Friday, 29 March 2013

This April Why Not…?

Melt down your surplus chocolate. What do you mean, you didn’t know that there was such a thing? At this time of year, especially if you have small children, you many have a glut of Easter eggs in your house. When my children were younger, we melted these down and stirred in cornflakes or rice krispies to make chocolate crispy cakes. Melted chocolate is also ideal for spreading on sponge cakes or plain digestive biscuits to turn them into chocolate digestives.  For a ‘healthier’ option, place pieces of fruit on skewers and dip them in melted chocolate – yummy!

Take a walk along the prom. It may not be warm enough to sit on the beach or take in a dip in the sea as yet, but you can still enjoy the sea air by taking a walk along some of our great British seafronts. I love to have a stroll at Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, which has a substantial prom overlooking a large expanse of sandy beach, two piers (one with amusements and one with a bowling alley) and various seaside attractions to enjoy. Other great seafronts to go for a walk include Herne Bay (Kent), Eastbourne (East Sussex), Bournemouth (Dorset) and Bridlington (Yorkshire).

Visit an outdoor gym. I’m really not a fan of gyms – an onslaught of Lycra, one-upmanship and sweaty bodies – but I think outdoor gyms are a great idea. Many parks now have small outdoor gyms with various items of exercise equipment, which are fun and easy to use, combining a workout with fresh air.

Make a chicken & vegetable pasta bake. Chop about 350g lean chicken breast, brown in olive oil together with a little garlic, a small finely chopped onion, a thinly-sliced courgette and a chopped pepper (any colour). Stir in a can/carton of chopped tomatoes with basil (including juice) and add some extra herbs if desired. Meanwhile, cook about 200g fusilli pasta in boiling water until tender. Combine the chicken and veg mixture with the pasta in an ovenproof dish. Stir in a jar of creamy cook-in sauce (such as Creamy Mushroom Chicken Tonight or Tesco White Wine and Cream Sauce), and top with a little grated cheese and fresh breadcrumbs. Cook at 200C, Gas 6 for 20 minutes or until lightly browned. This makes plenty for 4 (though we often serve 5 out of it) and is a tasty, filling meal.

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March Blog Review

With double-figure temperatures and sunshine one day and snow blizzards and freezing temperatures virtually the next, March has certainly been a right old mixture weather-wise. It’s been rather a mixed bag on my blog too – hopefully providing something for everyone.

I’ve had quite a lot to say about Travelodge this month, sharing my experience of stays and offering tips to help your stay go smoothly. Travelodges are basically cheap and cheerful (although occasionally lacking the cheerful), but let’s face it, you get what you pay for and they do make very handy stopover points without breaking the bank.

Following the horsemeat scandal, the focus has been on buying British meat, so I was pleased to hear that Tesco are aiming to stock more meat from British producers, as recent visits to the supermarket chain had revealed a huge selection of meat from all over Europe. We really should be supporting our own British farmers. At least fresh meat tends to be clearly labelled with the country of origin, whereas frozen meat does not always display where it is from with any clarity. New government guidelines really do need to be introduced for frozen food packaging.

Other topics that I felt strongly about this month included high cathedral admission charges (I feel that these buildings should be free and accessible to all) and self-serve checkouts (I’m really not a fan). Some responses to the cathedral charge post suggested that those of you who were tourists interested in viewing the architecture, did not mind paying a fee, but it seems agreed that those wanting to visit for some quiet reflection or to light a candle quite rightly did not expect to pay a high admission charge. Suggestions for aiming charges at tourists only include asking visitors to pay for audio or guided tours, photography permits, information leaflets and booklets or to enter special exhibition areas. No doubt the debate will continue.

I’m really hoping that April will see the weather become much more settled and definitely warmer. With the start of the school holidays in reach, I’m now looking at places to visit to keep the kids amused. Many attractions are reopening after their winter break, so hopefully you’ll get to visit a few.

