Sunday 29 December 2013

Walking off the turkey...

By Boxing Day afternoon I'm usually itching to get out and stretch my legs, and as we're usually with my parents, we can borrow the dog as a decent excuse for this! This year was no exception, wellies and walking boots were donned and we set off into a crisp winter afternoon.

We're lucky both where we live and where my parents are that we're an easy walk into some nice countryside. The town is punctuated with green "wedges" and once you get to the outskirts there is some nice walking. The dog certainly approves - look, this face says it all!

 Out along the lane, alongside the Nature Reserve, and then a walk up over the common gets us into the woods - like so much of our forests locally this is mixed, Beech & Oak mainly. Makes for some fabulous autumnal colour, and even at this time of year it still looks pretty good...

There are still just enough leaves hanging on close to the ground to add some interest too.

Today we were back out again - I was given rather a nifty little pedometer for christmas so am feeling the need to test it out thoroughly! Our side of town this time, and just us, no four legged person, but what fantastic weather it was for it!

Out through the woods, along what has always been a footpath and so we were slightly alarmed to find padlocked gates at the end! We presume however that this is simply to prevent our local "caravan dwellers" from gaining access as a bit of looking revealed a very user friendly pedestrian access around one side of the fence! We couldn't resist a wander around the new trendy housing development - I've blogged about this before, it's the place with the bar-code houses...

...each to their own I guess but living here wouldn't suit me at all. Middle of a Friday afternoon when most people are off work for Christmas and the place was deserted - hardly anyone out. I invariably leave the place wondering if the world has ended and nobody remembered to tell me and today was no exception.

Full of square houses...
Thankfully when we did get to the other side of it there was a rather lovely sunset just starting to remind us that there was still a world out there...


Friday 27 December 2013

Frugal Friday - Guest Post!

This week I'm handing you over to Rachel of Wittgenstein's Watering Can who's dug her way out from under a mountain of soft fruit to give me a "week off"!

"It's been nine months. The first few weeks were exciting and a bit scary. The following months have been amazing, frustrating, hard work, fulfilling. There's been aches and pains, some very messy moments, doubts and minor squabbles. But it's all been worth it.

Nope, I've not had a baby. Nearly nine months ago, I got my allotment. I got an allotment because I love gardening - gardening of the 'growing things to eat' variety, that is, I'm not good with flowers. I'd done some fruit and veg growing on a minor scale but was frustrated by the small quantities I could produce in the back garden. Growing your own is often touted as a way to save money, and you can make a dent in your food budget on a small scale - pots of herbs on the windowsill instead of pricey packets in the supermarket, soft fruit growing up your garden fence. But if you're not careful it can end up costing you more than it saves. By the time you add up seeds, equipment, compost, etc, you might wonder what the point is.

The point for me was always the enjoyment of growing, the sense of achievement and knowing exactly where my food came from and how it was grown. But I've been on a tight budget for more years of my life than I'd like to admit, so I've become slightly obsessive about how much things cost and making savings where I can. And I was trying to not spend too much (all gardeners know the lure of the seed catalogue!)

I started keeping a list of produce from the allotment just out of interest. But then a debate on my allotment site's Facebook page about rising rents got me thinking. Was this a hobby that was costing me money or did it actually save me some?

So I did the sums...


Allotment rent including water supply (which I've only used once when the water butts ran empty) - £100 for the year

Tools and equipment - I had most of this already, I asked for some as Christmas/ birthday presents, and I bought some using vouchers gained from doing online surveys. My main outlay has been rubber gloves as I find these much easier to work in than gardening gloves (apart from those jobs where you really do need good protection from spiky things - loganberry bushes, I'm looking at you). I'll estimate about £20 for this.

Compost - £0 - I compost fruit and veg scraps, tea bags, paper etc at home and transport this up to the allotment (yes, there probably are slugs in the car - see below). There's also two big heaps on the go on the plot.

Seeds and plants - £40(ish) - again these were mostly bought with vouchers, acquired as freebies, or kindly donated by friends. I did buy some fruit trees which were on a Groupon offer for £25 and I've bought the odd pack of seeds, garlic for growing, fruit bush along the way.

Petrol - to actually get an allotment, I had to leave the waiting list for the ones nearest to my house, and join a site further away. It would be a good hour or so walk, and not too convenient carrying a fork and a tub of compost. The car has become something of a travelling shed. I've not the faintest idea how much this costs per journey though.

So £160-ish plus petrol costs.


