Sunday 30 March 2014

Thames Path - Section 3

Last week we braved a chilly day with an icy wind blowing to walk the next section of the Thames Path - very different to the areas we'd passed through previously, this one, and we also had no idea how closely we'd be able to stick to the river itself, how many diversions we'd have to make "inland" as it were, and how far we'd manage to get. we had our sights set on at least getting to the West End - Westminster - but no firm plan for an end point.

We started this section as close to the River as it was possible to be, really - you'll see from the above that with the tide out on this stretch, we were able to wander right down onto the foreshore, and at one stage I was even standing just in the water itself - the first time I've ever done that, I believe! There were people wandering with metal detectors - the word "Mudlark" refers to people who scour the foreshores of the Thames for treasures in fact - and others walking a dog, (River and Rover interacting?)  which appears to be having a fabulous time! For us though it was time to go and find one of these...

The boat on the pointy end of the signpost is a Thames Barge -these would have been a familar sight on the river in years gone by, but we've not seen any at all, so far, although our next stretch - through St Katherine's Dock - will change that. Far from boats though, this time one of the most striking things we saw was architecture - there have been a huge number of housing developments taking advantage of the golden sales line "River Views" and inevitably the designers of these have capitalised on said views by giving the apartments as much window area as possible...

And those particular flats would have a rather excellent view of the Battersea Heliport - used regularly for both commercial and sightseeing flights, there were flights coming and going all the time, I didn't have to wait for long to get this lucky load of sightseers heading off for their aerial view of the City.

Although cold it was a gorgeous sunny day - the views along the river were stunning - this was looking across to Chelsea...

...and we weren't the only ones enjoying the views either - yes, I confess, I did wait to get the London Bus crossing Battersea Bridge in the background of this shot!

Just a little further, and time for possibly one of the most striking bridges over the Thames - The Albert Bridge. Definitely up there with Hammersmith, and of course Tower...and helpfully empty of traffic when I wanted to take this photo!

There are more bridges on the stretch we walked this time than we will encounter anywhere else on the walk, and, in fact, when we set off on the next stretch from Tower Bridge, we'll be turning our backs on the final Bridge across the London stretch of the Thames - from then on it's all tunnels until you reach the Dartford Crossing - and our walk will finish before that!

A little further and we reached Vauxhall - another area chock-full of new development. These rather expensive looking buildings caught my eye...

...and then, looking past the Bridge - a familar sight - the MI6 building. Remember seeing this getting blown up in Skyfall? I can assure you that "no buildings were harmed in the making of that film" and here it is all in one piece...

We chose to cross to the South Bank at Lambeth Bridge - much loved by London drivers wanting to head from North, to South West London, this one, as it's the easiest, most traffic-free route by far across the water. On foot though, and heading East, we were soon into one of London's most touristy areas - the South Bank - home, of course, to this...

Now regular blog visitors may remember that I've had an ongoing project for several years now trying to document the Eye with shots from as many different angles as possible. As time goes on this gets more tricky, but I did get a few different ones this time - I'll share some more of those in another post, I think.
Weekends on the South Bank also mean the famous second hand book market. MrEH, needless to say, had to stop for a rummage, and I used the time to do a bit of street photography - not a subject I do much of but this is a great place for it and I can rarely resist when I'm in the area...

Time to stop for the final cups of tea from our flask (and some doughnuts bought from a stall - tasty they were too!) before the final stretch....

Arriving at Tower Bridge just as the light starts to fall is never a bad thing - MrEH commented that the last time we'd stood and looked at it, it was wearing its Olympic Rings - in fact I believe it was the day of the Cycling Road Race which I blogged about.

We decided in the course of the day that Tower Bridge was the perfect place to finsh this stretch - it was clearly going to be getting fairly late by the time we got there, and the transport links mean it's an easy spot to get to and from making it idea for the start of the next section. So, that's it - section three done and dusted. From Station to Station (Putney Bridge to Tower Hill) we walked a little over 10.5 miles this time - the longest section we've done, and it's a credit to my still fairly new walking boots that it didn't feel that far at all. The next stretch will be at some stage during April - we've not set the date yet, but we're already looking forward to it!


Friday 28 March 2014

Frugal Friday...

OK, I must confess, the last few weeks have been anything BUT Frugal - lots of diesel going to and from Lincolnshire taking photos, MrEH's car needing replacing, and generally taking our eyes off the ball a bit. There's not been frittering of money going on, or wasting of money, but it's just all felt a little like we've been spending more than we're comfortable with - and after all, that's the key thing when it comes to your own finances isn't it - what YOU are comfortable with.

