Friday 29 March 2013

Caledonian Sleeping our way north.

So, as you know, we caught the Caledonian Sleeper to start our journey north on Wednesday night. If you book early this is a bargain-priced way of combining travel and hotel - saving both time and cost. For us the big attraction was cutting a huge chunk off our travel time north - enabling us to get the ferry across to Stromness yesterday evening, rather than this morning. Actually, those of you who know us know that actually, the main attraction of this method of transport was actually the train itself!

There she is - waiting patiently for us at Euston. Boarding starts a good amount of time before departure to enable people to settle themselves in, the compartments are quite small and if you're travelling with luggage a bit of effort has to go into slotting everything into place!

You get everything you really need for a good nights sleep - a surprisingly comfy bed each, with fluffy white duvet and two pillows. A hand towel & tablet of soap are provided, and the artfully hidden washbasin....look...

...has hot (very hot indeed!) and cold running water. At each end of the carriage are separate ladies and gents toilets which makes for a FAR nicer experience for those of us of a female persuasion than shared facilities!

Once underway and with the first stop (Watford Junction - to pick up passengers only) out of the way, we wandered along to the rather comfy Lounge car to find some food. I was just in time to grab the final portion of Haggis, neeps & tatties -

...while Ben went for Cumbrian Lamb Hotpot. Both were very tasty and reasonably priced, although it did feel strange eating a proper meal on a train like that!

The Lounge car itself has leather sofas - the only train in the UK on which you'll find such a thing - and also provides 3-pin sockets for charging phones or laptops.

See - that's what you call a civilised way to travel! We headed bed-wards after that - wanting to get settled down immediately after the second "pick up only" stop at Crewe. Sleep came surprisingly easily - fractured by occasional "ooh - we've stopped somewhere" and "ahh - we seem to be moving again" moments. The stop at Edinburgh is when the three sections of our train separate - new diesel loco's are coupled on and off we go, to Aberdeen in our case, with the other two sections heading to Inverness & Fort William. After that I drifted off to sleep again, not waking properly until our lovely cheery steward lady knocked on the door with tea & coffee just before 7am. We'd already been warned that our driver liked to get home for his breakfast, so arriving at Aberdeen 10 minutes early didn't come as a surprise - shortly before we got there we had this lovely view...

Pretty good start to the day, that!


- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Wednesday 27 March 2013

Sleeping at 80 miles per hour....

There is MUCH excitement here at EH Towers at the moment, as tonight we are off on the Caledonian Sleeper tonight on the way to stay with lovely Fay who so kindly invited myself & MrEH to share her, Peedie & Haggis's space for a long weekend - we've never been to Orkney before so we're very much looking forward to the trip!

We've used the Sleeper before on a number of occasions - In fact our last trip to Thurso (where we will be this time tomorrow!) involved the using the Sleeper's Seated Coach as far as Edinburgh, I think. The seated coach is what you might call an experience, and I'm not convinced it is one I would go for again. I certainly wouldn't use it any further North than Edinburgh or Glasgow - the poor travellers using it to get to Fort William on our train tonight will have to change to a different carriage at Edinburgh at 4.30am! It's the railway equivalent of "steerage" I guess!

We've always made a point of buying our sleeper tickets as cheaply as possible - the trip to Aberdeen overnight tonight is costing us just £39 each which is a bit of a bargain when you consider that includes our beds for the night and a cup of tea or coffee tomorrow morning. We'll arrive at Aberdeen, all being well, at 7.34am, ready to change on to our train to first Inverness, then on to Thurso. The actual experience of going to sleep on a train is quite a strange one - initially you think that the odd, rocking sensation will keep you awake. then you realise that actually, it's quite soothing, and gently drift off. Then the train stops at Preston, and you wake up again! Sudden stops or fast corners are interesting too - on one occasion I woke up to find myself sliding gently down the bed, ending in a crumpled heap at the bottom....just as quickly though the direction was reversed and I slid back up again!

There is something inherently romantic about a Sleeper train - there must be, The Man In Seat 61 says so. He's right though - the experience is very stately, with a level of courteous service rarely found elsewhere on the railway network. The staff have time, you see - with far fewer passengers to worry about, those they DO have are beautifully looked after. To add to the romance the time of leaving suits marvellously the meeting of friends first - for a few beers, before all heading to the platform at Euston - us to get on the train, and the friends to see us off before heading home.

No Frugal Friday post this week - there may or may not be something else posted instead!


Friday 22 March 2013

Frugal Friday

As I've mentioned before, I have had an iPhone for several years now, and absolutely love it! As Martin Lewis rightly says, they are certainly NOT moneysaving, with a high upfront cost and often more expensive running costs than a basic mobile, too. On-contract iPhones require a specific tariff as a rule, or if you are on PAYG then additional top-ups to allow for data use, so this has to very much be looked at as a luxury. "Oh, but it can be kept far lower if you don't use the internet on them" I can hear some smuggies exclaiming   - well yes, it can, but if that's the case then you might as well sell the expensive shiny toy and get a basic mobile instead, mightn't you!