I have to say that I was lucky here - it has been a fantastic growing year, and I inherited an extremely well-cared for allotment, with great soil, and already established raspberries, rhubarb and blackberries. But it does show what can be achieved. This is (sometimes accurately, sometimes approximately) what the allotment produced:

Potatoes - 34kg
Onions - 57
Garlic - 25
Beetroot - 43
Leeks - 100
Turnips - 10
Radishes - 100
Chard - lots
Kale - endless kale
Rocket - about 1kg
Broad beans - 500g (not terribly successful)
Rhubarb - 2kg
Little Gem lettuces - 24
Carrots - 35
Fennel - 4
Swede - 10
Raspberries - 16.8kg
Blackberries - 16kg
Strawberries - 4 (yes, 4)
Sprouts - enough for Christmas dinner
Peas - some, but the mice ate them

I worked out the price of the fruit at the time - mainly because it was a huge amount of fun to pick 3kg of raspberries then go into the supermarket and realise you had about £30 worth of fruit. The rest I've estimated using, and the total for produce comes out at.... £489!

In the last couple of weeks there's been some festive additions to that too - the giant evergreen tree yielded some branches which were turned into a Christmas 'tree' and a wreath (with the addition of ivy from the garden and holly from the local park). They may not be quite as picturesque as those you can buy (and that angel refuses to stand up straight) but a tree that size and a wreath would come to at least £30 I reckon, tipping the final total over £500.

Surprising, and quite impressive, although it's worth pointing out that the raspberries and blackberries alone make up £328 of that. It's also worth pointing out that I have never in my life bought that much fruit - so I certainly can't claim to have 'saved' that much on berries. But it has meant that I've not bought other things, different fruit, or puddings. I also used some of the fruit to make jam and wine. The maths gets a bit tricky here as I had to buy sugar and yeast for this, but I suspect that the end product (especially the 30-odd bottles of wine) still works out cheaper than buying it.

This looks like a fabulous advert for rushing out to get on the allotment list NOW (and I'd certainly not discourage anyone from doing that) but it's worth adding a few disclaimers. Not every year will be as good as this year. If you get a run-down, overgrown plot, it's not going to produce this lot in its first nine months. It's not just about the money - it takes work and time, and if you costed your 'man/ woman hours' the total wouldn't be anything like as high. The above was grown and harvested by two people who spent a half-day every week on the allotment, plus lots extra in July and August (and have the scruffiest plot compared to all the retired folks around us who are there every other day). But that's not really the point - even though sometimes it feels like too much work, the joy of being out there and doing it outweighs that (most of the time). You could argue that the physical activity saves you money on a gym membership (but you have to bear in mind that you will probably eat far more crumble than is really good for you).

Next year, the allotment rents go up, and I'll be paying £160 for the year. There's been lots of lessons learned this year, so I expect some crops to do better, but we're always at the mercy of the weather/ slugs/ mice/ diseases/ pigeons/ the pheasant who likes to hop around our plot nibbling stuff. It's certainly not an 'income' (we aren't allowed to sell anything we grow), but it has - to my surprise - turned out to be well worth the investment.

Oh and the messy moments? Lots of mud, blackberry-stained everything, and my other half falling - yes, actually falling - in the water butt!"

Tuesday 24 December 2013

Looking back...June & July

As June started we were in the Hebrides - it's so much more than somewhere we go on holiday now - we have friends there and always seem to come back having made new ones - this year it was Stuart, Simon, Deborah & Jennifer who we enjoyed some fantastic RSPB walks with.

RSPB Balranald

The second week of our holiday also saw our 2-day trip over to Lewis/Harris. It's a lovely ferry crossing and we've found an excellent campsite with fabulous views and just a stones throw from a beach with amazing sunsets....look....

Shawbost Beach, Lewis although it eats a chunk of our budget we don't mind a bit!

July started rather oddly as my lovely Dad suffered a small heart attack early in the month. Once they established the seriousness of the problems he stayed in hospital - first here in Harlow and subsequently being moved to Basildon's supposedly fantastic new cardiac unit. This is not the place  to discuss that but we were distinctly unimpressed. His triple-bypass went without a hitch thankfully and he was discharged home just 4 days later.

In between hospital visiting we did manage to squeeze in a few other bits too - not least a weekend camping in Suffolk for my birthday. We visited the wonderful RSPB Minsmere reserve, then moved on to Aldeburgh for the evening, as ever stopping to take photos of "that" sculpture...

...and lots of fabulous butterflies...

We followed that with a trip to another of our favourite spots the next day - Southwold, with it's wonderful pier and brightly coloured beach huts. A PROPER British seaside resort.

There were other bits of fun too - a beery trip to Sheffield where we met up with LOTS of lovely folk from our Great British Beer Festival Bar, and also had tea & cake with another cheery pal, Jenni. There was our usual trip to the North Norfolk Railway beer festival, and lots of fab walks in the sunshine too!

Sunday 22 December 2013

Some random stuff...