Not sure I'd be comfortable with this...
When it comes to all things financial, I've come to the conclusion that really, you need to have at least a nugget of consciousness on it a fair amount of the time. You could call it planning, I guess - I know when I meal plan for example, not only do we spend less on food, but our meals are more imaginative too. When you book travel in advance it generally comes up a bit cheaper, although sometimes (as in our travel back from Orkney) finding that you've "missed the boat" (or in this case, the plane) can prompt you to actually find an even better value solution that works for you. And there's another key thing to do with finances - finding what works for you. Sometimes biding your time can be the way to go, in fact - our cheap fix for our electricity is coming to an end soon. I checked out the Money Saving Expert site and it's "Cheap Energy Club" a few weeks ago, and there were clearly deals out there that might work for us - one option is to switch provider again (meaning cashback, and a deal which has no exit fees should we want to jump ship) and the other option being to stay with our current provider but move to a new tariff - however this would be one which will have an exit fee and with the market currently looking pretty competitive, we were unsure whether that was the right deal for us. We decided to bide our time - at this time of year (the heating is now off - we're just using the oil-filled radiator when we need to to take the chill off) we don't use vast amounts of electricity anyway, and with the clocks due to change shortly our useage will drop still further as things like morning showers will be taken during the cheap power slot. Moving onto a standard tariff for a while isn't ideal, no, but it won't cost us a fortune extra either, and with the announcement this week from SSE that they are to be freezing their energy prices voluntarily until 2016, it's starting to look as though our decision to hold off from changing might be the right one - with energy companies, where one leads, others usually follow, and the likelihood seems to be that this might provoke a bit of a price-war.

Summer's coming...meaning electricity bills start dropping!
Another area where there seems to be a bit of a price war going on at the moment is at the petrol pumps - anyone else noticed that prices have been creeping downwards over the past few weeks? Diesel locally was costing £1.36:9 a litre a couple of months ago - that same Petrol Station that we use as our benchmark currently has a price of £1.32:9 advertised - not a huge saving, but over a 50l tank (as mine is) that's £2 a time. With the recent Budget confirming that the freeze on fuel duty continues, we really should be back to the days when the At-The-Pump price tracks the cost of crude oil - although I strongly suspect that this won't happen as previous drops in the price of oil over the past few years have made little difference. We maximise the savings we can make by keeping track of which companies fuel the cars seem to run best on (something we need to do again for MrEH's car now), paying on the cashback credit card (1p back per £1 spent) and using loyalty cards where they are available. So far the replacement car is already looking as though it may be more fuel-efficient than the old one, which will be useful - it will take a tank or two to know for sure though.
Looking forward to more beautiful scenery in Orkney...
The theme for the next few weeks needs to be getting our eye back on the ball, I think. We're off to Orkney in a few weeks of course - the spending money for that is set aside and we just have ferries still to book. The price on those doesn't change even if we book last minute, so we're not worried about those, and still hold out a slim hope that we might win a set in the VisitScotland "Brilliant Islands" giveaway.  I needed a new memory card for my camera and was able to take advantage of a mis-pricing on a website I've bought from before - getting myself a 16gb card for the usual price of an 8gb. I wondered whether they would honour the order, but full marks to them, they have - so a big heap of praise to 7DayShop for that. The levels in the freezer and storecupboard continue to fall - we re-stocked on our favourite brand of baked beans at the weekend though when Lidl had 4 tins for 94p in their weekend offers. We need to shuffle some of our holiday spending money across from the account it's sitting in across to the Holiday account, continuing to keep grocery shopping spends nice and low means that the holiday spending budget is well and truly sorted - a good 2 months ahead of us setting off, and it's a great incentive to continue shopping carefully and cooking from scratch, when we know that everything we save on our £150 a month food budget can go towards nice meals out and tea & cake when we're in the Hebrides! We'll continue to keep a close watch on what is going on in the energy market, and will strike when the time is right for us to secure a new deal there,

Have you taken your eye off the ball and found it a problem?


Wednesday 26 March 2014


Another week, another trip to Lincolnshire! With just over a week to go until the Red Arrows head off to Cyprus for the final push on their winter training, known as "Operation Springhawk", I decided to whizz up the A1 once more. The car is starting to know it's own way to Scampton now I think, and I've got the route firmly etched in to my memory! Thanks to a helpful tip-off on timings the night before I knew the time for their first sortie of the day, and so left home at 6am to be up there ready.

For a change the weather when I arrived was absolutely glorious - sunshine and a deep blue sky - and there was already one more car parked in my usual area when I arrived. That turned out to be owned by someone I've previously spotted on Twitter - the very lovely and talented Claire - and we immediately struck up conversation - lovely to have another Lady-photographer about to chat to!

I generally have a rough plan of where I want to be at various times during the day if they are doing multiple practise flights, and also an idea of any specific shots I want to work for. The best laid plans can go awry though if you arrive and find that the wind has turned as that means a change to the direction of takeoff and landing - jets usually prefer to do both into the wind.  This time all was as I'd expected, so the first shot of the day was always going to be a head-on takeoff...

...settings also can vary depending on the conditions. Someone asked on Twitter recently what settings are used for shooting the Red Arrows - now settings are one of those things that most photographers feel you really should be able to work out for yourself, and in any case there is rarely a "one size fits all" solution that will work for everyone. Even once you're set up for the conditions, things can sometimes change - on a bright sunny day like Friday, I usually prefer to use Spot Metering - as I find that metering from the bright red of the planes gives great results, with the jets really "popping" against the sky, and smoke trails being well-defined. This time though I simply found that the sky was too blue to make this work and I had to switch modes.

Other than that, I set the aperture on the camera and then if needed I change ISO as the light levels change to keep the shutter speeds up. If I'm shooting from head-on to the display line then I tweak the settings to get a faster shutter speed for synchro crosses and things like that, too, to give a better chance of getting both planes in sharp focus. For the most part though you have 22 minutes with an awful lot going on - and particularly in the close quarters of Scampton, everything happening directly past you at high speeds - and you have little chance to think about changing things mid-show.