A very exciting parcel...
Although clearly a smartphone, and specifically an iPhone, IS a luxury, for many of us it also has a lot of benefits - being self employed mine allows me to get work-related emails wherever I am, for example, and keep easy track of my diary. I make regular use of Twitter to keep in contact with people and to catch up on news etc. I use various Traffic-watch apps to work out when we should be avoiding the motorway in the mornings, for example, and this in turn helps keep our commuting costs down as we're not getting stuck in nose to tail traffic needlessly. I have a free Sat-Nav app which can be very useful. At the end of the day, while it is indeed a shiny toy, it's a useful shiny toy!

...with very exciting contents...
I decided that the time had come for my old one to be updated - it's beginning to get quite slow, chomps through battery charge in big bites, and has a small (but getting larger) crack on the rear case. It's also approaching the point where some updates to apps and software won't be supported any more, and so I wanted to upgrade before all these things became a problem. Since I got the first one, I have been popping aside small amounts of money whenever I could afford to in a savings account against an upgrade being needed at some stage, so the money was sitting there to buy a brand new one should this be required. This gradual stashing aside of funds against a replacement works better than paying for expensive mobile phone insurance policies for many people - if you're not someone who has a reputation for dropping, losing, or flushing (!) personal belongings, then this may work for you.

A refurbed phone still comes with all the "bits"
So, the research: I popped into an Apple store to handle both the older 4S, and the new iPhone 5 next to one another. While I didn't think I was particularly bothered about getting the 5, I wanted to reassure myself that this was definitely the case, so as to avoid any possibility of regretting my choice afterwards. Sure enough I didn't like the feel of the newer model in my hand, so the decision was made. This also has the advantage that all my current accessories, with the exception of the case, will work with the new phone. My current iPhone 3GS was the 16gb model - one of the smaller ones, but in fact I have never come close to filling this up, so there was certainly no point in me paying the extra to get a larger capacity model. I've been with Tesco Mobile for quite some time, their network is supported by o2, and a good look around at coverage maps for all the major networks told me that the only one which would provide me with BETTER coverage for the areas that I required than I was currently getting was Vodaphone, and their tariffs weren't competitive for me. THIS SITE proved to be very useful for making comparisons. (Thanks to whoever mentioned that one to me!). In terms of usage, at the moment I spend very little on calls, send a reasonable (but not 15 year-old-girl excessive) number of texts, and require at least 500mb of data per month. I currently top up with £15 credit roughly every second month, so an average monthly spend of £7.50, although this is starting to increase a little - £9 per month is probably closer to being accurate, and I also knew that I was approaching a point where looking at a pay monthly, or SIM only contract, might be worthwhile for me.

You honestly would NOT know this wasn't brand new!
The decision: iPhone 4S, 16gb, Black (well naturally - whilst I LIVE in Essex, I'm not actually an Essex girl, you know!) with the o2 network, either staying with Tesco or via another provider. I knew already that this phone was available direct from Apple at £449. The question was whether this could be beaten?  I wandered over to o2's site to see what deals they are currently offering, and one of the first thing that jumped out at me was they offer refurbed iPhones - in their own words "It's a used phone that's been restored to its original state, so it's as good as new." Now these used to occasionally be available from Apple, too, but are quite literally like Rocking-Horse wotsit - actually getting your hands on one before the "Out of Stock" sign goes up has always been tricky as anything. (My suspicion is that the ones o2 are now offering are actually Apple-refurbed products, although I may be wrong on that.) A bit more research revealed that the exact phone I want, as a refurb, was available for £239.99 upfront cost on a £17 per month  24 month contract. For this I will get the 500mb of data that I needed, plus unlimited texts, and 300 inclusive minutes, meaning that I can use the phone pretty much as much as I want without worrying about additional costs mounting up. Allowing for the £210 saving on the upfront cost of the phone, the contract cost works out as an average £8.25 per month. I also went via the Quidco shopping site when I made the purchase, which earned me £25 (£20 after Quidco take their annual fee from this) in cashback additionally.

Not a mark on it - and sets up as a brand new one, too.
The whole process did take quite a lot of time - largely because I was determined to look at all the possible options to work out which one would suit me best. If I was going to be stuck in a contract for 2 years, I wanted to feel confident that the one I'd chosen suited my requirements, gave me good value for money and was at a price I could afford even if my income fell. It's not wrong to buy/want luxuries, no matter what some worthy souls would tell you to the contrary - assuming that you can afford them, aren't borrowing to get them, and they will be of good value to you. Having decided to buy them - make sure you enjoy them!


Already snug in its new (and very cute!) case!

Monday 18 March 2013

Simplify It 2013 - Wardrobe overhaul...

As the weather forecast for Friday was mostly cold, damp and miserable, I decided it would be an ideal day to attack the next challenge on my Simplify It project - to start sorting out my wardrobe, drawers etc. Logic said that the drawers would be the simplest and easiest place to start, but logic and I are sometimes strangers, so I decided to start with the wardrobe itself, and the obvious starting point was to take everything out of it...

