Tuesday 30 April 2013

Hebrides Countdown 2013...

Amazing to think that these stunning patterns are made simply by the waves and the winds - it almost looks as though a sculptor has been at work, painstakingly carving out the design of his choice! This particular work of art was on the beautiful beach at Luskentyre, Harris. The first time we saw this astonishing sweep of white sand was in 2003 - we had some time to kill before going on to Leverburgh for the ferry to North uist so got off the bus at the "Luskentyre turn" and walked the couple of miles down the side road to a point that overlooked the beach where we could sit and eat lunch - the view that greeted us was just breathtaking. We always try to go back now each year - there is no better place to sit and eat a sandwich, and it's a wonderful beach to wander around on too, although you do have to be cautious of "soft spots" in the sand. The RAF jets fly over from time to time - we suspect for sightseeing purposes as much as anything else as they invariably circle around and come back over for a second look!


Friday 26 April 2013

Frugal Friday...

Notice the unusual opening hours...
   The evil bods at that Supermarket beginning with the letter before U in the alphabet are at it again - sending me vouchers, that is! I invariably find that when I go easy on my shopping there for a few weeks - buying just the very bare basics that we need - they pop a few vouchers in the post, or I get a few more "till spits" than normal, and this time that coincided with their "Spend £20 and get a £5 voucher off your next £40 shop" promotion, so I decided that I may as well make the most of it to stock up on odds and ends that we will use anyway. For these sort of shopping trips I usually make a "2 part list" - so the stuff that we definitely want (in this case the usual weekly basics - Milk, Fruit, veg, then a complete re-stock of our frozen veg, (the last of the previous lot was eaten the week before) Cheese, butter and some more cold meats etc for lunches) plus a range of things that can be used to bring the value of the shop up to the voucher threshold - in this case of course £40. I then pick and choose from those items depending on which are on offer, and how far through our existing stash we are.

Most special offers happen on a recurring cycle, the trick to getting the most for your money is to know how often they recur - so 2 Fairy Liquid washing up liquid bottles for £2 for example, which is one of the offers I spotted when I shopped, I ignored because I know it comes along quite often. Finding "Ham ends" - the scraps from the ham-on-the-bone on the deli counter, for 40p per 100g, however, happens less often, so I bought a bag full! Some things I pretty much only buy on offer - Cheddar cheese for example, costs £5 for two big blocks, and if it's not at that price, I'll either go somewhere else where it is, or I'll go without.

This weekend I will be cheering these chaps on in their Cup Final...!
We shop to "Target prices" - a 4 pint container of milk is £1, crisps are 10p per packet, Fairy Liquid and cheese are, as you now know, £1 (per 500ml) and £2.50 per item respectively, and there are plenty of others too. Some people keep a notebook with these written in, I'd forget to update that though my list is far less detailed than many, and mainly lives in my head. Most of what we buy though we try to get as close to these target prices as possible Some things seem to be consistently going up in price - Apples are a good example of this and at the moment it certainly pays to compare pre-packed and loose prices. Crisps, oddly enough, don't seem to have increased that much over the last 10 years or so - although now we rarely buy in the supermarket, preferring to keep an eye out for the bargains in our local B&M, or on the stalls at the market. Does make you wonder when there is so much talk about healthy eating, and encouraging people to eat the "right" sort of foods, how come you can get three packets of crisps for the price of one apple!

When I'm shopping to a threshold like this, I keep a tally of the cost on my iPhone calculator as I'm going round the store, making sure I remember to add absolutely everything. I've done it in my head before now, but the calculator is easier and helps to make sure that you're not caught out by being a few pennies under the threshold at the till. It doesn't always work out though - this time round when everything had gone through it came to just under that precious £40 target, and that's when another nifty trick comes in - always have in your mind an "emergency top up item" - it needs to be something you will definitely use, and be within a 10 second dash of your chosencheckout - in my case this week it was an extra bag of the soda crystals I had already bought one pack of, costing £1.

I'm looking forward to these making their annual appearance...
One thing that has really jumped out at me recently is the tendency for products to "shrink" whilst staying at the same price. In my store cupboard is a big bottle of Mild Green Liquid Fairies bought just a few months ago - containing 1250ml of washing up juice. The "identical" bottle now contains 870ml - an absolutely huge drop! This is far from the only shrinkage too - you have to be ever more wary, I've found it's always worth keeping an eye out for old and new of the same product alongside one another on the shelf, too. Always compare various sizes of product and don't just assume that the larger size will be better value!


ps - before people start shouting, I HAVE tried Ecover and similar brands of washing up liquid, but our water is simply too hard to make them economical!

