Friday 31 January 2014

Frugal Friday...

So, tomorrow our Frugal Food month starts, and we've been planning carefully so far! I've done a rough meal plan for the next few weeks, which is heavily influenced by things we have in the freezer and cupboards. For starches we'll mostly be relying on pasta, couscous and rice, rather than potatoes. Now I know that my lovely Wellie-Clad friend will be horrified at that confession - she generally feels that a tattie-less kitchen is a bit of an aberration!  We have a LOT of the other things though, and as one of the points of this exercise is to run down the supplies a bit, using what we have will be the name of the game.  I have a sneaking suspicion that there will be a call for jacket spuds at some stage though, I'll never manage a whole month without one!

You might remember, we have two freezers. The theory of this was that the second one would mean that we had the space to allow for the purchase of meat in bulk - a whole lamb for example. The theory was also that when we were not in possession of a lamb, we'd turn the second one (known unimaginatively as "Freezer 2") off - naturally that hasn't happened though! So we hope that another side effect of the challenge will be to use up enough stuff that freezer 1 (bottom half of the fridge) can be emptied into 2 before being defrosted, then everything can be transferred back in order for freezer 2 to be switched off and also defrosted. It'll then stay off until we have need of it again. In order for this to happen though I've had to plan our meals using as much as possible from the freezers.

The other thing I have started putting together is a list of all those things that need using up. For example I have half-used jars of "things" in the fridge, and part packets of things like paella rice in the cupboard. Rather than leaving them lying around cluttering up space, it seems to me that they might as well get used - rice is rice, after all, and while you might not get quite the normal consistency in a risotto that's made using paella rice, it's unlikely to be a problem! At some stage we will also have a pasta meal using up the last of a squeezy tube of basil (bought for pennies at the Good Food Show) and a curry using the last of a jar of chinese curry base (bought in the same place). I've also got a cunning plan to utilise the last of a chunk of ginger and half a head of garlic, plus a few onions, to make a home made curry base which can then be frozen for future use.

So, the next week's meal plan looks like this:
Sat: Lunch: Soup & Bread Tea: H M Pizza
Sun: Lunch: Something portable if we're out walking Tea: Chicken cooked in the slow cooker with chinese rice
 Mon: Chicken & mushroom pasta (Use up remaining soft cheese)
Tue: Sausages, couscous & sweetcorn fritters
Wed: Sausage pasta
Thur: omlettes
Fri: New Recipe!!

And the shopping list looks like this:

I think this week might be a Tesco shop, using Luncheon Vouchers, and looking at that list that should mean an entirely cash-free week to get us started. Fingers crossed!

If you're joining in, how's your week one looking?


Saturday 25 January 2014

Five Favourites...

This time round, five favourite beaches, unsurprisingly these all seem to be in the Hebrides - whoever would have guessed that, eh?! In no particular order...

Luskentyre. This gorgeous and huge beach on Harris is a regular in "Worlds best beach" type features so it seemed only right that it should feature in mine, too! Access to the beach itself is via a long, twisty, turny single track road, not for the faint-hearted, but well worth the drive. A regular stop of ours as we drive from Lewis to get the ferry back across to Berneray. The view above, by the way, is taken from the main road...

Clachan Sands, North Uist. Often a first, or last day beach this one - we do like to start and end our holiday with sandy feet, and this wonderful stretch of beach ticks all the right boxes. Manouevering the car to the parking area can be a little interesting...through the field with the cows, up a badly rutted track...there's always a slight concern than one day, we might get stuck!

Balranald, North Uist. This beach features on our regular walk around the fantastic RSPB reserve. (As an aside, it's always entertaining when in conversation at reserves down here to be asked which is our favourite one to visit....when we reply with "Balranald" jaws frequently drop and phrases like "OOH! I've always wanted to go there!" get uttered!) This fabulous sweep of sand forms part of the waymarked walk round the reserve, but also makes a lovely walk on its own, right round as far as you can see on that photo - wind in your hair and waves crashing!

West Beach, Berneray. Now we're in good company with counting this one as a favourite - apparently HRH Prince Charles feels much the same about it. There is a full three miles of sand to walk along should you so choose - and we have! We've also walked a good stretch of this beach, AND all the way back again, without seeing another soul!

Finally, Hosta, North Uist. I know I said that these were in no order, but this one might actually be our absolute favourite beach of the lot, and I think this panoramic shot (remember you can click on it to see it larger) might show why. Over the the right is an area of lovely flat rocks, just perfect for sitting on to eat lunch. The rocks also form an area of rockpools, cleaned constantly by the stream flowing through them. On a warm day this is a spa-like place to paddle - with the water warmed by the sun and trickling over your toes... when you're bored with paddling, then there is a nice curve of sun-baked sand to wander along - leaving your shoes discarded where you were, they'll be perfectly safe.

There are so many more I could have mentioned - the almost tropical-looking bay on Vatersay, Shawbost on Lewis, Kilpheder on South Uist. Culla Bay on Benbecula is beloved of many keen birdspotters, and Uig sands (Lewis) is great for watching kitesurfers. Maybe I should do another "favourite 5" on the same theme?!


Friday 24 January 2014

Frugal Friday...