I've finally seen Milton Keynes' famous Concrete Cows! They've been moved to the comparative shelter of one of the shopping centres, and we came across them entirely by chance - I was absolutely delighted!

A Sunday breakfast at a spanking new cafe - Wings, at North Weald Airfield. The breakfast was good...

and it came with a noisy side-order of Jet Provost, too!

Lots of traffic, and lots of fog. A combination of knackered traffic lights and the weather did mean I spotted this lovely tree lurking on a roundabout waiting to be photographed, though...

A trip to the Farm Shop during Supermarket Avoidance Week - and an entreaty...

Fog causing more problems in the air above us - apparently Stansted and Gatwick were both fine, but it looks like Heathrow was having some problems.

Meant I got to play with my favourite new phone App though - the excellent Flight Radar 24 - it was recommended by Carol Vorderman on Twitter as being utterly addictive and it really is!

And finally, possibly the nicest form of "rent payable" you'll ever see. Look...

...For those of challenged eyesight, I can confirm that it says that the rent for this property is "One red rose on midsummers day in each year" - and yes this was in a real, live lease, sitting on my desk in front of me!


Friday 20 December 2013

Frugal Friday...

As I write, the supermarkets are full of people running around in a panic mindlessly filling trollies and baskets with all manner of fancy foods that they would never dream of buying the rest of the year. Why? Because it's Christmas, you know! The season of good profits to all retailers, or something like that! Sure, we buy bits and pieces over and above what we'd usually get - the turkey is a good example, and Mum always pays a little more for a free range locally bred one - we know what goes into it and as a result we know that the meat will taste delicious. The bird will feed us all on Christmas day, and again on Boxing day, and that will more or less be it done. There will be a few "pop them in the oven" snacky bits for Christmas day tea too - which are tasty and make life easier.

Our tradition on Boxing Day is that Mum and I don't cook - well who wants to be slaving over a stove after all the cooking the day before? So whatever people want to eat, it either gets eaten cold, or, if they want to, they can pop it in the oven. This means that by the most part leftovers have been mostly consumed by the end of the 26th - no mountains of wasted food to be thrown away. We also try to remember that actually, the shops are only closed for 2 days - and we don't need to lay in supplies for some kind of siege!

MrEH makes our Christmas cake - a huge and epic affair to his Mum's recipe - always delicious and thanks to a liberal "feeding" with rum, it keeps pretty much forever also - no throwing away manky cake come the end of January! Mince pies - I buy a 1lb jar of fairly basic mincemeat, empty it into a mixing bowl and double its quantity by adding additional fruit, brandy or calvados, maybe some chopped nuts and glace cherries, and then make exactly the number of mince pies that the jar will then stretch to - the first batch are made then the remaining mincemeat spooned back into the jar until I make the second batch a few days later. It's usually tasting even better by then! We don't buy tins of biscuits or chocolates - we wouldn't buy that sort of thing the rest of the year so it honestly doesn't occur to us to buy them at Christmas. If some get bought for us then fantastic, that's lovely!

One of Mr EH's epic Christmas cakes - decorated by me!
To follow Christmas day lunch - some people stick with tradition and go for Christmas pudding, we've always found that a bit heavy though so tend to come up with something else - again you can spend a fortune on buying a posh pre-made dessert, but fortunes can be saved by making something yourself if you're a reasonably confident cook. Last year we had Lemon Meringue Pie which went down a storm, the year before was a New York Baked cheesecake. This year we're planning on a Lemon & Lime cheesecake topped with home made lemon & lime curd. The lemons are the remainder of the net we bought when Ben needed one for the cake, and the limes were bought at £1 for a bowlful of them from the market. The base will be basic digestive biscuits crushed up, with value butter to mix. The curd will use that same value butter too - and will cost us less than the cost of a jar of "posh" lemon curd - we'll end up with probably 4 jars - several of which will go to people as Christmas presents. The zestiness and freshness of lemon works particularly well to follow a large meal like Christmas dinner.