(Oh yes, random photos again....)

Tuesday 23 April 2013

Hebrides Countdown 2013...

Here's MrEH peering through a camera at Kilpheder, South Uist, on our 2009 trip. We're pretty much always equipped with binoculars and cameras while we are up in the Hebrides, so it's surprising that there aren't more shots like this one really, of one or the other of us! You can see the beautiful sweep of the beach too - this white sand stretches most of the way up the western side of the islands and it's fairly rare to find more than one, or at most a couple of other folk on whichever beach you choose. One of HRH Prince Charles favourite places is apparently West Beach on the island of Berneray - I'm not in the least surprised either, he's clearly a chap of excellent taste as it's been one of our favourite haunts for years too. We usually try to get a beach walk in as soon after arrival as possible, that moment of standing on a deserted expanse of sand, listening to nothing other than the sounds of the various birds that see it as home, and the crashing of the waves...and two weeks ahead of us of peace and tranquility.


Monday 22 April 2013

Serious Business...

We've just spent the weekend in Norwich at the Campaign for Real Ale's annual Members Weekend and AGM. We're what's known as "Active members" of the Campaign - volunteering at the National Beer festival each year (now relocated back "home" to Olympia) and also in advance of the festival at working weekends. There are plenty more active than us mind - many folk out there travel around the country doing festival after festival through the year - and taking part in things at local Branch level too - our local branch stuff is tricky to get involved with due to the times of the meetings being difficult for us, but we are looking to see if there is anything we can do about that. All staff at CAMRA beer festivals and within local branches are volunteers - and the campaign has an astonishing breadth of knowledge and experience within its membership to enable this.

So, Norwich - we travelled on the train on Friday afternoon, tickets booked in advance as ever to get them as cheaply as possible. We'd also booked a nice central Travelodge on a cheap rate nice and early on too, although for the first time ever we nearly fell foul of their habit of overbooking, as we got an email from them that morning asking whether we were definitely turning up. We fired off a response saying that we most certainly were and all was well when we checked in - friends though arrived later in the evening to find that their booking had had to be transferred elsewhere.

The AGM was being held in the beautiful St Andrews & Blackfriars Halls - the same location for the city's annual beer festival so it was a venue we knew. The weekend runs from Friday to Sunday, although the official AGM business is taken care of through the day on Saturday and on Sunday morning - Friday evening was all about catching up with many many great friends and sampling the excellent range of beers in the members bar - effectively a beer festival held just for those members attending, there is no public admission at all to this one. People come from far and wide to attend - we knew people there from Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man and the South Coast, and all points in between, but members even travel from the continent too, and there have frequently been attendees from the USA and other countries.

We spent most of the day on Saturday in the hall listening to the various debates and presentations on all aspects of Campaign business - some very interesting, some rather less so - but that is the way of such things! A speech from Community Pubs Minister Brandon Lewis MP was interesting to hear, and he also took a question an answer session afterwards. Once "business" was declared closed for the day we took the chance to pop out for a bit to get some air, and some sunshine (and some cake!) and sat with a cup of tea on the stone "terrace" overlooking the market for a while - lovely and colourful! A return to the Members bar and a bit more catching up with folks followed before we headed off with a group of pals to visit some of the local pubs.

Sunday is a much less formal day - our "National Executive" (Board of Directors, effectively) had all ditched their suits and ties and were dressed casually up on the platform - with many a loud shirt and pair of shorts to be seen on the chaps - and the atmosphere in the hall is far more relaxed and jolly too - having had a slow start on hearing the Motions to be put to conference on Saturday morning, they fairly rattled through them yesterday, and everything that was programmed was heard. Once the final Motion was voted on Chairman Colin wasted no time in declaring the business of the weekend closed and releasing us all for some final chat ahead of goodbyes as we all scattered...Norwich Station looked like a giant CAMRA meeting for much of the afternoon!

 We'd not attended an AGM for a fair few years for various reasons but with this years being held in our "home patch" of East Anglia it encouraged us to return. As we rather expected it was a thoroughly enjoyable weekend - always nice to meet up with people anyway, and as we would sometimes only see some of these folk once or twice a year it was great to have the chance to spend some proper time chatting and catching up. Next years will be held in Scarborough and we've already pencilled the dates into our diaries!

Are you a member of any large organisations that do this sort of thing, or are you involved in volunteering for anything on a local or National level?


Friday 19 April 2013

Frugal Friday...