Following on from last year's "Frugal February" challenge, I was keen to do something similar again this year. the charm of choosing February last year was that we had very few things planned to do during the month, so it lent itself well to doing a "low-spend" challenge. It highlighted to me how often we do just "fritter" - although in our case I mean not that mindless spending of money on things which simply aren't needed, but more the thing of wandering in to 99p Stores, B&M bargains, or over to the market, and coming away with genuine bargains, but that we wouldn't have missed had we not have bought them.

Looking to refill these...
This year we already seem to have several things planned during the month, and also want to focus on our walking - which in itself requires a degree of extra spend on travel etc - so we've come up with the idea of doing "Frugal Food February" - my intention is to see just how little actual cash we can part with from 1st - 28th February for our grocery shopping.

The plan is this:
From the 1st to the 28th of February we will:
- Eat so far as we possibly can from the freezer, storecupboard, larder etc.
- Aim to buy so far as possible only fresh dairy, fruit and veg. There may be the occasional loaf of bread from our lovely local posh bakers though!
- Not be tempted to wander into 99p stores, B&M Bargains or over to the market "just for a browse"
- Stick with our originally declared goal of cooking at least one brand new-to-us recipe each month
-Spend as little overall as we can manage, but also...
- ...spend as little actual cash as we possible can. (Money spent on our "Clubcard Plus" account will count as cash, for the purposes of this)
- As ever through this year, one week's shopping will be "supermarket free" - we'll have no option but to use cash that week

We have - as ever - a few tools lined up in the armoury to help:
- £10 of Morrisons vouchers gained through buying our fuel for the cars there - there may be an additional £5 voucher to come during the month too
- £5 (approx) of Nectar Points for use in Sainsburys
- £15 of luncheon vouchers earned through a survey site - these can be used at Tesco (I think) Sainsburys and other supermarkets
- £10 M&S Voucher earned when we took out an insurance policy last year

We need to do a proper audit of our freezers to remind ourselves what we have. We've got ingredients in to make our "regular" breakfasts of muffins or flapjacks, and I have a meal plan already sketched out although this might be subject to change depending on what we decide needs using up. We've got good supplies of pasta, rice, couscous and similar, so are well served for various starches. We have meat in the freezers - including the last of last year's lamb, and we also have plentiful amounts of pulses and similar for alternatives on meat-free days. in the fridge there is still quite a bit of cheese from our fabulous haul at the Good Food Show. The storecupboard shows lots of jams, jellies, chutneys etc - some made by us and many more by Mum-in-Law - these can be added to other dishes, and there must be the makings there of a decent number of puddings too - jam sponges, jam tarts, rice pudding with jam....! I'll be looking to make more pate for lunches - mackerel and salmon are favourites you might remember from last year, but I'll also check out prices for chicken livers too - chicken liver pate made with just a splash of brandy is glorious! MrEH is quite happy with jam butties for lunch some days, and I'm equally happy with cheese and chutney, so there's another assault on the storecupboard right there! we'll focus also on using up all those part used jars, packets and pots that have been hanging around for ages and really need using up.

The hope is that by the end of the month not only will our freezer, fridge, cupboards and larder be emptier, but our bank accounts will be fuller too.

So - who else is planning a "Frugal February" of any sort? Even in households where every day life is pretty frugal anyway sometimes a challenge of this sort can just act as a boost to your motivation - and a re-focus of "why" or "getting the best from it". There were quite a number of us joining ion last year and it would be great fun to hear of others planning to do something similar again! Look for my week one update post coming up in a fortnight.


Wednesday 22 January 2014

Lea Valley Walk - Section 2

With our impressive 8 miles clocked up on the Thames Path last weekend fresh in mind, we decided to head out on Sunday and have a go to see how far we could get on our next stretch of Lea Valley Walk. To remind you, this is an 18 mile tow-path based walk from Cheshunt in Hertfordshire ending up right in the heart of Docklands in Central London, and we'd already done the first short stretch from Cheshunt down to Waltham Abbey - just a couple of miles, a few weeks ago.

Without question it was the perfect winter day for a walk - beautifully sunny, blue skies and just the merest hint of a chill in the air, and by the time we were a short way from where we'd parked the car - close to Waltham Cross Station - to the towpath I'd offloaded my scarf and MrEH was talking about taking his coat off! Once on the towpath we realised that this wasn't going to be a quiet walk with hardly anyone else about - cyclists, runners (including someone MrEH knew from his rugby club - small world indeed!) and other walkers abounded! It wasn't long before we reached our first "landmark" - the bridge under the 8-lane wide M25 motorway...

..shortly followed by the first of the 6 locks we would encounter during the day. A lot of the areas we'd be passing through are identified as areas from the locks - Enfield Lock, Picketts Lock and Stonebridge Lock are just three of them - but in many cases although I knew the areas themselves quite well, I'd never seen the actual Locks themselves before! Enfield Lock in particular is just gorgeous - a lovely little terrace of houses fronting right on to the canal.