Other great and easy things to make which might get you a better product for a cheaper price:
Pigs in Blankets: Chipolata sausages - long ones can be twisted in the middle to make two - wrapped in streaky bacon. one rasher of streaky does 2 sausages if it's well stretched using the flat of a knife.
Bread sauce - check BBC Good Food for a choice of recipes - it's absolutely simple, I promise! make in advance to the point of adding any cream then add cream with you reheat it on the big day.
Houmous - whizz cooked chickpeas (or a drained tin) with a blob of yogurt, a slug of olive oil, a blob of tahini and a squeeze of lemon juice until you get a smooth puree. Season to taste & add more lemon if needed. Posh up by sprinkling lightly toasted sesame seeds and a drizzle of olive oil on the top when you serve it.
Other dips - soured cream & chive is exactly as it sounds, as is yogurt & cucumber. Greek Yogurt with some finely chopped mint stirred in is gorgeous - leave it aside for a couple of hours once made to let the mint infuse. Salsa - easy - a well drained tin of chopped tomatoes, some very finely chopped onion, a splash of balsamic and as much chilli as suits your taste. Use smoked chilli or add a little smoked paprika if you like for a bit of extra depth of flavour. Add half a spoonful of sugar and stir through well, and add finely chopped coriander leaf just before you serve it.
Coronation chicken - equal parts Mayo & Yogurt, add a good dollop of mango chutney for sweetness, a handful of sultanas and enough curry paste to get the right colour and flavour - trial and error, and again very much subject to taste!
Sausage rolls - basic savoury shortcrust pastry rolled out quite thinly. Remove sausages from their skins and lay on the pastry (the sausages, not you) flatten slightly then roll up. You can add a bit of cheese, or caramalised chopped onion.
Cheese straws - shop bought puff pastry - roll out thinly, sprinkle with finely grated cheese and fold over. Repeat, then re-roll to nearly it's original size. Cut into thin strips, twist and "stick down" by the ends onto a baking sheets. Brush with egg/milk mix and sprinkle with smoked paprika, cayenne or toasted sesame seeds depending on your own taste. Alternately borrow my Mum* - her cheese straws/biscuits are absolutely legendary and the downfall of many a christmas day diet!

So - what are your failsafe fall-backs for home made christmas food? Do you make absolutely everything from scratch, or, like us, buy a few pre-mades in the name of an easier life?

As this is the last Frugal Friday before Christmas, I'll wish you a very happy and cosy Christmas and a healthy and frugal New Year!


(*Not really - any cheese straws she chooses to make will be fallen upon ravenously by our household - make your own!)

Wednesday 18 December 2013

HRH The Cat.

She came into our lives just a couple of months before we got married - a small furry black & white ball with razor sharp teeth & claws. Initially she spent much of her time curled around the radiator pipes in our old flat, apparently impervious to the fact that these were far too hot for us to touch! Not deterred, she proceeded to use up several more of her nine lives by - within her first few months, nearly getting flushed down the toilet (I grabbed her by the tail literally about half a second from disaster) and falling out of a first floor window. She also on one notable occasion stalked into the flat absolutely covered in diesel - naturally at a time when MrEH was out. Picture the scene - there I am with the cat in one hand, phone in the other to call the vets and say what should I do? The answer of course was "You'll need to give her a bath" which was rapidly followed up by Sharon at the vets saying " you think you'll be able to bath her? You might need to bring her in so we can do it - we've got more people to, well, hold onto her?!" Yes, her reputation had already spread far and wide! (That bath has NEVER been repeated either - we learn fast!)

This was a cat who learned her Green Cross Code at an early age - quite literally looking both ways before she crossed the road. The night our second cat, Muffin, died, she climbed onto my lap and refused to move, climbing back on each time I got up to make a cup of tea or do something else in the flat. When we first moved to Harlow she thought that all her Christmases had come at once - and for months we got an endless stream of mice, voles, birds, and even once a shrew. Her finest hour was the day she arrived back over the wall proudly carrying a still very much alive and flapping woodpigeon. It was a warm day and she shot straight into the front room with it before we could stop her. It took some time to clear the room of feathers, and it also took some time for HRH to stop strutting around looking smug...

Neighbours alternately considered her "sweet" or "spawn of the devil" depending on how likely she thought they were to feed her. When our lovely next door neighbours' (T & M) elderly cat died, she was triumphant over the local territory at last, but also wasted no time in taking up the empty space on T's lap, once again seemingly knowing that comfort was needed.

Sadly HRH will not be bringing home any more pigeons, and her 9 lives are now used up. We thank the person who was kind enough to - rather than just driving past the cat lying at the side of the road - take her to a vets to allow her final journey to be made in dignity. Also the wonderful friend who took the trouble to ring local vets this morning - this was how we knew what had happened.

HRH The Cat - AKA Bix - March 2000 - December 2013.


Friday 13 December 2013

Frugal Friday...

This post could equally have been called "Little Boxes" - or rather piggies, had it appeared on a day other than a friday! Today we're talking about small ways of saving - we've discussed the bigger things before haven't we - having separate savings accounts to budget for costs related to car ownership for example, or saving to pay for insurances etcetera outright rather than using the dreaded monthly installments. We also have accounts to save for our annual Hebrides trip, for our "fun stuff" through the year, and also for christmas-related expenditure as well. Each gets drip-fed by way of monthly payments from our main bank account - they go out automatically and are slotted in to our budgets.