30 Ways to save £1

Lots of bloggers are posting about This MoneySupermarket.com Challenge at the moment - I spotted Sue talking about it earlier in the week, and others have mentioned it too. I guess finding ways of saving an "actual" pound are quite tricky, but we all have lots of things that we do which save that over time, or maybe even more, in one go - here are mine:

1) Drive GENTLY. Cut out harsh braking or acceleration, leave in time that you don't have to rush, and clear out the toot in the boot! You MUST carry a tyre pump, and some water & screenwash is sensible "just in case" - but most of us carry a whole heap of nonsense that doesn't get used from one year to the next!
2) Keep your car maintained - while servicing etc can be pricey, at least a basic service is needed at the interval recommended by your car's manufacturer (or close to it, at least) and pumping up your tyres costs nothing, and keeps the Miles-Per-Gallon good too.
3) Wash your car by hand, not at the jetwash or carwash. This not only saves a fortune, but means that you spot any little bits of damage, rust spots etc before they spread and cause a problem.
4) Stick to the speed limit, and DON'T call or text while driving - obvious, I know, but if you drive within the law, you won't get hit with pricey fines or, worse, more expensive insurance!
5) Consider whether you actually NEED a car - if you live and work in the same city, then it may be that you don't, and hiring one when just needed would save you a fortune.
6) If like me you forget to return library books on time, then try buying from charity shops instead - I pay 40 0r 50p a book at our two excellent local independent charity shops. You're acquiring your reading material at a cut price, helping a good cause and saving on library fines, too!
7) Agree with friends/family to swap books between you once they've been read
8) Set up a "Community book exchange" either in a common area at home if you're in a flat and your lease allows it, or at your place of work maybe.
9) If you have friends with common interests, magazines are also a great swapping commodity - 4 of you into photography (for example) buy one magazine each a month, and get to read 4 for the same cost!
10) Consider a box of charity-shop books as a Christmas or Birthday present for a keen reader - they will love the amount of thought that has gone into it, AND the amount of money they will save on reading material!
11) Before buying new toiletries or cosmetics, sort through what you actually have - you might be surprised to find what stocks you've amassed!
12) Check out Pound Shops for bargains on toiletries - but go in with a clear idea in mind of what actually constitutes a "bargain" - a bottle of Shampoo for £1 is NOT cheap when Asda have an ongoing "4 for £3" deal on the brand - buy four bottles at Asda instead and that's your pound saved!
13) Check the pack sizes on things you buy in pound shops and discount stores - a lot of manufacturers make goods specially for these chains, in smaller-than-normal sizes - you might get better value elsewhere!
14) If you're on "Economy 7" electricity, and your living environment allows, use timeswitches to set up things like washing machines and dishwashers to run overnight on the cheap rate.
15) Charge your mobile in the car, or in the office (better still!) but only if your employer allows it!
16) Keep your eyes peeled - MrEH is a master at finding money lying about on the streets - he found over £80 that way in 2012! (OK, this is pushing the boundaries of "Saving" £1 - but it's in the spirit of it!)
17) Carry your charger cable with you on train journeys and plug in your mobile or tablet to charge for free while you travel.
18) Research before you buy tickets for travel - learn your way around sites like Red Spotted Hanky and Megabus - as well as learning the dates and times that the individual train companies release their "advance" bargain tickets. Even buying the night before rather than on the day saves you money on some routes.
19) Another perfectly legal and above-board way of saving money on train tickets is "Split Ticketing" - where you find out where your intended train is due to stop, and then see if tickets are cheaper "split" across two legs - ie - Totnes in Devon to London, Buy one ticket from Totnes to Bristol, and a second from Bristol to London - far cheaper than buying the straight single journey! Your train MUST stop to pick up passengers at the "splitting point" though.
20) Back to that "Economy 7" Electricity - learn the times when your cheap rate is in effect - with night-rate usually being around a third of the rate per unit in daytime, it's worth getting up ten minutes earlier to shower at a fraction of the cost!
21) When you think you have reached the end of a tube of handcream, or makeup, grab the tube, with the lid tightly on, by the very end and "flick" it hard to force the remaining contents towards the "exit". Once that stops working, cut it open and you can use the rest that way. Seal the cut end with a clip to keep it hygienic.
22) In lean months "audit" what food you have in the fridge, freezer and cupboards and plan your meals around what you have. Make mealplans flexible enough that if you don't fancy Cottage pie one night, you can have beans on toast instead...
23) When shopping make a list and stick to it. Try to shop without kids, or Partner in tow if you can - it's far easier to keep your resolution when you've not got someone else egging you on to buy treats!
24) Keep the foundations of some "easy" meals in - so if you get home late, and what was on the plan will take too long to cook, you can easily rustle up something as an alternative, rather than succumbing to the lure of the takeaway!
25) Shop around - get into the habit of price-checking everything you buy, from Milk to Insurance. At the time of writing one leading supermarket was selling a branded 2 litre bottle of milk for £1.98 - but look a bit harder in the same store and you can buy 4 pints (2.27 litres) for just £1 - under 50p a litre, or just 25p a pint!
26) Take care of the things you have - from mobile phones to shoes, everything lasts longer if you take care of it, saving you money on replacements.
27) Are you paying for expensive mobile phone insurance, because you think it's sensible to do so? If you have a habit of losing phones, or flushing them down the loo, then it might well be, but if that's not "you" you'd possibly do better putting that monthly payment into savings against replacement costs...
28) Check to see if products you pay for are included elsewhere - for example travel insurance with some bank accounts, and basic breakdown cover with some Car Insurance! You might be paying twice!
29) Cut out food waste. Check the fridge regularly and work out how to use up what's heading past its best. Remember - "Best Before" means just that - it's still safe to eat after that date but may taste slightly different (mostly things taste just as normal, in my experience).
And finally....
30) STOP AND THINK. Do you really need whatever it is? Can you actually afford it? If in doubt, step away...