With the first practise over and the jets heading back to the line for refuelling, we had an hour and a half to kill before the next slot. For those living close to the base this gives them a chance to dash home, download photos, grab a bite to eat etc. No such options for me though so instead I chose to go and recce another possible photo spot for later in the day, a mile or so walk from the car parking to the other side of the base. On this occasion I decided to give it a miss - the landowner there has been a little unhappy with people taking photos on his land of late, so I decided that it was better avoided until the dust has settled, and instead decided to stick with my original plan of doing the second practise slot from a spot I've used before, and which I know can give good results. The downside of this spot is that you get less of Synchro screaming in and out directly overhead, like Red 6 was doing above, but the plus side is seeing the display far more as it is intended to be watched.

You also get a superb opportunity for taxi-ing shots as they return to the line after the display - they literally come directly towards and then past you!

That's Red 2 - Flt. Lt. Stewart Campbell - in his first year with the team this season. Taxi shots are good for more than just the thrill of seeing and hearing the jets pass by so close as well - they enable you to note who is flying which jet - and that in turn means when you find shots of singles, so long as the serial no. is visible, you can identify which team-member you're looking at!

After lunch it was time for the final practise slot of the day - the weather had changed a little by this time with more of a mix of heavy grey cloud along with flashes of blue sky and white cloud. Harder to get the exposure right, but lending itself to something a bit different on the photo-front...

Also the sort of weather which really works well with the smoke trails - although at the moment they're still working just with the plain white vapour - the dye will be added to produce the characteristic red, white and blue trails for the display season of course but at this stage of the winter work-up it's more about getting the "Smoke on - GO" at the right moment - something which the team will be reviewing in their debrief after each practise. On Friday they were finishing each session by streaming trails as each pair broke off into the circuit to land...

That's 8 & 9 going, 4 & 5 go next, followed by 2 & 3, and finally "Synchro" - 6 & 7 peel off. They'll probably finish off any fly-through following a display at a show they're landing at like this, I'm hoping.  Looks good, doesn't it!

That's it for me now for Scampton trips for a while. By the time the team return from Cyprus resplendent in their red flying suits and with Public Display Authority awarded we'll probably be heading for the Hebrides, and by the time we get back the display season will be firmly underway. In the meantime I've got a new facebook photography page - - please pop over and "Like" it if you're a facebooker, there will be more aviation pics going up there every little while.


Sunday 23 March 2014

Fun, friends and four-legged folk...

As I mentioned, we were recently invited to spend a weekend in Norfolk with some pals. They had booked a holiday cottage up there and suggested we might like to join them for a few days - as the North Norfolk Coast is one of our very favourite areas, we jumped at the chance!

Travel was easily sorted - I wanted to be in Lincolnshire at Scampton during the day on the Friday, so we booked MrEH a cheap train ticket from London to Kings Lynn for after he finished work, and I collected him from there mid evening. We arrived at the village we were staying in just before 10pm, and weren't in the least surprised to find no signs of life at the cottage! A short walk to the pub found N, A and the two dogs - @UrbanGundog and @RuralGundog - it's not in the least unusual to find them in a pub! Once the chaos caused by two excitable Labradors and our arrival has abated, we settled to beer and chat before heading back to the cottage - and very sweet it was too! A traditionally built flint faced terrace,  beautifully kitted out and finished to a really good standard - we were all extremely impressed.

The following morning we jumped in to the car and drove the short distance around the coast to Blakeney - we'd intended to walk out to the point but somehow managed to park in the wrong car park so had to settle for walking a section of coast path - and the damage caused by the winter storms was very apparent...

...rather more clambering and detouring was required than the last time MrEH and I walked along this section - in places the water had come within a few feet of the top of the embankment with the path on it and it wasn't surprising that the structure had simply failed under the impact. They've begun making repairs but you get the impression that it's going to be quite a long job.

This is the view across to Cley Next The Sea - you may remember it was in the news a while back when a USAF helicopter crashed there during a night-flying exercise. No sign of such traumatic events now thankfully, just a rather lovely sleepy Norfolk Village. You can see further signs of the damaged path in that shot too. After returning to Blakeney and enjoying ice creams, we drove back round the coast to find a pub with local beer (well it would be rude not, to, surely?) and then back to the cottage for a while, before heading out in the evening for dinner. Another pub was selected - one in the Village this time, the Lifeboat Inn. Owned by Marco Pierre White, we were slightly unsure what to expect - although as N said "If they want £25 for fish & chips, we're going elsewhere!" - sensible sentiments indeed! On arriving though not only was the pub without question dog-friendly (our two furry hosts were welcomed and able to curl up next to the table) the prices were also extremely reasonable - four plates of fish & chips were duly ordered, and arrived a while later looking like this...

MrEH immediately jettisoned his mushy peas, but I decided to give mine a try and was glad I did - far from the usual image of them as so beloved of those from north of the Watford Gap, these were fresh peas, roughly pureed, and were delicious! Home made tartare sauce, and fabulously crispy chunky chips, along with a huge piece of haddock which must have been swimming about just a few hours before, it was so fresh. We've earmarked this as a definite place to visit again in the future when we're camping up in that area.