We're not "buy it on credit" people. We have been, but not any more. That's not to say we don't use credit - we do, cashback credit cards of course, and we have also bought things using 0% deals on cards, while having the money sitting in the bank earning us interest. What we don't do is use cards - or loans - to let us buy stuff that we couldn't afford otherwise. I've surprised myself over the past few years to realise that these days, I'm a saver not a spender, and our "little pots" are part of that. They come in various shapes and sizes, some are "virtual" and some are very much real, pig shaped, sit in view begging to be fed!

First up is the one that MrEH uses for "roadkill" - money that we find around the streets. Now it's amazing when you start learning where to look just how much can be found like this. Some of it is flukey - like the £30 in ten-pound notes he picked up from the pavement earlier this year. Yes, before you say it, we did make an effort to find the owner of such a large sum, by putting up notices on the street it was found on saying that something had been found and if the owner would like to confirm exactly what it was, he would make sure it was returned. He got no response bar one person asking if it was a dog! More normally though it's smaller amounts - pennies, 2p and 5p pieces not surprisingly are plentiful, but he finds a fair number of pound coins too, and even, this year, a £2 coin. Last year's total for money gained this was was over £80, and this year will beat that - amazingly since the recession the amount he has found has increased year on year.

Then there is our regular large pink china pig. This is used for all loose change accumulated in purse/wallet and pretty much everything 50p and below goes in there apart from 5p pieces - more on those in a moment! This and the "roadkill pig" go towards our holiday spending money - we usually reckon to get around £200 across the two of them. That one has already been emptied once this year but the totalling up doesn't happen until February when roadkill is also counted up. The next pig is a sheep....well, sheep-shaped anyway! She sits, mouth agape, waiting for those pesky little 5p's to get fed in - amazing how many of them you get and they're such fiddly little things to get out of the corner of your purse, too. Finally for physical animal-shaped collection devices (piggy-banks, to you) we have a rather cute small china number which takes my meagre collection of £2 coins. This one was new to the party last year, a new challenge set by members of an online group I'm part of - and I was delighted to find when I emptied it out at the beginning of this month it contained just over £100! Those little nuggets are heading off to help fund a new photographic purchase which will be being made once I've saved enough for it!

It doesn't stop there though - sitting alongside our other slightly more normal savings accounts is something which we have called out "VSP" account. This stands for "Virtual Sealed Pot" - and is effectively an accompaniment to the pink pig. Each time I go into our online banking, any odd pennies in my bank account, and our joint one, get "swept" across into the VSP - sometimes I round down to the nearest £5, sometimes it's just the "small change". Interest from savings accounts (apart from the ISA) goes there as well, and odd pennies which can sometimes be found in the budgeted savings too. From this year I'm going to be adding cashback to it as well - which should help bolster it even further.

If you do online surveys etc for cash reward, how about stashing all your earnings from these aside for a full year to see how much they mount up to? Or you could join me in "VSP'ing" - I've already converted several pals to that idea! Then there is SFT's "real life" sealed pot challenge - great things happening over there and it's been great fun seeing people post their totals up for the year! Do you already save by these methods perhaps?


(The photos? Ahhh...well they're all "little things" - seen in detail. Not entirely unrelated, after all!)

Thursday 12 December 2013

Autumn Colour at Fen Drayton Lakes

On our way up to Birmingham for our Good Food Show weekend a few weeks back, we stopped off on the way to visit an RSPB reserve - it was a lovely cold crisp winter day and seemed just perfect for a walk.

RPSB Fen Drayton Lakes is a reclaimed gravel works next to the River Great Ouse in Cambridgeshire. Although not that far from us this was the first time we'd visited the reserve, which consists of a network of paths around water meadows and lakes.

As the name suggests, the reserve is in the heart of the Fens, meaning that the land is tremendously flat. The advantage of course is that the walking is easy - this would be ideal for someone with a child in a pushchair or for an adult with reduced mobility. The paths are well maintained and there is a variety or routes to be chosen from the short couple of mile loop we did, to a longer walk round the reserve boundaries. The flatness also means that the light is quite remarkable - just look at this glorious Weeping Willow glowing in the wintry sunshine...

More colour was visible from the profusion of berries, hips and haws on the trees and bushes too - this really has been a remarkable year for these!

Walking on a little further you get a stunning view out across one of the lakes - we were surprised by the number of Great Crested Grebe to be seen - although not an uncommon bird both MrEH and I were astonished at just how many were out there. Add to that all manner of other waterfowl, and there was definitely plenty to look at. We met a chap local to the reserve - a regular visitor who said that it was very quiet there that day - that he was surprised how few grebe there were in particular - so goodness knows how many there are usually!