...It was at about this point that the whole idea started feeling utterly ludicrous, however, as it appeared that I had already reached a definite point of no-return, I soldiered on. The first job was to give the wardrobe itself a thorough clean out. We do sometimes have a problem with damp and mildew, and my hope is that by giving the whole thing a good swab out with a strong detergent/white vinegar solution, this might keep the nasties at bay for a while.  While I waited for it to dry I started sorting through things...found several pairs of pretty shoes/matching bags which have been to various people's weddings over the years, and a pair of pretty shoes and a tiara which went to our wedding, on the bride! I've kept my wedding dress, veil and all the other bits - those are sentimental items that I figure it IS OK to hang on to. The veil was also the "Something borrowed" for a friend a few years later, so lots of memories there. Those bits were all moved up to the storage at the top of the wardrobe, alongside the box that contains odd photos, the notes from various people's speeches, and all manner of other keepsakes from the day. As I found things that I felt I genuinely wouldn't wear, or use, again, they were put into bags for the Charity Shop, and where things were so well worn as to be no good even for that, piled into a black rubbish sack.

Years ago I bought the clear plastic shoe storage boxes you see above from Lakeland Limited, and they have been so useful! Aside from shoes I use them for all sorts of other oddments - smaller bags, evening bags, and hats, even. This time around I have also piled a load of scarves into one of them - handy to stop them falling all over the wardrobe and getting in a tangle. 

Because of the issues with the damp one aim was to try to make sure that things didn't get pushed right to the back of the shelves - and by using the extra space created in the top to hang things like jeans, and walking trousers (which have always previously been folded) this meant that the nightwear above is now just taking up space at the very front of those shelving sections. Some thermal "base layer" tops - for walking in cold weather - have also gone into another of the spare plastic boxes - I can see at a glance where they are and they should stay dry and fresh.

The bottom section of shelving is now completely empty, although my plan is that this will give me extra space for shoes as and when required.  there is also spare space available on the hanging rail should I need it - and the clothes that are hanging there currently are hanging freely, not squashed and getting crushed together. My one and only "posh frock" is also now hanging completely straight, rather than with the bottom folded over as it was before.

Everything remaining in the wardrobe gets worn - the things that were too small, not comfortable, not flattering etc were tried on to reassure myself the fact that this was the case, and have gone either straight to the Charity bags, or have been put out for washing ready to head that way later. Things are where I can find them, which was one of the main aims - far simpler to be able to go straight to my chosen shoes/bag/scarf than having to scrabble through the wardrobe for ten minutes first!

The next task will be - one by one - my drawers. Then it's on to replacements for items, some of which I have already noted as needed today:
Black work trousers
Boots - low heeled but smart, suitable to wear with jeans OR workwear
Shirts for Spring/Autumn workwear (will probably look at Charity Shops for these)
More items will be added to that list as I go along.


Saturday 16 March 2013

First signs...?

I do believe it might have sprung at last....after the sudden turn of cold weather again during last week, the promised warmer temperatures made an appearance this morning, and a quick potter outside revealed some hopeful signs...

The first leaves appearing on our Gooseberry bushes. We planted these last year to replace the bush that was killed by being buried under scaffold for 8 months back in 2010 - it had struggled on manfully but was getting thinner and thinner and eventually we decided it had to go. The replacement needed to have properties which would over time deter anyone wanting to come and peer in through our windows, and ideally was to be useful as well, and so the spikiness (both is texture AND taste) of the Gooseberries seemed to fit the bill. Hopefully we might get some fruit from them this year. 

This is purely ornament rather than use - a rather lovely clematis. I can't remember for certain which one it is but I have a feeling it might be Clematis Jackmanii  - either way it produces stunning flowers in the spring, and, so far, has proved immune to our usually ability to kill anything that climbs within the space of 6 months. Of course as you might remember from a few weeks ago it now has a nice green trellis to climb up, as well.

Right then, might need Fay's help for this one - these come up each and every year, look very pretty, and we have no real idea of what they are! Not even certain whether it is something that we planted (they are in a terracotta planter which sits on the balcony wall) or whether they just sort of appeared there....things do that, sometimes, in our garden.

Aren't the leaves on this little rose beautiful, too? This is one of those little patio roses that people buy more for the instant loveliness of the flowers than with any intention of keeping them, but this one, on being planted into the garden, went absolutely mad and is still happily flowering away years later. It has the most gorgeous tiny complex red flowers, which it seems to produce from about April through to October without pause.

Finally, I was pleased to see signs of life from our herbs, too. We do like our herbs and currently have two good sized Bay trees - one planted in the garden outside and the other which sits in a pot on the balcony, plus a good sized rosemary in a pot, also on the balcony. We also have a large sage bush which, in  spite of ruthless haircuts each and every winter invariably ends up larger than ever by the time midsummer comes around. These chives (and their parsley next-door neighbour) were concentration camp (Supermarket) refugees - they settled down brilliantly in their new home and have repaid the time we spent teasing their roots apart and repotting with a ready supply of fresh onion-ey greenness through last summer. Fingers crossed we'll get more of the same this year!