Sunday dawned so gorgeously sunny and astonishingly warm that there was only one thing for it - to head to the beach of course! Wells Next the Sea was the chosen location...

...a gorgeous expanse of sand and dunes - we walked a good two miles each way along, stopping to let the dogs paddle, and to watch birds, and a friendly inquisitive seal who seemed absolutely fascinated by all the dogs in and out of the water! We'd all elected to leave our coats in the car thankfully, and MrEH and I were wearing walking boots with wool-based socks so our feet were cool and comfy enough - N & A were both wearing wellies though (perfectly sensible beach-wear for March) and by the time we returned to the car they were both suffering rather!

Time for lunch then - more delicious food (we did feel that we'd spent the entire weekend either walking, eating or drinking, but equally we weren't complaining about this!) this time at the Wells beach cafe which serves up fare from the Holkham Estate of which the beach forms part. Tasty filled rolls and cake went down very well, and for good measure we had ice-cream at Holkham Hall itself later on!

A lovely weekend indeed then - and a huge thanks to N, A, Urbs and Rural (pictured above, looking thoughtful) for being kind enough to invite us!


ps - once again these pictures were all taken with the startlingly good Canon 50mm f1.8 lens. (Apart from the fish & chips - that was with the iPhone!)

Friday 21 March 2014

Frugal Friday...

Some years ago we made the decision that the cost of MrEH's commute (on the train and tube) was too high, and we needed to look for alternatives. For us, it turned out that the best value option was to buy a second car for him - at the time I was using mine for my own work travel on a daily basis so sharing one didn't work for us. We did the sums carefully in advance, and worked out that we'd need to allow about £75 a month to set aside to cover the big annual costs - Insurance, tax, servicing and MoT, and the depreciation stuff like tyres. The cost of fuel (we already knew we'd go for a diesel) on top of that would be around another £100 a month. The first stage of the process was working out which models we wanted to look at - MrEH is tall, so that ruled out a lot. We wanted something as safe as we could get - having seen how lucky my Mum was to escape from a crash in a 2* NCAP rated car some years ago, we were strict on that. Our main car - my Clio - has ABS, so whatever we bought HAD to have that - nobody wants to be trying to remember whether the car they are currently driving needs cadence braking or not in the event of the worst happening! We wanted 5 doors - sometimes the 3 door Clio is really useful, but other times, less so, and having the choice would give us more flexibility. Finally we wanted something cheap on road tax - the £30 a year bracket was where we looked. Once everything was taken into account we narrowed it down to another Clio, or a Citroen C3, and what we eventually bought a month or so later was a 2003 registered C3, dark blue, and with 115,000 miles on the clock. I negotiated the £2,600 asking price down to £2,300, and off we went.

"Bessie" on Camping duty in the Lake District
Now, four and a half years later, we've taken the decision that "Bessie" as she was christened, has reached the end of her time with us. Her mileage now stands at over 180,000 which even for a diesel is on the high side. She's needed a new clutch in that time, and gave us a scare last year when we thought she was on her last legs, but the fitting of a new hose to the cooling system sorted that out. Our intention from the start was to run her until either she died, or the mileage reached the point where we could start to see things going wrong, and it's the latter that has occurred first. She owes us absolutely nothing - she's been an absolute nightmare to start from day one, but she's never regardless of weather, temperature, or time stood idle while we've been away, refused to start. She's been packed full of camping stuff, used to take stuff to the tip, and taken me home at a perilous (although obviously within the speed limit) speed and with only half my attention focused on what I was doing when I got "that" phone call last year saying my Dad had been rushed to hospital. We clearly chose well!

So - the process started again. We started looking at the used car ads - no way were we going to buy anything brand new - yes we have money in savings which would have purchased something new from a posh dealership, but we no longer feel we want to justify the depreciation on a brand new car - the amount they lose in value as soon as you take them off the forecourt is terrifying. I paid best part of £12,000 for mine when I bought new 6 years ago - if I wanted to replace like-for-like with the same age and model now I would pay well under half that. To buy the same spec now, brand new, would cost me over 17k - yet within the first few thousand miles that value would drop to a shade over 13k. Yes, a new car is shiny, and you get the thrill of being the first name on the log book, but is it in the least frugal, or even vaguely budget-friendly? No. There are other costs with new cars as well - in order to keep the warranty you'll be tied to approved dealer servicing - and there are often huge penalties that come along with those "too good to be true" finance or leasing packages too - woe betide if you have an accident, even if it's someone elses fault sometimes...

This is why a 3-door car is sometimes useful...
We re-evaluated what we actually *needed* from a car. This is the vehicle that will do our camping trips and which we will use for most of our UK adventures, but not for the Hebrides trip - the Clio goes up there. Bessie did venture as far north as Edinburgh on a couple of occasions without incident though! It's the vehicle we use on a daily basis for pounding up and down the motorway to and from London - so it needs a reliable engine, and one which will produce good MPG. The 1.4 diesel engine in the C3 cheerfully supplies around 60 miles to the gallon - meaning our work commutes can be done on a little over £20 a week. We don't whizz around the country at high speeds, neither do we do phenomenally high mileage, (around 14,000 miles a year in that car) so a larger engine wasn't needed. We don't habitually carry lots of passengers, or have child-seats to accommodate, so there's no need for a larger bodied car either. In short, what we had has served us impeccably well for the past few years, so we decided to look for "another of the same"!