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Thursday, 28 March 2013

Easter Holiday Fun – Outdoor Museums

Now that spring has arrived (nominally at least) and the school Easter holidays are about to start, many visitor attractions will be opening their doors following their winter closure. Even attractions that remained open during the winter months tend to increase their opening hours and available facilities once we get into spring.

With warmer, drier weather, it’s a great time to get the kids out and about and make good use of their energy. If you enjoy museums, but don’t want to be stuck indoors, then why not visit some of the outdoor museums around the country?

The Weald and Downland Open Air Museum, West Sussex, (7 miles north of Chichester on A286, adults from £10.40, children from £5.70, family from £29.50 (higher charges if agreeing to Gift Aid). This is a great rural location, with plenty of space for the kids to run around (50 acres), with over 50 buildings that have been rescued from various locations around the South East and rebuilt for visitors to enjoy. We particularly loved the Tudor kitchen, where we literally got a taste of some interesting Tudor fayre and enjoyed having a picnic lunch overlooking the lake, which we supplemented with hot drinks and cake from the café. It makes a really great day out.

East Anglia Transport Museum, Lowestoft, (at Carlton Colville, 3 miles outside Lowestoft), adults £7.50, children £5.50, with tickets valid for 1 year if you consent to Gift Aid. What’s great about this little museum is not only do you get to see the exhibits, you get to ride on them too (included in admission price). It’s great fun riding the trams, trolleybuses and light railway, as well as wandering round the recreated street complete with shop fronts. This is a great place to take the grandparents too for a bit of nostalgia.

Other places to try:
Museum of Kent Life, Maidstone, Kent, combines historic buildings with farm animals and children’s’ play areas, also hosts a number of special events.
Beamish, The Living Museum of the North, County Durham, a recreation of a small rural town, with a selection of shops, farm, mine etc – lots to do!

There’ll be some more Easter Holiday outing ideas coming next week.

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Wednesday, 27 March 2013

DS Games – Vampire Moon, The Mystery Of The Hidden Sun

Vampire stories have become increasingly popular over recent years, with this Transylvania-based DS game following the trend.

News reporter, Emily Davis, sets out to solve a mystery, but as with many games of this type, I tend to skim the story and get down to the business of actual game play.

Once again, the game consists of hidden object levels, putting a few of the objects to minimal use along the way. The hidden object scenes are quite average, although you do need to find some notes and jewels in addition to the listed objects.

There are a few minigames, but these are quite basic and easy to complete. I found the labyrinth games the easiest I’ve solved and there is a game that just involves rubbing your stylus over the screen, to reveal symbols – like the old ‘magic drawing’ books I had as a child.

Although I would only rate this as an ‘average’ game, there is still some enjoyment to be had from it.

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Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Spring’s Body Beautiful

With the weather (hopefully) getting warmer, we’ll soon start to ditch the jumpers, thick tights, skirts and warm trousers in favour of lighter t-shirts, skirts and cropped trousers, exposing a bit more flesh in the process - though this may get delayed a bit this year.

At this point panic may set in. Have you neglected your skin somewhat during the winter months whilst it has been covered with heavy layers of clothing, resulting in dull, dry skin? Now’s the time to embark on a spring rescue regime for your body.

Get that skin toned for Spring
To slough off dead skin cells creating softer, brighter skin, treat yourself to a gentle body scrub such as Simple Kind To Skin Exfoliating Body Wash or Radox Spa Radiant Shower Scrub with fig and neroli oil, which smells gorgeous. Or you can make your own by mixing together sugar and olive oil to form a paste, massage onto dry areas and rinse well. If you like you can add a few drops of a scented oil to make it more interesting.

If you find body scrubs a bit too harsh, then buy a brightening body wash such as Dove Silk Glow Nourishing Body Wash, which softens and conditions skin, leaving it ‘glowing’.

