps. I love them, so am mentally altering the name of the book mentioned above to "Beyond crisps"
6) The nicest sandwich in the world is Marmite, Peanut butter and mature cheddar cheese.
7) We have an accidental cat. MrEH was on the phone to his brother. Their conversations are not known for making much sense to the rest of the world, so when he turned to me and asked "L says do we want a kitten?" it is perhaps not entirely surprising that I assumed he was joking, and said "Oh go on then, why not!" Three weeks later HRH The cat moved in.
8) I am such a dog-person at heart, that it seemed not in the least strange for me to decide to teach HRH the Cat to sit when she was a kitten, in spite of being assured that you "can't teach a cat to sit". You can, I have, and she still does.

9) My earliest memory is sitting in front of the black & white TV in the front room of the first home I can remember, watching the Bohemian Rhapsody video. No surprise that I grew up to become a massive Queen fan, I guess.

10) If I had to choose between Facebook and Twitter, Twitter would win every time.
11)  I have a shockingly bad memory. One of the reasons I love photography so much is that photos are such a superb memory-jogger.

And FM's questions for me were thus:

1. In which month is your birthday? July. Lovely having a summer birthday!
2. What is your favourite colour? Purple. Or blue. Or perhaps red......
3. What one thing do you wish you could change in your life? I'd quite like to be 3 inches taller.....
4. What is your biggest regret? I don't have regrets of my own making - there's no sense in that. However, I do very much wish that MrEH had met both my Grandfather and Great Uncle - Grandad would have like the fact that he is such a gentleman, and Great Uncle Bob, well, the pair of them would have talked for HOURS!
5. What do you feel is your Christmas tradition? The one that endures, unchanged, is that Mum and I do NOTHING other than please ourselves on Boxing day - we spend a lot of Christmas Eve and the day itself cooking and sorting out food - on Boxing Day, if someone wants something cooked, they do it themselves!
6. Which part of your body do you dislike the most? I'm trying to get over disliking any of it. See point 3 above. having been told by several people recently that I have lovely nails though, I'm learning to love my hands and fingers.
7. Which celebrity would you take out for dinner, and why? I should think that if it were possible to get her "off duty" as it were, the Queen would be fascinating to talk to. She's seen so much, travelled to so many places, and had so many difficult situations to deal with in her life.
8. Who was your favourite teacher at school, and why? I had a superb Geography teacher who had a real knack of explaining things and rarely got frustrated with any sort of lack of understanding. Oddly enough the strangest teacher I had was also for Geography - this was the chap who threw himself repeatedly against a chalk-covered blackboard in order to illustrate Coastal Erosion. It worked though, I have to say!
9. What do you like to do in your spare time? Walking, taking photos, reading, listening to music.
10. I'm coming for dinner: What will you cook for us to eat? Ooh, tricky one. I'm afraid I'm going to answer as though no vegetarians were involved.....we'll start with something like goats cheese, maybe lightly grilled with roasted cherry tomatoes, fresh rocket and a drizzle of Balsamic dressing. Main course - I'd probably turn to my old favourite and cook the wonderful mutton Tagine from the River Cottage Cook Book. I find Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall's recipes fabulous, and his writing possibly the best of any food writer since Elizabeth David. For pudding we'd have something light - perhaps a home made ice cream - I might hand that over to MrEH actually - his Blackberry & Calvados ice cream was one of the most delicious things I've ever tasted.
11. What are you planning for your garden next year? Two chairs, a table, a tall glass of something cold and a good book! ;-) After this year's disasters on the growing-our-own front I am far from ready to consider next year, yet!

Right then....who to tag?

Dreaming of a Simple Life
A Cheerful Living Adventure
Intentionally Frugal
Cwtch Corner
The Wind & The Wellies
Wittgensteins Watering Can
Single & Utterly Fabulous

And my questions for you ladies.....

1) Marmite - yes or no?
2) If you could be anywhere in the world, where would you choose? (Chance to get photos in here folks!)
3) Dogs or cats? And why?
4) What is, in your opinion, the best sort of cheese.
5) Streetfood or posh restaurant?
6) Who was your very first best friend, and how old were you?
7) What is your idea of a perfect Sunday?
8) How many different homes have you had in the course of your life? Which was your favourite, and why?
9) What size are your feet?
10) What was your favourite childhood book?
11) If offered the biscuit tin - what would you ideally hope to find inside?

Tag! You're it!


Sunday 11 November 2012

Dulce Et Decorum Est, Pro Patria Mori?


Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
 Pro patria mori.

Wilfred Owen
8 October 1917 - March, 1918

Wilfred Owen was just 25 when he died, in November 1918, within days of the end of the first World War. He joined up voluntarily in 1915, and went to the front line at the end of the following year. He was then invalided back to the UK in 1918 with concussion and shell-shock, before being passed as fit and returning to the Front in September 1918. Just a month later he won the Military Cross by seizing a German Machine-gun and using it to kill a number of enemy soldiers.  He was killed on November 4th 1918, and even as the news of his death reached his parents, the bells were ringing to celebrate the Armistice on the 11th November.