Now we just need to cross our fingers that this time, Spring is here to stay...!


Friday 15 March 2013

Frugal Friday...

I've just worked through our budgets again. With the new financial year looming there are revised figures on a couple of bits, and our special offer with Sky is coming to an end too. In addition Scottish Power wanted to increase our Direct Debit payment "In line with our usage" - this is apparently a routine review which happens quarterly, but we have only been customers since November, and as our heating is all electric, the months of November, December, January & February are NOT a good reflection of our annual use. As I was unhappy about the increase I telephoned them and they immediately agreed with me and confirmed that the payments would not be increasing for the time being.  Even the telephone call cost me nothing as rather than using the standard "National Rate" number they give for enquiries, I checked and found a freephone number to use instead.

Notre Dame - Paris. Jan 2008
When we first started on the "Money saving" trail, we were in our overdrafts by the middle of every month, and as many people do, we just accepted that was "the way things were" - we never had a vast amount of uncontrolled debt - there were loans for car purchases but those were paid off through regular monthly payments. On the face of it we were quite sensible with money - when we looked to buy our first home we bought the size of property we needed, without looking for something huge, with a "good postcode" or that would impress our friends. We didn't run up big bills on storecards, borrow vast amounts to buy the latest gadget, or spend beyond our means on exotic holidays, or "keeping up with the Jones's" home improvements but the day to day stuff tended to escape us a little, and that was where the problem was. Once we'd seen the light though, it suddenly occurred to us that all the money we were paying on interest payments would be far better staying firmly in our pockets, and the ability to do that was right there at our fingertips.

Eiffel Tower - Paris, January 2008
The first step was to do exactly what I have just done again - to go through our bank statements and direct debits to list out everything that we were committed to spending in a month, so everything from the mortgage, council tax, utility bills and service charge through to toiletries, magazine subscriptions and personal spending money. Then you need to work out how much you spend on "other stuff" - food & household items, travel, insurances (which may be paid out annually) and things like the routine running costs on vehicles. We went back through statements for a full year to be sure of catching everything, and then worked the whole sum out into a monthly average figure. Unsurprisingly, I'm sure, what it revealed was the on paper, we were earning far more than we spent! 'So', we thought, 'If that's the case, why are our bank accounts permanently in the red?' Good question, eh? The answer of course was that the overspend was not what we KNEW were were spending, but rather, all the things that we simply spent without noticing. 

View from Eiffel Tower by night - Jan 2008
The means to deal with this were exactly the same as for those people whose outgoings, on a monthly basis, exceed what they have coming in. The first thing was to identify all the little extra expenditures - the lunches, the bar of chocolate here and there, or the magazine bought for a train journey. All these items are perfectly reasonable in their own way so long as you have the income to cover them, but it is still important to know where your money is actually going! Once that was done we started going through the Direct Debits one at a time - the fixed costs we ignored, so Mortgage, Council Tax, Service Charge & Water Rates. We noticed that our electricity direct debit had increased slowly over time until it was standing at over £80 per month - this seemed quite a lot for a two bedroomed flat, and when we investigated we discovered that this was due to our supplier having failed to read our meter for over TWO YEARS - working instead wholly on estimated readings. I read the meter and provided them with the correct readings, and discovered that we were over £300 in credit with them! Of course once they knew our correct level of use we were also able to reduce the monthly direct debit down substantially! We also worked to reduce our electricity use - scouring the house for items on standby and chargers left plugged in, changing regular lightbulbs to low energy ones and becoming the "light bulb Police" determined to throw the book at anyone leaving a light on unless they were actually in the room! One by one we attacked each and every bill, assessing whether it could be reduced at all and if so, dealing with that. Our TV, Broadband and telephone were absorbed into one package which cost less, and provided us with more, than the individual suppliers previously had managed. My mobile phone contract was cancelled and I switched to Pay As You Go, on a deal which, as a low user, costs me less than half of what I was paying on a contract before.

Sacre Coeur - Paris, Jan 2008
Our grocery shopping was the next thing to come under attack - we'd slipped into a bad habit of buying lots of little "treats" and also on popping into the supermarket several times each week - usually because we'd run out milk, or bread, or potatoes, but then coming out with far more than that, on each occasion. Failing to plan our meals was also a problem - and this leading to far more trips to the takeaway than were good for either our pockets, or indeed our waistbands! This was surprisingly easy to put in hand - meal planning (more on this in another Frugal Friday post coming up shortly) helped a huge amount, as did restricting our shopping, mostly, to a single trip per week to the supermarket, plus a monthly visit to the farmer's market for meat. Suddenly we were eating better, tastier, and higher quality food than we ever had before, and yet were spending a fraction of the cost. As an added bonus, all that time previously spent "wondering what to eat that night" was suddenly freed up for more jolly uses. We investigated which "budget" products were worth buying - with the result that I still automatically go for the value fruit & veg, but the Tesco Value Tea-bags are a never to be repeated experience!