There's my 30 tips - have you already done yours?


** For transparency, this post is part of a blogging challenge in which bloggers are being paid to offer their 30 favourite frugal tips**

Tuesday 16 April 2013

Hebrides Countdown 2013...

This is the view across to Lochboisdale from North Glendale - one of our favourite short walk/climbs. An easy plod up a small hill gets this lovely view - and we'll be getting a better view of Lochboisdale this year too as this is where we will be departing from at the end of the trip, heading back to Oban on one of calMac's longest crossings.

We've started chatting about the various walks we fancy doing - MrEH is still banging on about climbing Eaval but you can rest assured that you will NOT be reading about that one - well, not from my perspective anyway! We quite fancy doing it's small humpy next door neighbour - Burrival - again though, we thoroughly enjoyed that one last year. We both quite fancy having a go at South Lee - we climbed North a few years ago and the views are just astonishing, made even more special by timing it so that the ferry was just coming in at Lochmaddy as we reached the top, gaining me some really unusual shots which have gained lots of approving comment on every website they have been posted on! That one relies on the right sort of weather though - fairly cool, as there is a long walk-in which can leave you tired before even reaching the base of the hill itself! As ever, the planning is half of the fun - we may end up doing all, some, or none of these this year, we'll see!


Sunday 14 April 2013

Orkney Trip part 2...

Our first day with Fay and the clan dawned bright and sunny, and the dogs wasted no time in letting us know that they were ready and raring to go for a walk! We obviously didn't want to let them down, so headed off with Fay behind the wheel for some exploring at the Ring of Brodgar...

...this stone circle is reckoned to be about 4,500 years old, and is truly spectacular - it's surrounded by a large circular henge, or ditch, and is considered unusual due to its entirely circular shape. There used to be a lot more stones forming the ring - you can see in both the picture above, and this one...

...where there are gaps, and stones have broken off. The ring used to contain 60 stones, it's believed, but is now down to 27. As we walked around (Anti-clockwise, as per direction from Mr Flowers) it was obvious that there were several of the remaining stones with clefts, cracks and splits which will in time leave the ring with even fewer.

Another of Orkney's well known landmarks is the Brough of Birsay. For centuries this small tidal island was the centre of political and religious power in Orkney. The remains of the settlement are still visible quite clearly...

...and these have been dated from 800 - 1200AD. We arrived right on time to be able to cross the causeway - always something great fun about crossing a foot-causeway to get to an island!  The dogs had fun splashing around in the rockpools and Fay discovered a leaky wellie which is, as you'll appreciate, a disaster of epic proportions for one so married to her welliness as Fay!

When visiting a new place with a brewery, MrRH and I like to visit if we can, and Orkney has a very fine one indeed so our gallant hosts offered to take us there...after a quick browse in the shop lunch in the cafe at the visitors centre seemed like a good plan, and once that had been consumed The Flowers clan decided that they too fancied taking a tour, so we paid our money and went to find out some stuff about the brewery, and the beer...

Those are fermenting vessels, and in that one towards the back, with FV7 on the side, is my absolute favourite beer of all-time. Yum! Of course after every good brewery tour comes some sampling of the beers - we each got 3 little third-of-a-pint glasses with different beers in - and very good they were too. well, I thought so, MrEH definitely thought so as he got to drink the majority of Fay's- she's not a natural beer drinker that girl, although credit to her for trying repeatedly over the weekend to find one she liked!