Just a short distance further on and we were passing our first reservoir. The 12 reservoirs in this area supply a good percentage of the water for London, and the Lea Navigation runs alongside them.  On the other side of the canal are industrial areas - seemingly miles of warehouses, factories and commercial units - a far cry from the quite rural terrain on our side of the canal. We stopped for lunch opposite an area of wharves, clearly in the heyday of the canals this would have been busy with barges loading and unloading - in fact a little further on we passed another wharf which was clearly still in at least some form of use. The Moorings along the navigation are very popular with those choosing to live on board their narrowboats too - we passed whole areas where one side was just lined with boat after boat - very romantic looking but I'm lead to believe that it's somewhat less romantic when the weather's bad, the wind is cold and the toilet facilities require "emptying"!

Carved bench
On past more industrial units, a golf course and a truly enormous sewage treatment works - although mercifully thanks to the coolness of the weather we were none the wiser about this bit! Then the "Edmonton Incinerator" with its always-active chimney pumping out smoke (or possibly steam? No idea, it's been doing it for as long as I can remember though!) - a very well known landmark in the area, this one. Our second major road of the day as we passed under  the Cooks Ferry Interchange on the North Circular Road - even wider than the M25, this one. Now on into an area with industry on both sides - on the side we were walking the narrow towpath is divided off by a barrier from the road running directly alongside - imaginatively named "Towpath Road". The road looks too narrow to take anything more than a car, so when we reached the bus depot we were scratching our heads for a while wondering how they get in and out - so far as we could make out the only way was indeed via the road! Once past there it suddenly felt as though we were back into countryside again - apart from the Pylons lining each side of this stretch!

Old Milestone

We were in to very familiar territory now - MrEH used to walk this stretch of towpath on a daily basis going to and from work many years ago, and I've enjoyed many a walk with family dogs along here too back when we used to live in London. At Stonebridge Lock we had to cross over the canal again - the maintained path switches from side to side as you make your way down, we'd had to cross previously back at Enfield.

Bus Depot
More houseboats - in fact the opposite bank is lined with them all the way down to our final Lock at Tottenham Hale. The light was fading badly by this time (we seem to be making a habit of finishing walks in the dark, or nearly so!) There was just enough light for one final photo though - and look carefully, in the middle you can see The Shard, the Gherkin, and various other icons of the London Skyline - a promise of things to come on the next and final section of this walk!


Monday 20 January 2014


A few weeks back, Jenni at A Cheerful Living Adventure blogged about Making Mozzarella. Now this is something that MrEH and I have been talking about for a very long while - not mozzarella specifically you understand, but making cheese generally. We nearly treated ourselves to some cheesemaking odds and ends before christmas, until we reminded ourselves that actually, we were meant to be buying presents for other people, not ourselves. Anyway, Jenni made the whole process sound so straightforward and easy that I resolved there and then that I definitely needed to have a go.

Now as we all know, there is every possibility that I would have got no further with this but for two coincidences - I was in one of those rather wonderful aladdin's cave type Lakeland shops in the week and found myself standing slap-bang in front of a shelf of bottles of rennet, and in an entirely unrelated but very happy accident I had put pizza on the meal plan for Saturday night's dinner. I decided this was clearly the push I needed, bought the rennet (£2.09 if you were wondering) and put an extra bottle of milk on the shopping list...

Saturday morning found me carefully reading through the recipe that Jenni had linked to - one by Xanthe Clay. It did indeed look simple but doubts were beginning to creep in, and by the the time I reached the stage of actually measuring out the milk I'd already begun to convince myself that it was all going to go hideously wrong and I'd end up with a totally inedible product and waste all my ingredients....except, there ARE only three ingredients - milk, lemon juice and rennet. The recipe only called for half a teaspoon of the rennet -  a tiny proportion of the bottle so hardly a concern as far as "waste" goes. We had lemons in the fridge already which needed using. So that scuppered that reason to stop, and I just got on with it. *grin*

As per the instructions I heated the milk to 32 deg C - we've got one of those handy digital food thermometers, but without one of those the easiest way to tell would be that it still *just* feels cooler than the back of a (clean) little finger dipped into it.  I then turned off the heat and quickly poured in the lemon juice and then the rennet, gave it a thorough stir and then left it to sit. This was the bit I was most worried about - would it separate? I didn't have long to wait - literally within a few seconds this started happening...

 ...Yay! Separation! Now for the next bit I was concerned about - the recipe confidently stated that I should leave it for 30 minutes to "set" - and I was utterly convinced that it wouldn't happen. I'd even seen posts from other people online saying that they've never managed to get their cheese to set, etc etc...but...

...see? That's the curds lifting away from the side of the pan (we used our large preserving pan which worked brilliantly) as they set and shrink away from the whey! Whey-Hey! (Sorry!) Once the 30 minutes was up, I used a sharp knife to cut the curd into the described chunks, then used a large flat slotted spoon to lift it across into a sieve set over a bowl, at which stage it looked like this...

Another period of waiting now - this time to let more of the whey drain out - turning it over in the sieve a few times during this process helped, as did leaving it longer than the 15 minutes the recipe suggested - thanks again to Jenni for that tip! You sprinkle it with salt at this time too - I used a couple of pinches but should have added more - I suspect a lot drains out in the whey. Next comes the only really labour intensive bit - you scoop a quarter of the curds out into a heatproof bowl and blast them in the microwave for 30 seconds, before using a fork to squish and turn them, draining off the whey which appears as you go along. Eventually they start to form together and you can start kneading them by hand...