Come on then - over to you - do you have a "never again!" budget buy? Or, even better, one that was so good you have never been tempted to return to the branded alternative?


(Yes, another bunch of unrelated photos!)

Sunday 10 March 2013

Minding my own business...

There I was, minding my own business on friday afternoon, when the phone rang. Our landline doesn't ring that often, and, in fairness, when it DOES, it's generally a sales call, or one of those annoying messages telling me that I can avoid repaying debts (which I don't have, and which, if I did, I would have probably incurred fairly, and therefore should knuckle down and pay fairly, too) or somesuch nonsense. I ambled into the front room to answer it,and it turned out to be a chap from the RSPB, which was marginally more interesting than I had at first suspected, however, as we are regular donators (via a Direct Debit membership) to the Society, I had a feeling that it was not going to be simply a social call...

He politely asked if I had time to chat, and I confirmed that I did, and we chatted a bit about our reasons for joining, which reserves we visited (I mentioned Balranald being a favourite, which caused a moment or two of surprise - I don't think he was expecting that!) and the projects that the Society had ongoing at present. All very interesting stuff, but I was aware the whole time of the conversation building up to its point. I was curious to know how long this would take. Eventually he moved on to the question of our membership, being quick to assure us that they were "so grateful to people like us, who donate regularly like this" and then continued as I expected to ask if we were in a position to increase this at all. Now I know a lot of folk get really annoyed at this, but to be honest I don't have too much of a problem with it. I had every option to say I didn't have time to speak, and could at any point have cut him short...

...I explained that over the past few years our household income had taken a drop by about a third, and in fact we had come close at one stage to deciding that the RSPB membership was one of those little non-essentials that should go, but although we'd committed to maintaining our support, no, we couldn't spare any more money for them at the moment. All very reasonable, I took a conscious decision to explain precisely why we could not increase, and fully expected that, barring the pleasantries, that would be the end of the conversation. Sure enough, he assured me that of course he could understand our position entirely, and that was absolutely fine....

...then to my astonishment he said "what a lot of our members have been doing is increasing their donation by just a few pounds each month - do you think maybe that is something you could do?" I was quite seriously annoyed. So far as I was concerned I had been asked a straightforward question which I had answered honestly. To be asked a second time in spite of this just seemed like rudeness in the extreme. I mentally counted to ten whilst I stopped myself telling him precisely what I thought of his suggestion, and then calmly and rationally stated that I appreciated that he was almost certainly just following a script, but that I would appreciate if he could feed back to his superiors that to repeat this sort of request a second time when a perfectly concise reason for not being able to afford to donate more has been given was simply insensitive, and that continuing to harass people in this way would, in my view, lead to people being tempted to actually cancel their existing memberships.

So, what's your take on this sort of commercialised fundraising? It does seem somewhat cynical, particularly in the light of the fact that the phone call was made mid afternoon, at a time when presumably it is reasonable to assume that if the phone was even answered it was going to be an indicator of the fact that the person asking was not in full time work. In the event of receiving another of these calls from the RSPB in the future I would simply say that I did not have time to talk, and that would be that, but the whole thing has left me with a lingering bad taste...


Friday 8 March 2013

Frugal Friday...

...Budgeting for adventures!

It's the time of year when we start thinking properly about our annual trip to the Hebrides again. A fortnight's holiday is always going to be fairly pricey, and so we have to be careful to plan to ensure that we can not only go when we want to, but also that we can do what we want while we are there. Although we're more than happy to spend what is needed, we also plan the trip carefully to make sure that we don't spend any more than we have to, where this is possible, so freeing up more money for nice things like beer, and tea & cake.

We budget for the main amount of the cost of the holiday by feeding a savings account each month through the year with a set amount from our regular income. That covers things like accommodation, travel and food & drink. For general spending money though we save by slightly more offbeat methods. Cashback from the Cashback credit card gets transferred across, as does any anything we earn through shopping with TopCashBack. MrEH collects discarded money as he is walking around on his daily commute, and we save loose change into a savings pig, too. We add our regular spending budget for the time we are away into the pot too. Any topping up is done via our frugal food shopping through the year - our groceries account generally runs at a nice little surplus AND has a handy cashcard which enables us to draw this money out of ATM's for spending. The recent frugality on groceries through February added an extra £120 to the holiday savings pot - no wonder I had a good incentive to keep going!

Accommodation: When staying somewhere for a fortnight, the most cost-effective way to deal with accommodation is usually to stay in a self-catering cottage or flat. This also suits us as it means that we can come, go, and get up when we like, without having to worry about fitting meals into specific timeframes or inconveniencing others. When we booked last year's trip it was for later in the year than we have visited previously and we had to shop around for somewhere different to stay as our former "home" became too expensive. A bit of research revealed a cottage further along the same road, with stunning views, a newly fitted kitchen & bathroom, and lots of space, all for a price we could afford. Remember also when booking somewhere for a fortnight it is often possible to negotiate a small reduction on the price if you are willing to forgo the cottage being cleaned and bedding changed for you on the middle weekend of your stay. For incidental accommodation for the way up and back we use Travelodge rooms, booking when they are cheap so far as possible. Often the places we want to stay for convenience sake (motorway service areas away from town and cities) work out cheaper than places which are more accessible from towns too.