As you can see, we didn't leave anything!

One final post to come on the trip - probably next week.


Friday 12 April 2013

Frugal Friday...

..Facilitating Fun! This is of course the reason for the fruguality, well, that, and making life more simple, easy and peaceful - quite simply though, we are frugal in our everyday lives in order that we can continue to hammer down that mortgage whilst still being able to live life, spend time with friends, and experience "stuff". We were out on Saturday when a chum said "Who else is coming on that trip to Sheffield then?"... ummmmm...."We thought that wasn't happening?" said I "Nobody else seemed that interested?" Seemingly though others WERE that interested, and had booked things like train tickets, and accommodation, already! Oops! A quick check in our "fun account" revealed that, so long as we were a bit cautious about how we did it, we should be able to go ahead and book the trip, so we gathered together our good pals Red Spotted Hanky, TopCashBack & LateRooms and got down to some online research...

The accommodation side was straightforward. We wanted to stay centrally, and, preferably in the same location as others. A quick check to see if there was cashback available through TopCashBack (there was) and that was quickly booked. Next up was the travel. We'd already decided to travel on Saturday morning, returning on Sunday afternoon, as this would save us a nights accommodation cost, and the majority of others would not be arriving until Saturday anyway. A quick look revealed nothing much even vaguely cheap going direct from London to Sheffield direct, so we broadened the net a little....I remembered that a good friend had recently booked bargain priced tickets from Doncaster to London and back, and as this particular pal happens to live in Sheffield, I figured that the travel between Doncaster & Sheffield itself must be both easy, and reasonably priced. Sure enough, I discovered that the single fare for that bit was just £4.50, and then tracked down a couple of nice £9.50 singles from London to Doncaster - result! Both of us up there for £14 each - no arguments there. The way back was always going to be slightly dearer - but again, a bit of looking, and considering of split ticketing options revealed an option for a return direct from Sheffield to London St Pancras for £20 each. As the Saturday night is likely to be fairly "lively" - the possibility of just sitting quietly for 3 hours whilst we go from A>B on the way home was too tempting to ignore, so we grabbed this with little hesitation! The bookings were made through Red Spotted Hanky again as their prices were the same as the individual train operating companies. We had £10 of free credit to use, gained from the Sunday Telegraph's giveaway a few weeks back, and were pleased to discover also that RSH are now on TopCashBack. Add to that the site's own loyalty points, gained on all bookings through them, and the cashback we get for using our credit card to pay...none of these amount to much, but every little helps!

I bet at least one person reading this has thought to themselves "Phew - that sounds like an awful faff, just to save a few quid!" and yes, it was a little time-consuming, although the more you do this kind of travel-research, the easier and quicker it becomes. I guess from start to finish I spent under an hour on the whole process - although I could have been substantially quicker. Had I just gone and bought the first return ticket that suggested itself to me, the travel would have cost us £70.50 each. As it was, the total cash cost was £29.00 each. This represents a massive saving of £82.00 on the journey as a whole - which is pretty good as an hourly rate! That we could just decide, effectively on the spur of the moment, to go and book a weekend away like this was due to a combination of our "fun" savings accounts - I have one of my own and we have a joint one, too - and canny shopping about for the best deals. We do the same thing to pay for our main holiday, and our short break over Easter - set aside money across the year in a savings account for the purpose. Cashback payments go to this as well, and mount up over the year. The Mortgage OP's meanwhile are funded by money we've gradually created as surplus from our monthly income, and extra payments over that are made from "unexpected money" - so savings on bills, the 2 months a year when Council Tax and Water rates aren't payable, and that sort of thing.

You often read on frugal type blogs that people "can't afford" this, or that, but when you look a little harder it's down to priorities. We try for the most part to make things last as long as we can, to maintain, repair and care for what we have, and when things do go wrong, there is usually a conversation (ok, it might be short, but it's still there!) as to whether we actually "need" to replace the thing. Our stereo is the latest thing to be in the firing line - the CD player stopped working ages ago, and now the rest is getting rather crackly and unreliable too. We came home a few weeks ago to find it had switched itself into demo mode and had been happily playing away all day...we have the money saved in our household account (yes, you've guessed it, we have a savings account for that too!) which would pay for a replacement, but are now questioning whether to buy another, or not. We've looked, and found nothing that we both liked the look of. We're not entirely agreed on what features we would want - an ipod dock would be handy so far as I'm concerned, and MrEH wonders whether we'd miss the tape deck our current one has (none of the new ones in a sensible price range have them) - we'd both like the radio to be a digital one....but would we use it enough to justify the purchase? We can play CD's on the DVD player, and use the laptop or Sky box for radio... For now we will look, continue to discuss, and keep our money in our bank account.