The search was remarkably painless in the event. We looked at a few of the car-sales websites - Autotrader and Exchange & Mart are good ones nationally which allow you to tailor a search to precisely what you're after. You can even stipulate all cars within a certain band of VED (road tax) if you want! We set the search area to a radius of 20 miles at home, knowing this would also cover the area near to where I work on a regular basis, thus hopefully cutting the cost of actually going to look at anything that caught our eye. We spotted a nice looking C3 fairly quickly - up for sale for £2,390 - 3 years newer than MrEH's current steed, but more importantly with nearly 100,000 less miles on the clock! Not *quite* such a high-spec model - but then the armrests and additional 12v socket that we're losing are hardly game-changers - but in an even lower tax-bracket than we've been used to at just £20 a year! I went to look, (Mr EH had gone to the pub with some workmates - it's alright for some, eh? - in all seriousness there is a simple reason for this - I know rather more about buying cars than he does, having done it a fair number of times in the 23 years I've been driving, so can ask the right questions and (hopefully) know what I'm looking for on the paperwork - that's the theory, anyway!) took her for a test drive, and after a relatively short-lived bit of negotiation, agreed to pay £2,000 plus the current car in part-ex. Sometimes heavy negotiation around such things as a tank of fuel, or a service, is appropriate, but this time it wasn't - I named what we had in the pot to pay, and after some further chat, the dealer agreed to accept that.
"Gracie" waiting patiently for her ferry to the Hebrides...!
Some tips which I have always found helpful:
- If the car has less than 6 months MoT Test remaining, be very wary of a dealer who refuses to have a fresh one done for you. If he's confident that a car is good, he'll have no qualms getting a years fresh MoT on it from the start - this chap had done it as soon as it expired in spite of having no requirement to do so.
- Be cautious of buying from a private seller - they have little to lose if things go wrong, whereas a good dealer will be wary of having his reputation affected. More often than not a small dealership will offer better prices than a private seller in any  case.
- Ask about such things as how many keys a car has - a new chipped key from a main dealer will cost anything from £70 upwards! If there is air-con, check that it works - if it doesn't ask if they will get it re-gassed, or ask for a discount on the price to reflect this needing doing.
- Check there is a spare tyre present, and check that the same spare tyre is present when you go to collect the vehicle. Go on, ask me how I know about this one, I dare you! ;-)
- DON'T TELL LIES ABOUT YOUR PART EXCHANGE VEHICLE. If you say it starts first turn of the key, and the first time the dealer tries to move it in the workshop it takes five attempts and a set of jumpleads, he WILL come after you. It's as simple as that, and you'll deserve it. If there is stuff that he needs to know to fairly evaulate what he's paying on it, tell him. It is however the dealer's responsibility in my opinion to ask about such things as service history, and whether anything has been drawn to your attention as needing attention on the car. If there is a fault which you know could endanger someone driving it, you MUST mention it. Never mind the legalities - treat your conscience kindly.
- Don't be afraid to barter - if a dealer puts a price of £2,500 on a car, the very most he is expecting to get for it is £2,300, and he's paid an awful lot less than that! Research trade prices for the make and model you're looking at so you have an idea what the margins are.
- A silly one - if you get into a car and it has a funny smell that isn't just cleaning products, walk away. You'll spend the rest of the time you have it freezing your ass off as you drive around with the windows open.
- If you go to look at a car and get a feeling that something isn't right - walk away, you are almost certainly right!
- GET AN HPI CHECK! Or, better still, ask the dealer to do so. Most reputable ones will. This is the thing that confirms that your intended set of wheels hasn't been written off previously in an accident, and doesn't have any finance owing.
- Check out a car head on from the front - make sure everything looks even and there are no gaps on one side of the bonnet for example, and that it sits square. Do the same from the back. If it doesn't look right - walk away.
- Think through beforehand what your budget is, and how much you want for your car if you're part-ex'ing, but again, do it realistically, and again, research trade prices so you know what's reasonable - pushing your luck a little is fine, making a fool of yourself isn't.
- Don't assume that the dealer is going to try and rip you off. There are some genuine nice-guys selling cars out there, they know that if they do you a good deal, and sell you a good car, you'll tell your friends, neighbours and family how impressed you were.

Above all, don't be seduced by shiny toys if you're genuinely on a budget or trying to be frugal. Just because you have money in savings doesn't mean it's sensible to spend it on something which will instantly lose 25% of its value - why not let someone less frugal and thrifty than you take that hit, the savings from buying a car 6 months to a year old are astonishing - just think what you could do with that extra 4k you'd save on the example above - home improvements maybe? Perhaps that cosy log-burner that would over time, help you save yet more money on heating your home? That'd put a smile on your face when you were driving home in your second hand bargain, wouldn't it now?


Wednesday 19 March 2014

More fast noisy stuff...