After showering/bathing apply an effective body moisturiser – some target specific problems at the same time as moisturising. I recommend Nivea Firming Body Lotion Q10 Plus, which ‘promises’ that it ‘’firms skin in two weeks”, and Dove Firming Lotion that boasts ‘improved skin elasticity within 24 hours”, both of which are easily absorbed, whilst toning and moisturising your skin.  I tend to swap between the two and feel that my skin really benefits from their use.

For stubborn dry patches use Simple Derma Intensive Cream which claims to improve dry skin patches in just four days. When I applied this to a stubborn area of dry skin on my foot, it really made a difference, where other products had failed to help.

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Monday, 25 March 2013

Supermarket Cafés

You may have occasionally popped into the café of your local supermarket when doing your weekly shop, but we often use these handy eating-places at other times too.

When making a long journey, we often look up an out-of-town supermarket restaurant to stop for a meal break as opposed to using a service station, or eat in them when staying at a Travelodge or on a self-catering holiday.

Here’s a rundown of the main supermarket cafés.

Morrisons Definitely the best for value and choice in my opinion. A great menu covering breakfasts, snacks, sandwiches, salads and hot meals – all very reasonably priced. What I really like about Morrisons cafés is that you can order light meals such as egg on toast (£1.69 for two eggs and two slices of toast) all day, whereas some of its competitors stop selling these items at the end of breakfast (11-11.30). Opening hours are convenient with branches staying open until 7-8pm making it possible to go there for an evening meal. The cold food section is one of the best on offer, with sandwich trays including a little side salad and mini bag of crisps, and cream teas consisting of two small sandwiches, a cream scone or egg custard tarts and a pot of tea for a little over £2. And what else do Morrisons have that other restaurants don’t? A tray rack. A handy device fitted under the table to deposit your tray, instead of wandering around aimlessly deciding what to do with it.

Sainsburys I’ve had some very mixed experiences of Sainsburys restaurants, ranging from dire (Stanway, Colchester) to really great (Milton Keynes), but then I’ve visited a fair few. Most branches seem to close about 7pm, so you can have an early evening meal, with some tasty hot dishes on offer, my favourite being their Tikka Masala. I also love their cheese scones (when available) but find their sandwiches and toasties somewhat dearer than in other supermarket cafés, although their hot drinks are quite reasonable.

Tesco Great for breakfasts, (you can order individual items very cheaply) and light lunches (delicious, hearty soups with roll and croutons for around £2.25), but not an option for an evening meal as most branches seem to close by 6pm. I find their hot food menu a little boring anyway, so tend to pop in just for lighter meals and snacks.

Asda I’ve had very limited experience of Asda cafés, with the couple of odd occasions that I’ve visited not being very memorable. Fair selection, reasonable prices, but nothing that makes me want to go back.

What are your experiences of supermarket cafés?

Friday, 22 March 2013

March’s Random Thoughts

It’s amazing how many of us seem to talk to machines. Cashpoints, self-service tills, and car park pay stations – how often do you talk to (or hear others talk to) any of these? I’m very polite, I usually say ‘thank you’ to them.

Random thoughts - random picture
Have you noticed how many garments that you buy need buttons stitched back on or seams repaired after only a couple of wears? And I’m not just talking about budget brands either.

Why do some people find it necessary to use a jumbo-sized umbrella (large enough to house a small family) whilst walking along a crowded high street, virtually slaying fellow pedestrians in their wake? Smaller umbrellas are available, greatly reducing the risk to the general public.

“One hundred Humphries soft as silk,
Out on the search for your Unigate milk,
Get extra pintas or you’ll be without.
Watch out watch out, watch out, watch out,
There’s a Humphrey about!”
Sorry I have these momentary lapses of nostalgia, this one courtesy of Unigate milk. I feel better for that now.

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Thursday, 21 March 2013

Cathedral Charges

Cathedrals (and churches) have historically been regarded as places of refuge, calm and contemplation. As such I believe that they should be accessible to all – places we can pause to think, suck up history and enjoy the calm. So why are some cathedrals slapping on whacking great admission charges?