Wednesday 10 April 2013


I've been dealing with some "stuff" over the last few days, and as a result have been struggling to write blog posts in spite of the fact that I have a whole list of things I want to tell you about. all those photos from Orkney, the Rugby boys have won their league AND are through to the cup- final, and  I want to plan some more "Hebrides Countdown" posts and get a Frugal Friday or two planned, but none of those things would come simply because other "stuff" was blocking the thought processes.

A friend of mine attempted to commit suicide in the early hours of the morning on Sunday. He's not a close friend, but is someone I have known vaguely for years and years, see about and chat with on a semi-regular basis, and keep in contact with via the internet. The internet - and social media networks specifically - are great for that. Keeping in contact with the folks that otherwise, you might not, that "Hiya, how's things" type contact. It's not very good at seeing when there is really a problem though - there are so many "woe is me" type posts appearing, so many people saying things, or sometimes quite deliberately NOT saying things, to beg for attention. And mostly, it's just that - attention seeking. Sometimes, as a result of all that though, a genuine cry for help gets missed. We look at someone's posts and think "Hmmm - hope they are OK - I'll check back later" and then forget, or, as in this case, by the time we DO check back, we find that the person has done something that (hopefully) they will regret, and are being treated accordingly.

The death of Baroness Thatcher on Monday wasn't entirely unexpected, and neither was the fact that certain people had no real feelings of sadness on hearing the news. she was a strong, opinionated lady, who fought fiercely for her beliefs, and to make what she wanted of her life. Such people always meet with opposition. What was shocking however was the torrent of vitriol poured out on FaceBook, Twitter and elsewhere.  This is not a political comment - I don't DO politics publicly - my personal political beliefs are just that, personal, and I won't be sharing them here (or anywhere else). I'd ask that anyone commenting on this post respects that also - I will remove any comments which are a political rant, or are rude, abusive, or inconsiderate of the fact that, at the end of the day, she was a Mother, a Grandmother, possibly an Auntie too, I don't know. Her family are feeling right now just the same as you will (or possibly did) when your Mother, Grandmother, Sister or Auntie passes away - and seeing people (Some of whom were not even ALIVE when she was in power!) claiming to be "drinking a glass of bubbly" or "throwing a party" must have been unbelievably hard. Add to that the fact that they now have to go through a very public ceremonial funeral, and this time must be truly awful for them. I suspect when I lose my Mum I will want to curl up in a corner, hide away from the world and not come out for a VERY long while, and Carol may well be feeling that way now, but instead she has TV cameras trained on her, and will have her every move watched as she says her final farewells to her Mother. She didn't choose her Mother's career, nor does she bear any responsibility for the decisions made during that career, and so at the very least deserves a little dignity and respect now. Treat people as you would wish to be treated, is often said, and this rings very true. I can think of little worse than, whilst in the midst of a deep personal tragedy, to see others glorying in it. To that I will add - if you can't think of something nice (or at the least respectful) to say, then please, on this blog, and on my personal FaceBook page, and directly addressed to me ANYWHERE, in fact - then kindly keep your gob shut. :-)

As I said, stuff has been occurring elsewhere also. I won't go into detail, but suffice to be said, it pales into insignificance when compared to what others are dealing with. It brings home also an element of self-awareness I think - I've found myself thinking was there anything I could have done in relation to my friend's situation - the answer, no, probably not. I did correspond with him the day before with an effort at support, but being many miles away rather than there with the person, this isn't always easy. Being a "grown Up" can be tough, taking responsibility for our actions even harder, but I believe that we all owe it to ourselves to stop, think, take responsbility, and then, if appropriate, take the toughest step of all - to stick our heads above the parapet and say "I believe this is wrong". Thatcher proved beyond doubt that standing up for your beliefs can make you unpopular, but at the very least when your time comes, you can rest easy with your own conscience. And in the grand cycle of life & death, most of the other stuff isn't really very important, is it?


Tuesday 9 April 2013

Hebrides Countdown 2013...