The River Great Ouse provided more fantastic views as well - I can see that this would be lovely at any time of year too, although autumn colour is always going to be a winner, isn't it!

We turned back to the car then - as a fun weekend in Birmingham was calling us. We've already said we want to go back though - and to make a point of visiting some of our other "not too far away" RSPB Reserves, too!


Wednesday 11 December 2013

Looking back...April & May

April started a long way north on an island, and May, strangely enough, ENDED  a long way north on an island too! Orkney was just fantastic - surprisingly different to the Hebrides, and yet some things were very similar. The Ring of Brodgar of course has parallels with Calanais...

 We found mainland to be quite like Lewis, while the small island of Shapinsay that we visited had that very inquisitive friendliness that we always find on North Uist too.

It really was a fantastic few days and we're very much looking forward to going back! 

At the beginning of May we popped down to Kent for a weekend - there was a Bank Holiday there needing used! As we still had National Trust membership we headed for Dover while we were there - lots of parking and a great walk out along the cliff tops to South Foreland Lighthouse too. On arriving we prioritised Tea & cake, as you do...

...very fine it was, and beautifully presented! the lighthouse itself was fascinating, well worth a visit if you're down that way at all, and of course the cliff walk gives hyou some fabulous views too...

The rest of May was largely dedicated to getting ready for our annual Hebrides trip. Spending money was counted,walking and camera kit checked over, and packing done before finally we were able to head North, and after a long drive and a quick overnight stop we were on our first ferry crossing "over the sea to Skye" 

Sadly we arrived on North uist with weather not quite as good as the previous year - indeed our first job on the Saturday morning was to take down and pack up a sodden tent! do you know what though? It really didn't matter, and rain or no rain we never find ourselves short of something to see,

or a beach to be walked on!

Hosta, that one, one of our absolute favourites - we can usually be found strolling there a few times during our trip, footwear abandoned up the way somewhere - well, can you see anyone else there to worry about? No, me neither! 


Monday 9 December 2013

#ShopLocalSaturday (Or Sunday, in our case!)

We constantly seem to see American phenomena taking off over here and getting "adopted into our culture" - from the legalised begging that Halloween has become, to the current interest in American Football when our very own rugby is available to watch on almost everyone's doorstep. One American "habit" that we could do far worse than take on board though happened this weekend, with "Small Business Saturday" being adopted over here for the first time with any degree of organisation. There has been a fair bit said about this elsewhere in Blogland and on twitter - try searching for the #ShopLocalSaturday hashtag. Team Pugh blogged about it too - you might already have seen their post.

We weren't able to shop on either Friday or Saturday this week, but went yesterday instead - having stopped off on the way to support another local small business which you can find mentioned here. From there we headed along to our favourite fairly-local farm shop - Calcott Hall, near Brentwood.  We've been shopping there occasionally for a number of years, but this was the first time we'd gone in aiming to do a full weekly shop.

I've commented before about vague feelings of guilt about the amount we end up using the supermarket. When we first moved here our local shopping area (about 10 minutes walk away) had a greengrocer. We would have been quite happy to have used it but sadly by the time we arrived the writing was already on the wall - quality was poor and stock levels were low. With no fewer than 4 large and countless smaller supermarkets in the town people simply found it more convenient to use those, instead. I'm happy to support local businesses but the quality must be right too - buying food which simply spoils within the time frame I need it for is pointless and I don;t have the time to shop several times a week. We do now have a good local butcher, and what bread we don't make ourselves mostly comes from Mayfield Farm Bakers. We have a farm shop in Harlow too - but so far whenever we have tried to use it it's either been closed, or has closed as we arrived.

So - Calcott Hall it was - and this is what we bought:

The only thing on my shopping list that we didn't buy was mushrooms - they only had dutch ones and we buy British. I prefer to buy British for all veg, but had to compromise this time on tomatoes and salad leaves - it not being the weather for either to grow well here currently. One of those cauliflowers has already been made into a cauliflower and pasta cheese too - two big dishes of it using some of our Good Food Show cheese haul, more on that in another post.

The total shop cost us £15.50 - which was honestly less than I expected, and probably not that different to what that lot would have cost me in the supermarket. With that in mind we have now decided that we will try to make at least one weekly shop per month "supermarket free" from now on. I appreciate that doesn't sound like much, but with a 30 mile round trip to shop there as opposed to the 6 mile (at the most!) round trip for the supermarket I use most often, but fuel costs and time considerations have to come into play.

Did you shop local this week?


Friday 6 December 2013

Frugal Friday...

Frugal Clothing....part 2

So, we've talked about what you should buy, and where you should buy cheap, and where it's worth spending a bit extra. That said though, what's the best way to go about buying the clothes you want at a price you can afford? Well Singlegirl is very definitely the expert here - she's worked in retail for years and so knows all the tricks, and has some GREAT tips for maximising your budget!