...Yes, at this stage it looks nothing like mozzarella, you're right! You repeat the microwaving, for 10 seconds at a time now, removing the curds* to stretch and knead each time until they start to feel more "mozzarella-ish" - honestly, that's what happens, and if you have a go you'll see exactly what I mean!  And after about three goes of this process I ended up with this...

...see - it worked! I made another two balls of mozzarella, and as I came to do the fourth and final lot of curds it occurred to me that I actually had enough for pizzas for I decided to experiment. Rather than heating this final batch of curds instead I gave them a thorough beating in the bowl, aiming to get rid of some of the "cottage cheesiness" and make them more creamy. I then added a good pinch of garlic Cornish salt (and I could have been more generous with the salt here, too) and a couple of twists of black pepper, and set it aside in the fridge...

 Essentially a slightly lumpier version of a posh cheese spread - and very tasty it is too! I strained the whey through once more too and got a second batch of this from the curds that were left floating about - this was simply (and more generously) salted.

The mozzarella was used that same night to top home made pizzas - and while it didn't melt very much it certainly tasted like the real thing - we both agreed that we'd happily do it again and I think MrEH wants to play next time too - he was at rugby while I made it this time. I need to investigate whether the lack of meltiness is something I've done (worked it too much, or not enough, in the kneading perhaps?) or whether it might be to do with using standard homogenised milk - the majority of recipes tell you that the best cheese is made using non homogenised, but trying to find that round here is needle in a haystack time! I'll investigate the farm shop next time I'm in.

Cost-wise, it was fairly reasonable. My 4 pint bottle of milk was £1 - standard supermarket fare this time I'm afraid. I used fresh lemon juice because we had lemons needing used - had I used bottled juice it would have been about 17p for the amount the recipe used, and the rennet was literally pennies, about 4 of them I reckon. The feeling of knowing that it was freshly made though, without preservatives etc, was great, and it would be relatively easy to make a half quantity of it too which in honesty would have been enough for our pizzas tonight. Would I make it again? Definitely!

Now, the next thing is to decide which cheese to make next!


*one note on this - because of the way microwaves cook, initially when you lift the curds out of the bowl they feel no more than warm, however as you start to knead you will find they suddenly increase dramatically in temperature for a few seconds - wear gloves if your hands are sensitive and be very careful.

Sunday 19 January 2014

Thames Path - Section 1

It didn't take much consideration before we decided to do the Thames path walk from West to East. It seemed logical for several reasons 1) that way we would get the lengthier travel out of the way early on, hopefully being back within the tube network by the time we ended our second stint of walking, and 2) I felt strongly that I wanted to end the walk not only on "home turf" but also presuming we decide to walk the extension to the London section as well, which goes right to the Kent Border, at the "actual end" of the river, too. With that in mind, we set off on Sunday morning to travel across to Hampton Court - the official start of the London Section of the path. Hampton court station itself was initially full of people visiting the palace, but by the time MrEH and I had both used the loo (having no idea when we were going to find the next one) it had quietened down somewhat and a rather pretty little station was revealed. we were slightly bemused by the sign on the resident newsagent's window suggesting we might "enjoy" a hot Pot Noodle, though!

The Thames itself was higher than I can remember seeing it for a long, long while - very close to being up to the top of the arches on Hampton Court Bridge and it rapidly became clear that using the "walkers" path right down by the waters edge was not going to be an option as it was flooded right along this first stretch...

You can see where the other path runs from the line of trees and bushes, and the bench, on the right

...I'm ashamed to admit that I've never visited Hampton Court Palace in spite of knowing that it's a beautiful place - we had a quick wander around the outside and these gorgeous stone heraldic figures caught my eye...

...there were four or five each side of the main entrance - a sort of Guard of Honour!

We'd vaguely discussed where we might end up on this first section on the days preceding but hadn't really reached any sort of firm conclusion -  just ending up agreeing that we'd start walking and when we felt we'd walked far enough, we'd stop. We didn't fret about setting any sort of fast pace either - we walked until we saw something we wanted to look more closely at, stopped, looked, photographed and then carried on walking at whatever pace felt right at the time. We stopped for lunch, we got slightly confused at Kingston trying to find the continuation of the path, and visited the cashpoint while we were looking to ensure we had beer money for later. I spent quite a lot of time photographing this view...

...of Kingston Bridge through the Avenue of trees lining the path, and MrEH read the whole of the metal plaque telling the history of Kingston Bridges past and present.  We walked past lots of little Islands, some I'd heard of, and some I hadn't. Ditton Island, Raven's Ait, Trowlock Island and the largest of the lot - the fabulously named Eel Pie Island.