Owen's war poetry is generally haunting, evocative, but none more so to my family that the one above. My great Grandfather, John Henry Stanley, served in France with the Devonshire Regiment in the Great War, and was also awarded the Military Cross for Gallantry, Coincidentally also in October 1918. An account of the action in which his was won appears in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "The British Campaign in France & Flanders - Jul. - Nov. 1918". 

John Henry (known to the family as Jack) was born in 1892, to Mary & Henry Stanley. War broke out when he was 22, and like many others he had no hesitation in leaving his employment as a Wood Working Machinist with a Cabinet maker, joining the army and going off to fight. In June 1918 he married my Great Grandmother Priscilla, they were married by special licence while he was on leave - she must have been terrified for those final few months of fighting that he would not return. Jack would have identified all too clearly with many of the references in the poem - not least the aspect of being caught up in a gas attack. Reading through, we can hardly begin to imagine the terror, the confusion, and the panic to which Owen refers - particularly perhaps for those in charge, knowing that responsibility rested with them to ensure the safety of their men. The helplessness of seeing one of your friends dying in front of your very eyes - "He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning" tells all too clearly what the effects of gas would have been like - a truly terrible death, both to suffer and to witness. Owen also touches on how much seeing these events haunted them - referring to re-living these deaths in his dreams. I wonder whether Jack suffered the same thing?

Following the end of the war Jack returned to his family in Walthamstow, North East London - my Nan, Dorothy, was born in 1919, Great Uncle Kenneth in 1925, and their family was completed with the arrival of my Great Auntie Dee (Full name not given as she is still very much alive and would choose not to have her name plastered on the internet!)  in 1928. Sadly he was never fit enough to return to his old employment, and instead became an Insurance Agent.

Jack died in February 1932 aged just 39, directly as a result of the effects of a gas attack during World War 1. 

Lest We Forget....

Robyn - 11th November 2012.

In memory of 2nd Lieutenant John Henry Stanley MC  - Dec. 1892 - Feb 1932.

Friday 9 November 2012

Frugal Friday...

Isn't it great when you come across a way of saving some money, or adding some value, without really having to do more than plan ahead a little more carefully?

A couple of times a month, I shop at Morrisons. Now we don't have a Morrisons near to home, but there is one not too far from the office I work in sometimes, so whilst waiting for MrEH to get back to our meeting point, I can dash there, whizz round, do the weeks shop, and whizz out again.  I like the layout of the store, I love their policy re British meat, and most of all, I adore their reductions policy. At about the time I arrive, there is someone up at the back of the store, at the reduced items section, cheerily slapping "2nd reduction" tickets on anything remaining there. This is the final, last ditch attempt at ensuring that everything sells - remember supermarkets etc have to pay for their waste disposal, so it is in their interests to make sure they don;t get left with anything which has to be thrown away. I enter the store, and walk straight to that section with my trolley. Sometimes there is nothing of interest - I refuse to buy food just because it is cheap - it has to be something that we would either buy anyway, at full price, or something that will make a nice treaty addition to our food stores, but that I couldn't justify buying normally. This weeks visit netted 3 tubs of sweetcorn chowder soup, 3 packs of Blacksticks Blue cheese, and 6 packets of Corned beef. These 12 items cost a grand total of £1.08 - just 9p each. The soups will become weekday suppers, with the additional of a loaf of home made bread. (Supper for 2 for about 40p. Pretty good, eh?) The cheese will become part of other meals, or get eaten with crackers for a weekend tea, and the corned beef - well MrEH has already divided it up and that will become fillings for 24 lunchtime rolls - including the cost of the rolls (home made, of course) this means we will have 24 lunches for under 9p each - bargain!

Learn what time your local store do their price reductions, and again what time they further reduce anything which is left. Bear in mind that a lot of stores have several areas worth checking, for bread, veg & chilled goods, for example. Always be friendly and chatty to the person doing the reductions. never push in to try to reach something, or start badgering them to reduce stuff you want - although I always find that a cheerful "oh, will you be reducing X in a second, too?" works wonders. The old ethos used to be to not take every last item on the shelf when there is masses of them too, but so many folk seem to ignore this now I wonder if it really applies any more. Remember that most things can be frozen perfectly well too, check the labels if you are unsure.