In between work, regular family life and a lovely weekend in Norfolk with some good friends and their gorgeous Black Labradors (more on that in another post) I've managed to cram in another couple of trips up to Lincolnshire to give that New Lens some more exercise photographing RAF Fast Jets. In the course of those few weeks I have also (thanks to a very good friend) been loaned a Canon 7D camera body with a view to purchasing it from her second hand in due course. If I thought that lens performed well on my 40D, believe me that is NOTHING to how well it goes with the newer, higher spec body!

Another visit to RAF Scampton came first - with a 5.30am departure from home being needed to get me up there in time for the Reds first sorties of the day. Much as I hate getting up at that time of day, it does seem silly to go all that way and not put the effort in to see as much as possible of what is going on throughout the day! On this occasion though I could have stayed in bed for a little longer as I arrived up there with rain falling heavily and visibility being so poor that there was a limit what could be done. The Synchro Pair went up for a while - I mainly watched that from the car, then "Enid" - Reds 1-5 - went up shortly after the rain had stopped. I did photograph that but the grey skies were very uninspiring and I've not processed those pictures as there was nothing there that met my own standards. By just before lunch, though, the skies had cleared and the sun was beating down, just in time for 8 Red Arrows Hawks to take to the skies. As they were using the other runway from my previous visit, that mean the exhilarating experience of having them take off directly towards where I was standing...

...quite noisy, that, when they pass over your head at about 50 feet!  It was "Red 9" who was missing on this occasion - each pilot flies in a set position within the formations and they can continue to fly if any pilot apart from Red 1 ("The Boss") is missing. If The Boss is unwell, or unable to fly for any reason, the display is cancelled. 2, 4 & 8 fly on the right, and 3, 5 & 9 on the left. 6 & 7 (Synchro) can usually be found playing "follow the leader" behind Red 1 in the first half of the display. The team practise "missing man" formations through the winter so that as and when someone else is unable to participate, everybody still know what their reference points are within the formations - you can see here that with "9" missing the "Eagle" formation looks slightly unbalanced...

In the afternoon they went back up - this time though with 10 jets taking off together - we quickly realised that they were doing a photo shoot which meant formations only - and a lot of them! Some people who were there alongside me were clearly disappointed - but others like me are fascinated by the intricacies of the way the formation changes happen and so found it quite fascinating. It also mean that I could get this shot...

...which Red 10 liked - Re-tweeting it with the comment "PHOTOBOMB!" which I found funny. It's always nice when the team members (Reds or Blues) pick up on a photo I've tweeted, and never more so than when you get a nice comment alongside. Lingy had already commented appreciatively on another of my pics from the day, and Red 8 gave this one a "Wow!" ...

...high praise from a man who is an extremely accomplished photographer himself.

Last week saw me making another trip up - this time for an "Out of Season Practise" or OSP at RAF Cranwell. Slightly odd lighting and a tricky sun position made life a little awkward, but I still got a few bits I was happy with and there were some cracking close passes whizzing by our left ears...

That's Red 6 shooting past! Nice conditions for smoke trails too ...

...they're not yet using the coloured smoke that's so much a hallmark of their display - we probably won't see that now until the team come back from Cyprus at the end of May. The white looks so stunning against a bright blue sky and red jets though it really doesn't matter!

From Cranwell my friend and I went on to RAF Coningsby. The Reds were doing another OSP there later on in the afternoon but I already knew I'd have to leave before they arrived. I did get an hour and half or so watching & photographing Typhoons and Tornado's though, and even saw my first Performance takeoff...

Just LOOK at that heat-haze!

Where I've really noticed the difference with the 7D over my own camera body is in the level of detail and crispness you can achieve. I'm gradually getting all its settings tailored to my own requirements (as any photographer will tell you nobody sets a camera up quite the same as the next person!) too but even before that I was blown away by the results.

Thanks to the kindness of Viv I've got my hands on one several months before I thought I was likely to, and I'm having such fun getting to grips with it! I need to invest heavily in higher capacity memory cards though - the 18mp sensor simply chomps through my current set of 8gb cards and the last thing you want to be doing part way through a display is mucking about changing cards! 

More fun planned over the next couple of weeks too - well I've got to keep practising to do such a fab camera justice, haven't I?!


Monday 17 March 2014

Is it nearly here yet?

Do you know, I think spring may have sprung! We've been enjoying some lovely weather and warm temperatures down here for the past couple of weeks, so after lunch today we decided that it would simply have been rude not to get out and enjoy it! First stop was our own little bit of pocket-handkerchief sized garden, where things have simply shot into life over the past little while. Our gooseberry bushes are covered in leaf, and this rather sprawling purple-flowered thing (Fay! Help!) is covered in purple flowers...

For some strange reason we also have a single lone daffodil out there - the other side of the flat has lots, but we've never had planted any on that side, so we're mystified! Lots of signs of other bulbs coming up too, including some that we only put in back in the Autumn - we've long since forgotten what any of them were so it'll be interesting to see what we get!

After a bit of pottering in the garden we decided to venture further afield.  We're fortunate to have some great walks from where we live - today with the exception of having to cross one fairly major road we were entirely walking through woodland and open countryside. Indeed it was while we were alongside the major road that we spotted these...