We'd not arrived at Hampton Court until after midday, and in between ambling, stopping for lunch etc, the light was starting to fade by the time we reached Teddington Lock but we stopped for a cup of tea (flask!) and, refreshed, we decided to go "a bit further" - as you do!  Twickenham came and went on the opposite bank - I reflected that I was surprised my feet weren't aching more. Past a little landing stage where earlier in the day we could - had we wanted, and for the princely sum of £1 each - got a ferry across to the other bank. Richmond appeared on the signpost at that stage - we looked at each other; Several decent pubs to choose from, and an easy route back via the District Line Tube, it was a no-brainer! Gradually the lights of Richmond got brighter and brighter - it was properly dark by now and we were glad of the decent path we were walking on - earlier on it had been far more potholed and muddy! Finally we reached Richmond Bridge...

...and wasted no time in finding some of this...

I'm not usually a pint-drinker but I can assure you that this one didn't last long as it felt VERY well deserved!

We'll be setting off in a few weeks to do the next stretch which we're hoping will take up to Hammersmith Bridge.


Friday 17 January 2014

Frugal Friday

Completely unrelated photo - this angle was the only way I could fit The Shard in!

We're currently engaged in "trying to use things up" - I get a ridiculous sense of achievement when I finish a tub, packet or jar of something - daft I know but we're so well stocked at the moment it's nice to be creating the sense of a bit of space appearing! Our freezers are both packed tight, and the storecupboard is groaning!

For me the best way of dealing with this is to meal plan - now this is something that doesn't by any means work for everyone, but if you've not tried it before then it's certainly worth a go. I've realised over the last few years that the "plan" that works best for me is actually a 5-week plan. We have certain "regular" sorts of meals that we eat - pasta based, egg based, potato based, stews etc. At least one night of the week I try to do something quite simple - soup & bread, something on toast or jacket potatoes, for example - we're out of the house long hours through the working week and the last thing we want on those nights is to have to do an hour of prep and cooking before we can eat.

One pitfall that trips people up when trying meal planning is the "leftovers" scenario. For example, if we have sausages - there are six in the pack, we don't need six sausages for one meal, so I factor in another meal later in the week which can then involve the other two sausages - I cook them all at the same time when I do the ones for the first meal. Sausage pasta, sliced sausages added to a home made pizza, or chopped into chunks and added to a homity-type pie with potatoes, onions and cheese are all favourite ways of making use of those extras, and all mean that just two sausages are stretched to happily feed two people. Stews get cooked in the slow cooker, but our slow cooked is huge - so if I'm cooking stew for one meal I might just as well add enough extra meat & veg to cook additional portions for another day. Sometimes those extra portions get frozen, other times they get added straight onto the meal plan for a couple of days after we've eaten the first lot! This week I slow-cooked a beef stew using a large piece of ox-cheek. I just trimmed the meat of any obvious fat on the outside and popped it in the pot whole, then the following morning dragged it out, cut a third off and reserved that, before tearing the rest into chunks and putting it back in the pot. The reserved meat got turned into a ragu with tinned tomatoes, chopped onion and some veggies, and used to fill cannelloni tubes. One Ox-Cheek (which cost us about £4 from memory) has done three evening meals for the two of us. Because it's good quality meat, hung properly and from a beast which was well looked after and treated it has enough flavour that a huge amount of it in each portion just isn't needed - and that is the real skill of making your money go further I think.

When you really start "winning" with frugal meal-planning is when you start looking "outside the box" to use a horrible phrase. Those tubs of soft cheese for example - no not "Philly", nothing frugal about that, but the supermarket own brand or value ones - do indeed make a fabulous pasta sauce exactly as the adverts tell you. They also go beautifully on jacket potatoes, and a little blob stirred into a soup or tomato based sauce gives the most delicious creaminess. The whole salmon we bought a few weeks ago when they were half price was portioned up into steaks to eat as main parts of meals, but we asked for the bones too - they were gleaned of every trimming of flesh and then the bones were frozen for making stock in the future - there are three bags of trimmings also frozen to add to fish pies, or as an ingredient with pasta too. The salmon itself wasn't particularly cheap, but the number of meals we'll get from it turn it into an affordable luxury. If we buy a bag of potatoes then I'll alter the meal plan ahead to include them - nothing more annoying than finding they've sprouted! All this is plain old common sense of course, but how often do we all hear people cheerfully telling of what they "forgot they had in" and so had to throw away? A simple list of the fridge door of "things to use up" can cure this problem, as can training yourself to be inventive. Meals don't have to be complicated either - try borrowing High Fearnley Whittingstall's "Three Good Things" book for a bit of simple-food inspiration.

Even if you're someone who doesn't get on with meal planning as such, there's nothing to stop you coming up with a list of meals that you & the family enjoy eating, and using that as a "prompt" when you encounter a "part-used" something. The best thing so far as I'm concerned about planning our meals ahead is it means that I can spend the bare minimum of time shopping - something which I hate - and because I know when I shop what meals I'll be cooking, it also avoids "just needing to pop to the shop" midweek because I need to get something for dinner. My "Frugal February" Challenge this year is going to be grocery shopping based, and I'll be telling you a bit more about that shortly, but it should also help us in our bid to "use up, not buy more".


Tuesday 14 January 2014

For Today...


Outside my window...It's dark. well I imagine it is, the curtains are snugly pulled against the night.

I am satisfying challenge-setting can be. We have several for this year, from our new mortgage target, to doing lots of walking!

I am thankful...for the fact that we have the resources to be able to tackle those challenges.