It's that time of year again! With all the snow and ice there has been about this winter I thought this shot was quite appropriate, had we been travelling up at our old time of Easter we'd have been concerned about the possibility of having another drive up like the one in 2006, when this shot was taken. This was the first time we had taken the car up, and taking advice we headed up the M6 on the Friday afternoon on our way to our planned overnight stop at Glasgow. The advice proved very poor indeed as we hit appalling traffic caused by roadworks seemingly every 25 miles or so, eventually arriving at our booked Travelodge after 11.30pm.  On getting up the following morning Ben started the driving - at that stage he was still relatively inexperienced behind the wheel so our plan was for him to drive the first bit out of Glasgow, and for me to take over before we reached the tricky bit of the A82...it wasn't to be though as within a short time we encountered heavy snow which had fallen overnight and it became impossible for us to find anywhere to pull over to change drivers and he ended up having to drive for far further than we intended in very difficult conditions!

Since that year we have always elected to use the M11, A1 and A66 to reduce the amount of M6 we have to cover to an absolute minimum, and thankfully have never since encountered such heavy snowfalls either!


Sunday 7 April 2013

Orkney trip part 1

Well, that's us back from a fabulous adventurising Easter break in the company of lovely Fay, MrFlowers and of course their faithful hounds. Well, hounds is pushing it a bit - neither of them have legs long enough to quite qualify for that. They are both utterly adorable though - perfect walking companions and masters of disguise to boot. 

We saw round a good chunk of Mainland Orkney over our last few days - "Flowers Sightseeing Inc" would be a most excellent sideline and we would happily endorse it! The islands themselves are very different to our more familiar Hebrides in a lot of ways - Gaelic isn't really spoken, although the Orcadian dialect is fabulous - how can you NOT like a language that has a specific word just for that feeling of just wanting to flop out after a big meal?! The people have a fierce independence from Scotland too - "Mainland" means the main Island of Orkney itself, rather than mainland Scotland, for example, and you see the Union flag flying far more than the Scottish Saltire. The Orcadian flag itself is similar to the Norwegian one, with some differences in colours, and as in a lot of ways the Islands feel more closely allied to Norway than to the rest of the UK this is not surprising.

The easiest way to tell you all about the trip will be by breaking it down into chunks I think, so keep your eyes open for other blogs on the trip over the next couple of weeks....

For now though, here's the first bit - the journey up, and a bit of a wander around Thurso....

The sleeper pulled in to Aberdeen about 10 minutes early - not uncommon as all the stops from Preston on are to drop off passengers only, so there's no need for them to stick to a specific departure time, and generally, people are quite content being early, aren't they! We still didn't really have any spare time to do much wandering, so we popped outside the station for some air, and were taken aback by how much it had changed since our last visit, 10 years or so ago. After a short wait our Inverness train was called and we started heading North....

You can spot as soon as you get into the area for the distilleries - just look at all the whisky casks piled high! No idea which one this was I'm afraid - the trains goes past a number of them though. On we went passing through lovely cheery little stations, including this one which had a florist on the platform...

...and just LOOK at that weather - how glorious to be seeing some sunshine rather than the almost constant greyness we'd been suffering with in the South east for so long. A quick (very quick!) change at Inverness, and onwards - to the very top edge of Scotland and Thurso....

...where it was snowing. Hmmm. Thankfully it didn't last long - we pottered about at the station for a few minutes and by the time we walked down into the town itself the sun was shining again. First stop was a very welcome cuppa - although warmer than at home (yes, we were surprised too!) it was still a bit nippy so we found a nice cafe and sat for a bit, before heading off to explore as we had a few hours before our ferry. Right in the middle of town is this fascinating ruined church...

...sadly all locked up so we couldn't go in for a look around - a shame as it looked really interesting. A bit more wandering and we found ourselves by the water...by this time the weather was looking superb...

...and what else could we do but head for a wander along the beach?!

There you go - that's the Island of Hoy you can see, and if you look very, very carefully to the left of the main land-mass, you can just see the Old Man of Hoy sea stack. Ironically enough this was the only look at it we did get, as it was pitch black by the time we went past on the ferry!  After a bit of a wander we ambled round to Scrabster to get the ferry...

...and another quick cuppa in the cafe there before MV Hamnavoe appeared and it was time to head aboard for the next mode of transport in our trip which had started on the sleeper some 22 hours earlier. By this stage the constant sense of movement had begun to play havoc with my balance and I was feeling like I was moving even when sitting perfectly still in the ferry terminal - a slightly freaky feeling and one which I was very glad went away once we'd been stationery on dry land for a while later on that evening!  The ferry crossing started with delicious fish & chips, continued with this rather stunning sky...

...when we popped out on deck for a few minutes - it was too cold to stay out long - and ended with a sit on a beautiful comfy sofa in one of the passenger areas on board - we were extremely impressed with the high standard of the ferry and frankly, dear old MV Hebrides is going to feel like a bit of a come-down in a few weeks time!