Firstly - January sales - these are a great place to buy clothes - but, rather like buying yellow-stickered food bargains - it's only a bargain if you'll actually use it! It makes real sense to approach shopping for clothes in the sales exactly as you might doing your weekly grocery shop - go out with a list of what you're looking to buy, and stick to it! Also - buy your clothes for the life you have - while dressing like Kate Moss might be fabulous if you're, well, Kate Moss, if you're a 40 year old Mum of 3 who has to go straight from the school run to walking the dog to mucking out a horse, then it won't make so much sense for you! Likewise, if you're the sort of person like me who isn't fashion-focused, it makes sense to make your clothes suit your lifestyle AND last well - that way you won't have to shop as often!

Before hitting the sales too, it makes sense to go through your wardrobe to work out what you actually need - the quickest way to avoid the 'I have millions of clothes and nothing to wear' scenario is by clearing out before you shop. Be ruthless, especially with sizes. So many people hang on to clothes on the basis that "One day I'll lose weight and fit into that again" - but a bit of a reality check might be needed here. I have, in the past, been a size 10 - it was a struggle to get there, and a struggle to stay there, and as soon as my eating became even halfway normal again, I didn't stay there for long! Realistically, having a wardrobe full of size 10 clothes when I'm actually several sizes bigger than that is only going to make me feel bad. I don't WANT to be that size again, and I'm not going to be, so having that size of clothing in my wardrobe would be like storing someone elses clothes for them! As SG very sensibly says - "get rid and learn to flatter the body you actually have".

So - how as a frugal person do you go about affording to buy clothes? Make money to pay for them is a good starting point - Sell old clothes on eBay and buy new ones with the profits. Keep the costs of eBaying down by using free listing weekends (these seem to come up at least once a month) and buying padded envelopes from Pound shops rather than at the Post office to send the stuff away in. (Obviously lots of people get great bargains buying on eBay too but both SG & I like to try on so we don't do it!) If clothes are really done then sell to the cash for clothes people for a bit of cash. Once you've done that, and decided what it is you need to buy, then it's time to go about getting the items at the least cash outlay to you possible. - SG's Top tip: Vouchers in magazines can be great for discounts on places you were going to spend anyway - these deals can often be found in the Money saving Expert weekly email but it's worth scanning over the front covers in the newsagents to see what might be on offer. Look! and Grazia tend to rotate between H and M, Warehouse etc so if you need say, a coat then 25% off £100 is well worth a £1.50 or £2.00 spend.
- Websites : Gap is often on and is generally good for 30% off. They are FAB for jeans and work trousers. The Vouchercloud App * is sometimes useful too - they often do deals for money off with chains like Timpson for your shoe repairs, and also many high street clothing retailers.
- Ask for vouchers/cash for clothes rather than gifts for bdays and Christmas. So many folk have a generous auntie with dreadful taste who they could explain to that actually, they are taking their wardrobe in hand and would love a spree and so could they please have a voucher.
- Charity Shops: A lot depends on the area you're in as far as charity shops are concerned - and also checking everything VERY carefully. You can often pick up basic M&S tops still with their original tags on for £2.50 - £3 a time - people buy them without trying on, get home, they don't fit, and then because the item was "only" £8 or so to start with, they can't be bothered to take them back! "Independent" Charity Shops are often better than the chains - I bought a fab suede jacket in one locally to us for £10 last year, and have often picked up scarves etc for £1 each. It used to be said that those in better areas were the best for good bargains but so far as the chains are concerned everything is centralized these days then divvied out so this applies less. Sounds obvious, but if buying tops check out the inside of the armpits, and jeans/trousers, do a gusset inspection for signs of wear. I personally won't buy second hand footwear unless it looks to have been worn once, at most. Remember that buttons can be changed, hems can be turned up, and trims can be added - or removed! a good pal got her wedding dress for about £20 because she looked past it's hideous buttons and saw it's potential!
To summarise: If buying brand new use voucher codes and magazine discounts where possible and shop sales ruthlessly. Sales go 'Sale, further markdowns then final reductions' before coming off and often continue online after they finish in store as sale stock tends to go back to the warehouse once it's all odds and bits in each store.