In the kitchen...There is the lingering smell of dinner - a slow-cooked beef stew using Ox Cheek. Some of the meat has been rescued to be turned into a ragu tomorrow night to have as cannelloni, AND there are leftovers of the stew for the night after, too!

I am wearing...Pyjamas, of course, and a large snuggly fleece. And cosy knitted boot-slippers. It's cold, you know!

I am creating...lists. A list of this year's walks, a list of the birds we've seen this year. I pretty much always have to-do lists on the go too!

I am going...adventuring! Thanks to the East Coast trains ticket sale we have a day trip to York booked, and I'm doing a day trip to Leeds, too. Total cost of all these tickets was just £30!

I am wondering...How much further we can get on our next walking section of the Thames Path - we got all the way from our starting point at Hampton Court to Richmond Bridge on Sunday - very exciting!

I am reading...Nella Last in the 1950's - one of the "Nella Last's Diary" Series, about a lady who kept Mass Observation diaries. The first book "Nella Last's War" was turned into a TV film - "Housewife 49" starring Victoria Wood.

 I am keep the cash spent on groceries through February to an absolute minimum. I'll be posting about this challenge on the blog shortly.

I am looking forward many things, this year!

I am learning... that the more you walk, the further you want to go. Who knew?!

Around the house...there  are many books waiting to be read - we got absolutely masses of them for christmas!

I am pondering...Where we need to park the car to do our next stretch of the Lea Valley Walk -we're hoping to do a "Walk out, train back" this time. Maybe sunday...

A favorite quote for today...Not a quote as such, instead the RAF's motto "Per Ardua ad Astra" - Through Struggles to the Stars"

One of my favorite things...Currently, my 50mm lens. Having used it for our long walk on Sunday I'm remembering why I like it so much!

A few plans for the rest of the week: A quick shopping trip, more walking, and hopefully some quiet time.

A peek into my day...This is actually a peek into my Sunday - the very flooded Thames Path just east of Hampton Court - and yes, that is the back of a bench you can see!

This post is of course part of the Simple Woman's daybook which can be found HERE

Monday 13 January 2014

Five favourites...

These are five favourite photos from our first London section Thames Path walk which we did yesterday. I'll blog later in the week about the walk itself, but thanks to some inspiration from Twitter I made the decision that each time we walk another chunk of the path I'll take the DSLR and just the 50mm lens with me. I love the way that restricting myself to just that one lens makes me think more, and look for different angles to get the shot I want. I'll no doubt take some pictures on the iPhone as well each time, but these are all from the "Nifty Fifty"...

Skaters on the ice rink at Hampton Court. I slowed the shutter speed right down for this to see what variation in motion blur I'd get across the differing skills of those having fun...

The "Nifty" doing what it does best - shallow depth of field. This beautiful Winter Jasmine was rioting over the brick wall around Hampton Court Palace.

A little further downriver and we spotted these three Swans. I did wonder if they'd be happy to let me get close enough to get the shot I wanted. They seemed pretty laid back though, thankfully!

More shallow depth of field - this time with the metal plaque giving the history of Kingston Bridge. For a sub-£70 lens, the 50mm really can give some incredible effects.

This completely deserted line of benches with their attendant trees caught my eye at Canbury Gardens just east of Kingston.


Sunday 12 January 2014

Winter Wandering...

Yesterday was one of those glorious winter days - you know the ones I mean, sun out, blue sky, and a refreshing crispness in the air, a promise of colder weather yet to come, but for now, it's chilly but not unpleasant. Wanting a leg stretch, we donned walking boots (Mr EH) and Wellies (me) and took ourselves for a stomp off through the woods near to where we live.

We chose the long way round to get into the woods - walking first up the road a short way then across onto this playing field - and you can see why - as I said, G-L-O-R-I-O-U-S!  It rapidly became clear when we realised how sticky it was underfoot a) why MrEH's rugby match had been cancelled and b) that wellies were the sensible-foot-wear-of-the-day. *grin* Anyway, as we were on the playing field we decided to see if we could pinpoint where the Hazel tree was - easy to spot at this time of year...

...and not quite as advanced as last weekends dangly little beauties. Just a small tree this one, and it bore precisely NO nuts last year, so we've issued it with a "must try harder" warning and will check back in late summer to see how it's doing.  The next thing to catch my eye was this gorgeous little moss busily creating its own miniature world on a fallen tree....

 Amazing things, mosses and lichens - one year we returned from the Hebrides with more pictures of lichen than of almost anything else!  Enough of looking down though, let's look up instead...

Take one tree canopy, add a dollop of blue sky, and pinch of white cloud and a dusting of sunshine - just gorgeous and I just bet you can see why it caught my eye! I love these "looking straight up" photos - the trick to getting it to actually look like what you see when you just look up is to bring the camera to resting on your upturned face - never mind that you can't see the screen, trust me on this! Of course if you've got a camera with an *actual* viewfinder, so much the better.

A bit further on, and with the sun behind us now, we got the benefit of all those lovely long wintery shadows. And the colours! Brown from the tree trunks, flashes of bright green mainly from ivy, and the red of the fallen leaves.