Friday 5 April 2013

Frugal Friday...

It's still so COLD! As I type snow is whirling past the window, which is frankly ridiculous in April in the South East! We spent the Easter weekend up in Orkney as you know, and were fully expecting it to be even more bitterly chilly up there, but to our surprise it was glorious - Ben was walking around in short sleeves on one day and even I left my gloves off a fair amount of the time!

The ongoing cold weather down here has raised the slightly unusual scenario of us still having the heating switched on. Usually it would go off at the latest by mid-march, and often earlier. As things stand at the moment there is simply no way that we could turn it off altogether as the flat would simply get too cold and damp, and that wouldn't do us, OR it, any good at all. You often see folks out there in Blog-world asserting the fact that if you're serious about being frugal then you should just turn off your heating for good and "man up!" - and if that's what they want to do, then that's just grand for them, but in all honestly modern houses simply aren't designed not to be heated at all - they get damp, or in the case of many places, damp-er  - which can cause health issues for you and problems in the future when you come to look at selling. The more sensible approach is probably to keep heating on at a very low level, and take advantage of any warmer, brighter days to air the place by opening doors and windows too. For those like us who already have problems with damp (1950's built properties simply weren't designed to have double-glazing!) then a dehumidifier can be a running-expense worth paying, also.

A conversation the other day with a pal on the subject of storage heaters started me thinking about the different ways we can use to manage both power-use and keeping warm.  Half the battle if you are Economy 7 (or "Dual Rate") electric is to know the timings - in the winter (GMT) months ours clicks over to night-rate at midnight, and clicks off again at 7am, and once BST kicks in, it starts at 1am and finishes at 8am. As you might imagine for general use the summer is by far the better time - one of our biggest power-scoffers is our electric shower, and there being time for both of us to have a shower on the night rate makes a huge difference. The washing machine and dishwasher both run overnight - when our washing machine needed replacement a few years back we specifically looked for one with a "time-delay" function - so we set it up before we go to bed and then the machine starts running a few hours later. (Before anyone exclaims in horror we are in a ground floor flat with solid concrete walls, ceilings and floors!). The dishwasher is plugged in through a timeswitch and so also starts running at the same sort of time. At this time of year if there is a lot of washing to be done we throw a load in when we get up and that too runs through on the cheap rate.

I'm gently jealous of anyone who is able to have one of those lovely wood-burning stoves - we spent some time round one over the weekend, and the warmth it threw out was just fantastic. Sadly for a lot of us even if our homes were originally designed to be heated with any sort of real fire that facility has long since been removed, either by chimneys being capped off, chimney breasts being removed, or simply by the chimney falling into disrepair as a result of lack of maintenance. This last is our problem, and with three flats above us, getting the chimney re-lined would be prohibitively expensive. Thanks to the previously mentioned heavy-duty concrete floors, getting central heating installed would also be ridiculously difficult, so we're pretty much stuck with the storage heaters. The trick we have found is to keep them set at a "taking the chill off" level, and then augment with our little oil-filled radiator as needed. Although only small, it does an outstanding job of warming the place up, and once it's heated up, uses surprisingly little power. In the very coldest weather we use it on a time-switch to warm our unheated bathroom before we go in there in the mornings too. We also have several of those fleece blankets about the place - one goes over the duvet on the bed and for a seemingly light extra layer is astonishingly warm! While we're about it, here are some other crafty "keeping warm" tips:
- Close the curtains! Obviously we all want to make the most of our lovely lighter evenings, but as soon as the lights need to go on, get those curtains and blinds pulled. Yes, this even applies if you have double-glazing!
- The "Thermal Blinds" you can buy are wonderful - the one we fitted to our bathroom makes an incredible difference.
- Light a couple of candles in a safe place - they produce more heat than you would expect!
- Layers - I generally change to my pyjamas when I get in from work, and if it's cold I add a fleece - or sometimes two - and a pair of snuggly socks too! No bare arms or feet in our house in the cold weather!
- If you've been cooking using the oven, once you've finished with it, and if safe to do so (ie no small children about) leave the door open to let the heat out into the room.
- Consider lined curtains - or improvise by pinning lightweight fleece throws (in a pale colour) to the backs of your existing curtains.
- MOVE! No, not move house, move yourself! If you start feeling chilly rather than let yourself get really cold, get up and sort out some washing, do the washing up, run the vacuum cleaner round....

How about you? What little tricks do you employ for keeping warmer and keeping the bills down at the same time?


ps - the two photos attached to this were taken with my new iPhone - I'm extremely impressed with the camera on it!