I asked SG for a couple of quick tips to end on for How to make cheap clothes look expensive, and generally what little things can you do to make yourself look more "pulled together"? She said "MMMM. Tough one. A sort of uniform of blazer, t shirt/shirt and slim jeans with knee high boots seems to flatter most people. I think it's a lot to do with grooming ie decent hair cut, nails tidy/painted/eyebrows not like Michael Heseltine is a help. I think (and I know not everyone agrees) that we all look better with a bit of light, well applied make up. Boots No7 is a good budgetish brand but Aldi etc get good reviews for skincare too. No. 7 are often on 3 for 2 and you can sometimes use £5 off vouchers as well so get a good haul for your money. Also, accessories can really liven up plain stuff. I bought a gorgeous necklace in Oasis for a fiver last year on final reduction that smartens up a plain black or grey tee and jeans for going out. Accessorize do lovely bags and jewellery on sale. One accessory can bring a classic on trend ie last seasons old black coat is instantly brought up to date with this seasons tartan scarf at a fiver from Primark."

What's been your best clothes bargain? Do you have a favourite accessory that you wear over and over and only cost you a small amount when you bought it maybe? Or perhaps you've got a shopping tip that we've not covered?

Robyn & SingleGirl

* Hyperlink added to Vouchercloud - to clarify this post is not sponsored in any way - they simply asked if I could link to them and as I use and like the App I was happy to agree!

Wednesday 4 December 2013

Photos rediscovered

This photo was taken back in 2008 - the first time I got "up close & personal" with the Angel of the North. I'd been past it on the A1 a few times, and always wanted to have a proper look, so when we were on our way back from the Farne Islands and had a bit of spare time we didn't hesitate to take the turn off to get closer!

Designed by Antony Gormley, the statue was completed in 1998 and now hosts over 150,000 visitors every year. 20 metres high and with a wingspan of 54m, it's not hard to see from the road either - and over 90,000 drivers a day do just that! From a photography point of view it's a fascinating subject - the shot above was taken with my lovely 12 - 24mm super-wide lens, the blue sky and white clouds does give a great backdrop! It's one of those subjects like the London Eye - each time you visit you find a new angle, or a different bit of detail to pick out. Endlessly fascinating - we'll be visiting again!


Sunday 1 December 2013

RAF Museum - London

In the interests of wanting to do something "appropriate" on Remembrance Sunday, we headed into London to the RAF Museum. I've had this one on my list to visit for a while, and it did seem like the perfect day to do it.

We set off from home at 9am, taking the car to Epping, then jumping on the Underground into London, after 3 different tube trains and several long interchange walks through the stations, we made it to the museum grounds just as the gun sounded for 11am and the 2 minute silence - so stopped next to a replica Spitfire to observe it.

Those who watched the Royal Albert Hall Festival of Remembrance the previous night will have had their memories refreshed about this year being the 70th Anniversary of the Dambusters raid, and indeed a Lancaster Bomber is one of the highlights of the museum, looming large over the Bomber Hall. Almost more impressive though, to my mind at least, was the wreckage of a Halifax bomber which had to make a wheels up landing on a frozen Fjord in Norway in 1942 following being hit by flak whilst taking part in one of the raids on the Tirpitz.

We'd made our way almost right round the bomber hall before we suddenly spotted another absolute highlight of the museum. Tucked neatly in one corner, "hidden", almost, is this...

...ridiculous eh, I mean, how on earth do you hide a Vulcan Bomber for goodness sake? They've managed it though - it really did take us completely by surprise when we spotted it! Better still, they have installed a TV screen in the Bomb Bay so you can sit right underneath the belly of the plane watching the short film being shown!

As well as the usual food outlets, the museum also has a large area where you can sit and eat your own food - we made use of this as we'd taken our lunch with us. It's a great area for people with children too as there are lots of interactive things for them to do while the adults are sitting down resting their feet! On the subject of interactive stuff, the museum also has two Flight Simulators - one - a flight with the Red Arrows - wasn't operating on Sunday, but the Flight in a Tornado one was, and was great fun - although you do get rather thrown about and have to hang on VERY tightly! I think it might be a more comfortable ride if you were harnessed tightly into a seat! Although entry to the museum is free of charge, the simulators cost £3 each to ride. We also bought a visitors guide for a very reasonable £2.95.

Looking through the body of the Halifax

With planes from the very earliest bi-planes to a full scale model of the new Lightning II Joint Strike Force Fighter on display, there is plenty to see - and the Timeline of Flight makes fascinating viewing as it weaves the Milestones achieved in flight over a 100 year period with the history of each year. There is a complete hangar focusing on the events of the Battle of Britain, and an exhibition giving lots of information about the RAF's "Workhorse" - the Chinook helicopter.

Those outside London don't need to miss out as the RAF Museum has a second branch located at Cosford in Shropshire with a huge number of exhibits, simulators etc. We'd certainly highly recommend either as an interesting day out, and ideal for a cold, grey, wintry day as almost everything is under cover!


The RAF's London Museum can be found a short walk from Colindale underground station, just 30 minutes from central London on the Northern Line. It has a website giving further infiormation - see