Travel: We generally cover around 2,500 miles in the course of our holiday, from leaving home to arriving back. As a result diesel is one of our biggest expenditures, and with the price of this ever-increasing that's not going to change any time soon! For the journey up and back we allow plenty of time, meaning that we can drive at a steady pace rather than rushing, and once we are there there is no need to hurry. While we're on the mainland we try our best to combine cheap fuel with loyalty schemes too, so supermarkets are ideal, especially Morrisons as their "Morrisons Miles" scheme gives a decent rate of return and useful £5 vouchers to use in-store. For the way up, to save MrEH a days holiday we buy a cheap train ticket to get him to Doncaster and I amble up over the course of that day, picking him up in the evening before carrying on to our overnight stop, then we travel the rest of the way the following day. This year by booking the very second the tickets were released his trip has cost us £10.

Ferry tickets are pretty much a fixed cost, and as a rule a return ticket for travel over a fortnight is the same cost as two singles. When we decided on travelling back by a different route at the end of the holiday this year, however, that opened up the possibility of buying one of CalMac's "Hopscotch" tickets. These are aimed at Island Hoppers, and generally undercut the price of separate tickets by some way - ours will save us a little over £15 on our three crossings of Mallaig > Armadale (Skye), Uig > Lochmaddy and then that final crossing from Lochboisdale > Oban at the end. For travellers who are flexible with dates then it is cheaper to make these crossings on the winter timetable, than the summer. Once "Road Equivalent tariff" kicks in on all ferry crossings on the West Of Scotland costs for the additional trip we do up to Harris and Lewis, mid holiday, will drop substantially, but until then it's still a pricey trip, weighing in at a little over £80 for the two of us and the car.

Food & Drink:  We treat shopping while on holiday in a broadly similar way to the way we look at it at home. A list is made in advance - over the years we've come to know what sort of food works well for us while we're there so we're not spending hours slaving over the stove, but equally we're not eating the sort of processed  food that neither of us really like. For example we'll buy a free range chicken which will do at least two main meals plus sandwiches for both of us, and more often than not we choose to picnic at lunchtimes - a pack of Hebridean Smokehouse's superb Salmon pate, some good oatcakes and a bottle of juice, or a piece of Salar Flaky Smoked salmon with some crusty bread or rolls and a flask of tea...a few times while we're there we will undoubtedly eat in our favourite cafe as well. Evening meals if we are cooking vary between "standards" that we would cook at home - pasta bolognese, curry & rice - to dishes utilising the fantastic fish & seafood that it's possible to buy on the islands.As when we're at home we happily buy reduced price items when we see them available, and actively keep an eye out for things like bread reduced, as of course this freezes perfectly happily. If we don't feel like cooking in the evening, or are at the other end of the islands and going to be back late, we usually go for a bar meal at one of the hotels, or eat at the pub, and this is precisely the sort of thing our spending money is for!

Above all, we ensure that before we go we have planned and budgeted to feel confident that we have sufficient money to be able to cover all our costs, and to spend our fortnight doing as we please, and as suits us, without needing to constantly watch every penny. That doesn't mean wasting money, or throwing it around as though it was going out of fashion while we're there! If like us you're trying to overpay your mortgage then it's easy to feel as though you shouldn't be taking holidays, instead choosing to put all the money into those overpayments instead, and that is of course one way of doing things, however MrEH in particular works long hours in a stressful job and we feel that those two weeks completely away from all that allows him to switch off and relax in a way that being at home simply wouldn't. Whilst looking after the health of your pockets is important, looking after your mental health is even more vital!


Thursday 7 March 2013

Simplify It 2013...

The next Challenge....Wardrobe overhauling!

I'm not massively interested in clothes, if I'm honest. Now I can imagine several fab stylish ladies of my acquaintance falling over backwards at that one, and I should point out that what I'm about to write is NOT directed at anybody in particular (in exactly the same way as the lovely Singlegirl wrote about Cleaning recently), but is something that I've been debating about writing for a while, based on my experiences as a whole...

I don't like the way that clothes are often used to define people - the way that so often people are judged by what they are wearing first and foremost, and that if you're not wearing the right thing then you'll never be one of the cool kids. Back at school in the 1980's the sportswear labels of Fila, Lacoste etc were all the rage, and if you didn't have something with one of those logos on you were effectively dismissed as a second class citizen. When you add to that the fact that I quite often wore hand-me-downs from a girl along the road - a girl who was extremely quick to loudly point out whenever I was wearing anything of "hers" - usually in words along the line of "Oh look, there's that skirt I threw out as it was past it!" - it's no massive surprise that I rapidly learned to see clothes as something to be used to make people miserable - a few years of bullying saw to that.