...a proper sign of spring! The other thing we saw lots of today was butterflies. It feels like there are more out than normal for this time of year and MrEH identified Peacocks and Small Coppers before I finally managed to creep up on and photograph this gorgeous Comma...

 I'm not great at butterfly recognition but the Comma's raggedy wing edged means even I can tell that apart from all the others! They're tricky to photograph when they first appear in the spring as they're full of life and energy and usually flutter away quickly when they sense movement nearby. This one seemed quite content basking in the sunshine though, as were we!

We walked to the pub. Our walks usually seem to involved a pub at some stage, although in fairness that's rarely the sole objective, generally more of a distraction. Today though that was the end goal - our closest local Good Beer Guide pub at Churchgate Street. Very good it was too - very deserving of its place in that publication. On the way back we spotted this rather unusual stile...

Yes, it is crafted from yellow gas pipes, and yes, it does have a footpath running straight round the edge of it. MrEH climbed over it - because he's a boy, and if you point boys at something they can climb over, apparently they have to do so. It's in the rules, or something. I - it won't surprise you to hear - took the path. Frankly even with the step up I'd still have struggled to get over it I think - it's every bit as big and chunky as it looks!

Have you noticed quite how much Blackthorn flower there is this year? Everywhere we look there are great drifts of it,and all the other blossom is coming out now too to join in the party - it's glorious!

Did you get out and about and enjoy the sunshine this weekend?


Friday 14 March 2014

Frugal Friday...

As you know, until recently we shared our living accommodation with HRH The Cat. Not cheap, pets, and when looked at logically, cats are probably more frugal-friendly companions than dogs, but let's face it, costly or not, we wouldn't swap them, would we! There are ways though of keeping the costs down, and not feeling obliged to keep up with the Jones's with trendy accessories is probably the best of those!

My parents recently acquired a new doggy companion - a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel X Bichon Frise  - or "Cavachon" as they are now known. The new strains of "pedigree crossbreeds" that are coming to the fore now have largely been introduced to try to get rid of some of the problems that have been bred into pedigree breeds by unscrupulous breeders trying to reach perfection in their breed standard. Mum & Dad chose the Cavachon as it's a small breed (read: portable model) which doesn't shed too much hair, and should be less prone to the heart and brain problems that the purebred Cavaliers suffer from now. In turn this means that insurance costs are kept a little lower and there should hopefully (all being well) be less visits to the vet down the line.  Little J has settled in well - aside from chewing everything in sight - and is proving intelligent and quick to learn (except in relation to chewing everything in sight).

One of the first conclusions Mum reached was that puppies don't care how much a toy costs, where it comes from, or what label it bears. All our family dogs have always loved being given an old toilet or kitchen roll centre to play with ("Chewbs" as they've become known) and years ago our first Cavalier kept his teeth clean gnawing away at the heavy-duty cardboard fax inner tubes. One of J's current favourite toys is a plastic drink bottle with some small pebbles popped inside and the lid screwed back on. It's shiny and large enough that she can't sink her teeth into it and get bits of the plastic off, and she can chase it around the floor - the rattling as it scoots away from her drives her mad! HRH The Cat always loved ping-pong balls - you could confuse her for hours by bouncing one against a wall as she never could work out how they suddenly changed direction! For cats also, anything tied onto the end of a piece of string is a winner - just draw it gently along the floor and see what happens! Other puppy ideas: an old towel or teeshirt tightly knotted, or small cardboard boxes with a treat inside (anything where a dog has to work to get a reward is a great idea as it stimulates both brain and body - leading to a thoroughly sleepy puppy!) For an older and less "chewy" dog - you could try childrens toys from the charity shop - just be certain there is nothing sharp in the line of eyes or noses that might scratch their teeth or damage their gums. Childrens soft toys now have to go through such stringent safety testing they are astonishingly resilient. It goes without saying that all play should be supervised and at the first sign of a toy showing signs of wear and tear that might be harmful it should of course be taken away.

For general pet supplies, the pet superstores are often a good bet, but equally small independent pet shops can be a great place to find bargains.  When J first started going outside on the lead it quickly became apparent that she was getting extremely cold and miserable - at that stage she was too little to walk far on her own so was being carried, and a dog that size quickly loses body heat in the colder weather. Mum and Dad took her along to a local pet shop where she was quickly sized up and a coat recommended which will probably fit her into adulthood as they sensibly suggested one which can be secured safely on her current small frame, yet has room for adjustment too. ("Room to grow in" you might say!) - £8.99 well spent, and a quick glance at one of the Superstore websites confirms that there is nothing of a similiar type available any cheaper there.  They clearly pride themselves on having staff who know their stuff and are happy to chat and make suggestions.

Thinking laterally can get results on other pet accessories too - a local discount store came up trumps with an excellent lightweight pet carrier which was perfect for J (until she chewed a hole in it) and we always went to 99p & £1 shops  for cat collars for HRH (just check that their "quick release" catches will do the job properly - essential for a cat collar). Warning though - don't buy dog or cat treats from those shops - they can often be snared for £1 a pack and 3 for the price of 2 in supermarkets - making it better to keep an eye out for the deals there. HRH's food was stocked up on when the supermarket had it on 3 for 2 or at a very reduced price too - by shopping as carefully as you would for your own food you can keep costs down. For dogs, big sacks of "working dog" food can be excellent for really active characters provided you have space to store it. For a big dog, invest in a large china or heavy stainless steel bowl from day one - having to chase their food round it as puppies will slow their eating down too. Water bowls too - for static ones for home use spending a little more in the first place for one that can't be tipped is money well spent.  Remember also that pet bowls that will go in the dishwasher are a real bonus.