Just to finish up, I persuaded the camera back into macro-mode for a quick shot of these rather soggy looking mushrooms. No idea what they are - although I suspect MrEH will identify them at some stage. Wouldn't it be nice if they were edible though! (And yes, before you say it, we are VERY careful about this and only ever eat anything we are absolutely 100% certain about!)


Friday 10 January 2014

Frugal Friday

Saving for views like this...
The last week has seen some planning here at EH Towers. Spreadsheets have been examined, figures have been input, and conclusions have been reached. Money has been saved too, so the year's got off to a nice start!

One of the things we wanted to review was the cost of our TV, Internet and Phone. We've been with Sky for a good few years now - with the exception of the one year we went off to Virgin Media when our building was swathed in scaffolding. We wasted no time in leaving them just as soon as our contract was up either, and have been back with Sky ever since.  However, much as we like their services, over the past few years the costs have gradually crept up, and we decided enough was enough.

First step was to do our research - a quick Google through news stories suggested that Sky are currently losing rather a lot of customers to BT - it always pays before you call to haggle to know who the current enemy are! From there we looked at the BT website to see what they would offer, and quickly found a package that would work for us for £35 a month - including line rental paid up front to bring the costs down - we were prepared to do this if needed. It always helps to know that if you don't get any joy with bringing the cost down with your current provider, you've got another one lined up that you'd be happy to go to. Next step was the phone call - initially I went through to the department dealing with upgrades/downgrades - explained that it was getting a bit too expensive and I wondered if there was anything we could do to bring the costs down. The chap I spoke to looked over each part of our package and said that there was no savings to be made, so I  asked to be put through to someone to discuss what I needed to do to terminate the contract. That gets you through to "terminations" - and they are the people with the real power in these negotiations. I always start by gently making the point that we've been very happy with Sky's service, and don't ideally want to leave. Then summarise the reasons for doing so - in this case a package from BT that actually offers slightly more than we currently have, and is £15 cheaper than our current Sky deal. In my experience going in and being entirely upfront about where you want the deal to end up usually pays off - it's not haggling in the real sense of the word. So now you not only have the eventual price you want to pay on the table, you also have who their competition are, and oddly enough, whoever are the biggest competition of the moment, there is usually a deal there to match it. This applies to all the major players by the way, not just Sky. Less than 5 minutes later I was putting the phone down having committed to a new 12 month contract at just £35 per month. The rules for success here are straightforward - be polite and chatty. Be honerst - don't threaten to leave if you have no real intention of doing so. Be honest about the other offers you've seen, but by all means be slightly grey about how you've come across them - in this case I described it as "The package BT are prepared to offer" - making it sound as though they'd contacted me with this deal.

Looking forward to my new lens for more like this!
That £15 a month saved will of course be being added to our "mortgage overpayment pot" from now on, and that lead to us having a bit of a natter about where we wanted to set our financial goals - both this year and into the future. We have a lump sum waiting to be paid to the mortgage already this year, and then will only have a few more months of overpayment before we hit our overpyament limit - our product only allows overpayments up to 10% of our outstanding balance. From that point everything we can spare will be stashed away into savings, ready to make the next lump sum next year. Then the whole cycle repeats itself until part way through 2016 when our fixed rate is finished and we're freed from the overpayment limit. The plan is that at that point we'll have stashed away as much cash as possible to pay as much as we can off immediately - then just keep throwing every spare penny at it until we're able to make that all important final payment. And here is the conclusion...

That by, or before, 24th July 2017, we will have made the final payment to our mortgage. 

The significance of this is that it will mean that we have paid our mortgage off in 14 years rather than the originally planned 25. It will also mean that I will be mortgage free before my 45th birthday - quite a good achievement I think you'll agree? As for this year, our target will be to end the year with £5,000 stashed into our overpayment account - a bit of a tall order this, but we'll see how it goes. I also want to replace in my personal savings the money I am about to spend on my new camera lens - again, by the end of the year.

I'll try to remember to do quarterly updates on these targets to let you know how we're going. How about you - any challenges or targets been set in your house for 2014?


Thursday 9 January 2014

Lea Valley Walk - part 1

So, with the fact that 2014 is going to be our "Year of Walking" in mind, we wrapped up warmly on Sunday and hopped into the car to head for the River Lea Navigation and a section of one of the walks we'd set our minds on. This is the Lea Valley Walk - an 18 mile stretch from beyond Waltham Abbey in the North, ending right in the heart of London's Docklands.

This is a relatively easy walk - being on the towpath it's level, and there are decent paths along most of it too - we'd decided that this first stretch would be done as a circular "out and back" walk - using the Navigation towpath through to the town of Waltham Abbey itself and then heading back north along Horsemill Stream, which runs nearly parallel to the Lea along this stretch.

we'd not been walking long when we found this odd looking structure on the opposite bank...

...not a good photo I'm afraid, the light was awful! Anyway, we were just debating what on earth it might have been when we came across a handily placed interpretation board (Don't you just love an interpretation board?) which explained that it was a Bofors Anti aircraft gun platform - a relic of World War Two, and probably placed here to defend the nearby Royal Gunpowder Mills at Waltham Abbey. It's now a protected structure, although clearly this hasn't stopped some folk deciding to leave their mark on it.