Don't get me wrong, if I see someone walking down the street looking a complete sight, (even I know that calf length skirts and ankle socks don't go!) and they don't have their entire life's possessions in carrier bags and a dog on a string, then (uncharitably, I know) I'll have a titter with the rest of them, but mostly I simply don't notice what people are wearing. If I have any distance to walk, you'll find me in walking boots or trainers, and if I have heavy stuff to carry then I'll have the lot in a rucksack, as it's just easier. My jeans and fitted tee-shirts (ALWAYS either a V or deep-scoop neck though - I did take some notice of what Trinny & Susannah told us!) are comfortable and suit my lifestyle, so for everyday I'm quite happy to wear them, and workwear is trousers with a smarter version of the same tops, or a shirt - I don't work in an environment where being dressed very fashionably or glamourously would be particularly appropriate - a lot of the people I see on a day-to-day basis have just suffered a bereavement or split with a spouse, so understated is the way to go. I'm as pleased as the next girl to find a fab pair of jeans but have never, in spite of years of searching, ever found a pair of heeled shoes or boots that I can walk any distance at all in. I have no idea what I'm "supposed" to wear a lot of the time.  I find people endlessly fascinating, but for the most part I'm more interested in what they have to offer conversationally, what we have in common, and whether we get on, than what shoes they are wearing or whether they could grace the cover of Vogue. It just doesn't bother me - if someone is dirty, or smelly, then I'll let them spend time with other people, thank you very much, but if they're wearing trainers, or last season's jacket, or the same top they had on last time I saw them, they're welcome to share tea & cake any day! I know from conversations with other girlfriends that I'm far from the only person who feels like this, so why are the pressures out there to conform with a certain way of dressing that is deemed to be what we should be aiming for, so great, leaving so many of us feeling as though we're "letting the side down" by dressing in a way we find comfortable, and that suits us?

Now as a result of all this, (and finally coming to the point!)  my wardrobe does seem to be cluttered with a mix of failed attempts at walkable footwear, garments bought in a wild effort at being "stylish" (because that's what we're all supposed to aspire to, isn't it?) and that are deeply uncomfortable as a result, and items that I don't actually fit into, but have kept because "I might one day". (I won't, obviously!). Oh, and scarves. I do love scarves, and gloves in fact, and I have an AWFUL LOT of both. If I say so myself I do have an eye for a lovely scarf. Maybe that is destined to my my only area of successful foraying into style?! Anyway, THAT is my next target for the "Simplify It" challenge - no, not to give myself a personality transplant and become one of those "Chic, Stylish, Glamourous" women (I wouldn't know where to start!), but more to sort out the clothes I do have, throw out or charitise anything that genuinely shouldn't be there either because it is past it, or because it doesn't fit, or that I hate wearing because it makes me self-conscious or uncomfortable. To overhaul my knicker drawer and replace anything that is showing its age, to lose socks with holes or those with no friends left in this life, and to replace items where needed. I even have plans for a remake on a dress that I rarely wear which may hopefully mean it will see the light of day more often! I also want to use the process to overhaul my own issues - to remind myself that if people want to look at my clothing and find me lacking then that's their problem, not mine. When I have done all this, then I hope to be left with a set of clothes that I feel comfortable in without (hopefully) looking like I need a dog on a string of my own. And you know what, once I've done it, if you're the person walking down the street behind me sniggering at my 'lack of style' - well I DON'T CARE - it suits me, and in any case, what makes you so certain that behind you, someone else isn't doing the same?


Tuesday 5 March 2013

A weekend of Cheeriness!

Well it was all go here this weekend - a cheery meet up with four lovely friends and lots of fun on the way!

It started on friday afternoon when I headed into London to St Pancras Station to meet Jenni - regular readers will remember that I never need any encouragement to venture into that particular building, and this was no exception! A quick wander around and then it was time to meet - I was just heading to the agreed spot when a familiar head was seen just in front....

....a familiar head of HAIR, I probably should say - have you worked it out yet?

Yep, Queen's Brian May, who was appearing briefly on the upstairs concourse of the station in aid of the "Tiger Tracks" campaign alongside Kerry Ellis (formerly of We Will Rock You fame and now forging out a notable and deserved solo career for herself). Understandably I got a bit distracted - I couldn't get to the John Betjeman Statue in any event and that's the thing that would usually distract me - and hovered about a bit to see if Mr May was going to do anything interesting. Then Jenni arrived and we both hovered some more, before deicing that actually he was just going to talk to the press for a while, and we couldn't be bothered to wait. Sorry Brian.

We headed off to drop bags at the hostel Jenni was booked to stay in that night before deciding that a cup of tea was in order, and much nattering followed before we aimed ourselves back at the West End for chinese food, and a few drinks to follow, with a side-order of yet MORE nattering. Finally a stroll back to Embankment Tube station where Jenni went one way and I went the other.

The following morning saw me on my way to another transport hub, this time London City Airport where Fay  was due to arrive....there you go, that's her flight just landed, a few minutes early!