The one thing that should under NO circumstances be skimped on is insurance. Read details of policies carefully to ensure they cover your needs, and think carefully about limits of cover. Use comparison sites to get prices, then go through the policies one by one ruling out those that don't tick your boxes. As a bare minimum with a dog you MUST have third party cover just in case the worst should happen (cats don't require this as they are deemed to be "free spirits" - meaning that you can't be held legally responsible for their actions).  Some form of accident or illness cover is pretty important though - vet bills can easily run into thousands and thousands of pounds and imagine having to take the decision to have your furry four legged family member put to sleep as you couldn't afford their treatment following an accident? As animals get older insurance costs go up sharply - something to remember when getting a puppy or kitten is that they could potentially be with you for up to 16 years for dogs, and 20 for cats - although as they get into proper old age you may well choose to decide that there is only so much treatment you'd put them through - we'd decided with HRH for example that anything that affected her mobility, or meant her having daily doses of multiple tablets would not be treated as it would have affected her quality of life and happiness too much. When you know your own animal there is no shame in this - they give us years of love and company and deserve for us to make the kindest decision for them at the right time.

Don't let the cost put you off owning a pet if you want one, but do be sure that you can afford to be the responsible owner that pet deserves, and don't feel that you need to splash the cash unnecessarily - animals are really not impressed by designer labels!


For more pictures of this little cutie, and what our family dogs are getting up to, follow @Jemima114 & @BorderCollieX on Twitter! (And thanks to Mum for the first photo)

Friday 7 March 2014

Frugal Friday...

We've been booking travel again - this time to get to and from Scotland to visit lovely Fay next month. We tried to get the same deal with the sleeper tickets that we got last year, but they were either never released, or went too fast for us to book, for the day we need to travel. Then the flights to return suddenly shot up in price - putting the cost of flying home, convenient as that is, out of our reach. It felt as though this time, everything was conspiring against us - and that's annoying!

After a bit of a grump, we set too to explore other options - first, the journey up. To be up at the very top of Scotland for a ferry leaving at 7pm, from "doon Sooth" where we are, you really have to start out the previous day - and this is where the sleeper really scores points - you get a bed for the night and to travel while you sleep, waking up already well north of the border. We looked into flying to Edinburgh or Glasgow the night before, then travelling on, but by the time a hotel was factored in the costs just escalated, so we looked back at the sleeper again, and found a special offer (yes, we like those) from Scotrail offering a third off sleeper fares if booked before the end of February. That saving brought the cost of the sleeper fares down to within our budget, AND allows us to get all the way to Aberdeen on the first stage of the journey. £135 to get two people in a mobile hotel-room all that way North? Yes, we booked it.

The rest of the journey up is pretty much set in stone and there's not much negotiation available on price, but there are still ways of saving - or possibly saving. The ferry for a start - we go from Scrabster, sailing across to Stromness. Scrabster is walking distance from Thurso so there are not additional costs involved in that bit, nor any reliance on buses which might potentially cause delays. There is no difference whether we book the ferry in advance or not, but we have been pointed in the direction of a rather useful link to a "Ballot" where VisitScotland are giving away ferry tickets on some routes - needless to say we've entered - and should find out next week if we have been successful. The rail tickets from Aberdeen to Thurso have been booked via RedSpottedHanky using Tesco clubcard vouchers converted to twice their value - so £29 of tickets = actual cost to us £14.50.

Then we turned our attention to the return journey. We checked all the options on flights - sometimes just going via somewhere different, or booking across two different airlines rather as one through ticket can be cheaper (although a note of caution - if your connection is tight for time, or you foresee problems, be cautious about doing this as it can leave you with problems if you miss the connection). For us, this time, there were no cheap loopholes to be explored. So - what other means are there of getting back? Well the same means we've used to get up of course - ferry and train! Our planned departure time from Orkney if flying was to be 10.25 in the morning, but leaving on the overnight ferry back to Aberdeen the night before doesn't actually mean we lose any "useable" time - as with a 23.45 departure time, we'd not have been doing anything then anyway! Cost to get back to Aberdeen? £25.50 each. The final step was getting back from Aberdeen to London. With a 7am arrival in Aberdeen, we had plenty of flexibility regarding train times, and managed to snag tickets on a direct train departing at 10am for just £34 each - or £22.45 each once our new "Two Together" Railcard is taken into account!  The departure time from Aberdeen gives us plenty of time for a slap up breakfast, and to buy lunch to be eaten on the train too. That's a whopping saving of over £85 each on those flights we found first!

Peedie says that £85 buys a LOT of doggie treats!
Taking that little extra time to research the options when booking travel like this can really pay off - and it needn't leave you tearing your hair out for hours behind a keyboard either - all the research I've mentioned above from checking the flight prices to booking the train and deciding on the ferry was done in a single hour's lunchbreak at work - and when you consider the saving, that's a pretty good hourly rate, no?!