Another bit of forward planning that has served me well recently is using a well known High Street chemist's annual "Christmas shopping event" to stock up on items of toiletries etc that I would be purchasing through the year in any case. This event has a spend threshold of £50, but once you hit that threshold they reward you with 1200 of their particular loyalty points - £12 worth, in fact. This promotion is run annually, and I have taken "Advantage"  ;-) of it for the past few years. I make a list of annual "necessities" which I know this particular store are reasonably priced for, scour their website in advance for special offers, and plan my spend down to the last penny. I also visit the Kiosk in store that allows you to print off coupons giving discounts on some products - you can't use any that offer extra points alongside the store-wide promotion but you can usually use 25% off, or 10% off ones. This time round my basket included  among other things 6 cans of deodorant (all on special multibuys or half price), a plentiful supply of what might euphemistically be described as "lady-goods", some odds and ends for MrEH's Christmas "Year's supply of..." box, part of my Mum's birthday present, cotton wool (on buy one get one half price), cotton buds (buy the baby ones NOT the beauty ones - they are the same cotton buds at a fraction of the price!) and the eye-makeup remover I use was at half price so three bottles of that went in as well. Several items went through with special offers that were not on the shelf - I had to go and grab two additional items and my final spend came to £50.57. once I'd left the till I scrutinised the receipt and found two mis-prices which refunded me a total of  £3.15, meaning my actual spend was £47.42 - or £35.42 once the extra points are taken into account. The rules are, to buy only stuff that is necessary, so no frivolous or treaty spends, or to buy Christmas presents - using the 3 for 2 offer some of the children's toys can be well worth looking at. Also not to pay over the odds for anything that could be bought a lot cheaper elsewhere just to meet the spend threshold - so for example I don't buy toothpaste, as 99p Stores are ALWAYS cheaper. The extra points I gain through doing this are used to fund anything additional I need to buy through the year - so additional purchases of those lady-goods, deodorant when any extra is needed, or odds and ends of makeup, for example, making them in effect cash-neutral.

Have you found any good ways of planning ahead, or playing the system, to add value to your spending? Can you share any insider info on when particular stores reduce items to rock bottom?


This week, more Friday Frugality can be found at:
Wittgensteins Watering Can
Cwtch Corner
Single & Utterly Fabulous
The Wind & The Wellies

Thursday 8 November 2012

Do you think they'll listen?

We arrived home last night to discover yet another piece of junk mail through the door from Virgin Media. these arrive regularly, this is probably the second one this month, and we're only 8 days in. We managed to persuade them to stop sending stuff to us by name, but now they simply send the same thing addressed to "The Occupier". Each lot of guff that drops through the door is an A4 envelope, containing at the least two sheets of A4 paper, plus several leaflets.  I dread to think how many trees are being destroyed in order to fund this relentless bombardment of folk who have zero interest in their products.

A few years back, at the time the council began major works on the block we live in, it because apparent that we were going to need to change providers for TV from Sky, as with scaffolding having to be put up, that meant our satellite dish was going to have to be taken down. Now we'd been extremely happy with Sky - we had been with them for several years up to that point and rarely had an problems at all. We would have preferred to stay put, but we also wanted to be able to watch TV for the planned 4 month duration of the job, so switching to a cable service seemed sensible, and Virgin were even prepared to beat the price currently offered to us by Sky. (Good job we did change, as the scaffold was eventually in place for more than EIGHT months!). So off we trundled to the good old chaps lead by that friendly Branson bloke. Well, their trains are pretty good, so their TV, telephone & broadband had to be worth a punt, right?

Wrong. In fact, more wrong than we could have ever believed. Having signed up online, they initially lost any trace of us, then argued over the date to come and do the installation, then if I recall correctly failed to turn up at all. Once installed, we entered a seemingly never-ending cycle of receiving a bill, having to call to tell them it was incorrect, receiving another bill, having to ring to tell them THAT was incorrect, etc etc etc. in one month alone I noted seven separate telephone calls to their accounts department. It got to the stage where various members of their staff recognised my name when I called, and said "Oh dear, have we messed up your bill AGAIN?!". I should add that the accounts department staff all seemed lovely - and very keen to help, but the computer system and customer service department were absolutely, shockingly terrible. By this time they had gained themselves the nickname of "Virgin MediOCRE" - well deserved in the extreme. I tried repeatedly in the light of their failings to get out of the contract early, but to no avail. One would have thought that they would have realised that their determination to retain us as customers would do them no good in the long run, but no.  On the dot of the 31st day of the 12th month of our 12 month contract I called them to cancel - and practically collapsed with laughter when I was asked why I wished to terminate the service!

So, the junk-mail then. We have returned countless of these unsolicited offerings, marking them return to sender, and noting on the envelope that we would appreciate out address being removed from their database, but all to no avail - the barrage of junk through letterbox continues unabated, wasting their time, resources and money. The one last night is again being returned to them, but with a slightly longer, and more to the point, offering. If it has no effect at least it will give the post office a laugh, and writing it reduced my stress levels somewhat!

"Dear Virgin Media, We have repeatedly requested that you remove our address from your database. Requests which you have chosen to ignore, choosing instead to bombard us with literature with a regularity bordering on harassment. For the avoidance of doubt, we are NOT interested. we have previously been customers of yours - a wholly miserable 12 month period which we would rather pull out our own toenails than repeat. Your service is shocking and your customer service even worse. Now, remove our address from your database please."

Do you think they'll listen?