 A quick trip on London's best low budget rollercoaster followed before we arrived at Southwark Cathedral's cafe and met up with Jenni, Lula  and finally Gill  to complete our party. The lovely Cheri was also meant to be joining us but sadly was taken hostage by a nasty case of lurgification and had to cry off - hopefully she'll be feeling better by the time you read this. A wander around Borough Market was followed by lunch - "Egg and chips!" was the call from at least two directions so a handy greasy-spoon was found before we headed off for some more wandering - along the river this time with rather too many steps thrown in for the complete happiness of Fay's "wooden leg" - she soldiered on though, good lass, and after a bit of wandering and a quick sit while we waited for a lifting-bridge to stop lifting, we found a boat to sit on for a while and meandered up the river being tourists. From my perspective as a born and bred Londoner this was altogether strange - I realised part way along I had never seen the London Eye from quite this angle before....

...and as you might recall I'm always interested in finding a new angle for photographs of that particular landmark!

Handily enough we just happened to alight from the boat at precisely Tea-and-Cake time - fancy that, eh? As we were just a short distance from the lovely St Martin In The Fields "Cafe In The Crypt" we headed that way - a more atmospheric setting for tea & cake style refreshment you could not imagine, and delicious too, we made such short work of our assortment of cakes, puddings and savoury treats that all I got was a picture of the carnage afterwards...

...Some more nattering followed - the cafe is very happy to let people just sit and enjoy the surroundings as well as eat cake...

...before we decided to head off in the direction of our lodgings for the night. Great fun - a four bedded room in the Youth Hostel Association's Earls Court hostel involving bunk-beds - the last time I slept on a top bunk was the last time we travelled on the sleeper-train to Scotland, and in fact the next time I do so will be, as well! All nice and clean, and although basic, there was everything we required, and the kitchen for tea-making was right next door, which was useful!

Eventually dinner called - Earls Court is an easy area to find lots of lovely options, and after a bit of looking we settled on a fabulous family-run small Italian Restaurant which just looked really nice...and so it proved. GIANT pizzas (none of us could finish them!), excellent service, and reasonably priced bottles of house-white all helped the evening to go with a swing and the time positively flew, before we knew it it was time for Lula to return home and the rest of us to the hostel, for a final cup of tea and yet MORE chat before the yawns got too frequent and we decided that our beds were calling too loudly to be ignored.

Sunday dawned bright and cold, but not too cold to allow for cups of tea to be drunk in the garden area outside our room before we got packed up and headed for Liverpool Street and Spitalfields Market where a quick brunch was consumed at John Torode's excellent "The Luxe" before Fay had to be pointed in the direction of the airport ready for her flight home. The rest of us enjoyed a meander around the market, bought some very budget-friendly scarves (an addiction we all share, there!) and Jenni was also won over by a rather lovely red dress which looked utterly fabulous on her. Finally it was time to return to Liverpool Street where we scattered in our different directions.

One weekend, five very different but utterly fab ladies (and four more with us in spirit), some lovely food, some equally lovely drink, and more lively, fun conversation than you can shake the world's biggest stick at. What more can you ask for?!


Sunday 3 March 2013

Somebody elses garden...

Last weekend saw us trundling down to Devon, where MrEH hails from originally. Various members of the family had been down there all week carrying out some work to improve the access to Mum & Dad in Law's house - which sits half way up a rather large hill. Access via car is to the top of the hill and then a walk down through the garden, and access from the town below is via steps. Lots and lots of steps....this picture is taken from half way down...

The original plan was for Mum-in-Law to agree the final stage of the access works, and then for us to assist with getting these done over the weekend. These plans were all knocked sideways however as Dad-in-Law is currently still up in London and MiL was unhappy at giving the go ahead for the final stage of the access works without him having seen what it entailed too. Fair enough I guess, but it did leave us having made a trip down seemingly for nothing. Undaunted though we decided instead to set to and see what jobs could be done, plus having the chance to spend time in MiL's rather fabulous and magical garden is always welcome, especially when it is with the company of the gorgeous Rose...

We started by transferring the delivery of logs which were up in the garage down to the woodshed by the house. This was somewhat complicated by there being a boat in the way....not a particularly large boat, but still one which meant that the wheelbarrow wouldn't go into the end of the garage where the logs had been tipped (nothing, but nothing is ever simple down there!) - the solution was a happy couple of hours chucking logs over the boat to where MrEH could load them  into the wheelbarrow and then get them down the hill! My arms and shoulders were extremely conscious of their workout - who needs the gym?! (Nobody if you have access to a delivery of logs and a wooden dinghy called Gloria!). Logs safely stashed we turned our attentions to the hedge which has for a good many years been blocking the light to, and the view from, the dining room window - amazing what a difference an 18" haircut can make! We also cleared brambles and cleared a load of rubbish away, all of which will save Mum In Law needing to do these jobs herself.

As always when I'm down there I enjoyed just wandering about the garden - there is something fascinating about someone else's garden I think? Especially when it's quite large, and with interesting oddments to be found, like overwintering snails...

...baskets without bases...

...and this stunningly beautiful camellia

And all with the accompaniment of this view...

Pretty good, eh? (Although that does give you the idea of quite how many steps have to be climbed to get anywhere at all!)