A little further on we passed a lock with a handily placed picnic bench - so stopped for tea. We'd sensibly taken our flask with us, and our mugs (those little flask cups are next to useless) and most welcome it was! Onwards then, and lots of these...

...Hazel catkins we think - we'll be making a note to return to this stretch of the bank in the autumn to see if there are any nuts to be found.  Then a little bit further on the path passed right by this...

There didn't seem to be any sign of anyone canoeing, or rafting, but the cafe seemed fairly busy - might have to go back there at some stage and investigate their tea and cake! Not much further on than that and we spotted our second lock - and the bridge carrying the A121 road over the waterways. we stopped to watch two boats making their way through the lock - MrEH and I have some experience of locks and he helped with the gates.

Tricky things, locks, especially when two boats go through at once, but these two navigated it smoothly and as we left they were just heading out of the other side.

And that was the end of the first stretch of the walk - just a short section this, MrEH had a streaming cold and didn't want to go too far, but this was enough to ease us into the walk and get us planning the next bit. Almost certainly a walk one way then get the train back on the next stretch - meaning we can cover more miles in the time we've got. Next on the agenda though is the first stretch of the Thames path, probably this weekend. We're really looking forward to getting this one underway!

For now though I'll leave you with this rather wonderful mosaic sign we saw on the way back...


Friday 3 January 2014

Frugal Friday...

So, here we are at the start of another year. The new year is always a good time when you're working towards a goal - financial or otherwise - to take stock, see how far you've come, and also to decide on what progress you'd like to make over the next year.

Choose the path that suits you...
We started the year with a mortgage balance which was just a shade under 60k, and are ending it with the first two digits being 49... - we're pretty happy with that. In an ideal world we would have paid off more, but the ongoing dispute with Virgin Money has put paid to that - they are still insistent that they can simply change our terms and conditions  not only with no notice but in fact without even bothering to tell us! As they have refused to listen to us, we've now escalated the dispute into a formal complaint. Of course while all this is going on their change means that we can't make the overpayments that we have wanted to as they won't accept them.

Spread your wings...
Regardless of all that, we intend to start this year by establishing what our overpayment limit will be for the year and then paying as much of that amount as possible up front. We've been stashing every spare penny we can into the savings account set up for the purpose, and that will be trotting over to the mortgage account just as soon as we can get on the phone to do it. It'll then be a case of keeping an eye on the balance so we know when we need to stop our "regular" overpayments and start feeding THAT money into the savings account to. If you are overpaying, and have an annual percentage limit you are allowed to overpay based on the closing balance in the previous year, then paying as much as possible of that amount at the very start of the year means that you're paying interest on a smaller amount, for longer. Common sense, innit?! The goal for this year on the mortgage is simple - to overpay every single penny we can.

Special things are worth saving for...
Our various savings accounts are trotting along nicely - the household expenses account has been topped back up to it's £500 threshold, the car account is OK, our holiday account is on target to mean that the Hebrides trip will be covered entirely before we even start driving north, and will also be a good jumping off point for a planned second Hebrides trip this year. My personal savings are about to take a battering as I am within a whisker of ordering the thing I've been saving so hard for - a rather pricey new camera lens, one which will get a LOT of use at airshows through the year, I hope. On the face of it very far from frugal, but photography is a hobby that I find very relaxing, great fun, and very rewarding, and the lens will be bought via the cheapest possible avenue, and has been saved for upfront.

Looking forward to more of these chaps...
We're looking to review everything and see where we might be able to make any further savings. As ever anything we do save will be added to the extra we're saving up to pay against the mortgage. Until such time as a new Furry Four Legged person comes to join the household we're saving £14 a month on the insurance that we were paying for HRH. We know there is a saving to be made against the water rates - but this requires some work to be done first to make room for a water meter to be fitted. Our Sky package also needs beating down in price. I'm keen to stay with them if possible as we are pleased with the service, like the customer support and I find the access to wi-fi which is included useful when I'm out and about. However I'm not happy that they are charging us a good lump more than BT would for the same thing. As ever I'll do my research, then call them up and see what they are prepared to offer us.  Our fixed price deal for our electricity ends in April, so that will need review and I'll be looking to see if there is any point in "jumping ship" to a new supplier earlier than that as we chose a fix that had no exit fees. We'll continue with all our "little savings" too - loose change, roadkill and my £2 coins. Also the "Virtual Sealed Pot" which is already running at somewhere over £50 and we're only a month in - we'll be aiming to beat last year's totals for all of those!

Super-frugal food!
One area where I KNOW we can make a saving into the new year will be our food shopping. We've taken our eye off the ball a little on this so we'll be looking to try to buy as little other than fresh fruit and veg, milk & dairy, and the occasional loaf of bread from the Turkish Supermarket or the lovely Mayfield Farm Bakery for as long as we possibly can. I'll be aiming to make the meat and fish that we have in the freezer s-t-r-e-t-c-h as far as possible, and the use up lots of things from our rather well supplied larder and storecupboard. we'll be waging war on half-used jars of this and that, and decimating all those packets and tins that have been hanging around for longer than they really should have done. watch this space for progress on this, and also get ready for Frugal February once again - who's going to join me on that one this year?