Today I’m looking at a few of the Cathedrals that charge admission fees and others that don’t, looking at their reasoning behind their decisions.

I love the tranquillity of cathedrals, their amazing history and architecture and often stunning stained glass windows, and have visited a fair few.

My local cathedral, Rochester, Kent, does not charge admission and states on its website that it is “committed to free entry”, which I believe is the correct stance. If you’d like an audio tour it costs just £1 each, and whilst donations are welcome, there is no obligation to pay to enter.

In contrast, my next nearest cathedral, Canterbury, charges £9.50 for adults and £6.50 for under 18s, unless you are attending a service. I used to like to ‘pop in’ when in the area to light a candle (giving a donation) and pause for a bit, but with current charges, it’s not longer feasible to do this on a regular basis.

I love Chichester Cathedral, where admission is free, with a statement on their website declaring that they “do not charge as we believe this beautiful building should be available for all” I quite agree. It’s a great building, manned by some friendly volunteers and well worth a visit.

Meanwhile a recent visit to Norwich Cathedral proved a bit odd. On the website it clearly states that there is no admission charge, although donations are welcome. This statement was repeated by a lovely lady in the atrium on our arrival. However, as we entered the main cathedral, we were confronted with a prominent sign declaring a ‘suggested donation’ of £5 per person and treated to an icy stare from an individual behind a counter, defying us to pass without paying. Although we gave a donation, it was a sum that we felt reflected the extremely short visit that we were able to make that day.

Finally, if you don’t mind paying a hefty admission fee, then take a trip to York Minster. Charging a whopping £14 (yes that is £14) per adult to visit the Minster and Tower (£9 for Minster only), it could prove an expensive day if there are a few of you. The York Minster website explains that the cathedral costs “£20,000 per day to run”. Are they serious? However, the website also says that it’s free to enter to light a candle, although I don’t know how this works in practice, and admission is free to York residents, so it’s only visitors to York that get ‘stung’.

I realise that as historic buildings, cathedrals require a certain amount of upkeep and maintenance, but there are alternative ways to raise funds without introducing a hefty admission charge, as many of the free ones demonstrate. If I visit a ‘free’ cathedral I always make a donation and am sure many others do too. Many cathedrals have tearooms and shops creating income, and I consider certain ‘paid for’ events acceptable.

I am certainly far less likely to visit a cathedral that demands a set charge, which means that they get no funds from myself, or like-minded people, whereas if I could just choose to donate, I would visit and do just that. Cathedrals really should be usable by all, whether you can pay to go in or not.

What do you think?

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Cleaning Up – Wiping It All Away

It’s possible to buy wipes for just about any household cleaning job imaginable these days. They’re quick and easy to use in between cleaning with some of the more deep cleansing products available, as well as being hygienic because you dispose of them, rather than hang on to germ-ridden cloths.

Here are some of the cleaning wipes that I recommend.

Sainsbury’s Antibacterial Total Cleaning Surface Wipes (apple variety), £1.15. I love the fresh, apple fragrance as well as their ease of use and the antibacterial properties are a real plus. Great for kitchen surfaces, cupboard fronts, paintwork, tiles etc, these wipes are really handy to keep in your kitchen. Tip: store them in an airtight container, rather than relying on the resealable packaging to stop them drying out.

Sainsbury’s Antibacterial Floor Wipes (apple variety), £1.15. That gorgeous apple smell again, this time on large, strong wipes that you can attach to a floor mop or use by hand. Great for keeping up with spills and dirty footprints on hard flooring.

For a quick clean ditch the bucket for wipes
Windowlene Wipes for Glass & Shiny Surfaces, around £2, but you can often find them on offer. I’ve tried other brands (including supermarket own) of window and glass wipes, but find that other makes just don’t perform as well. Containing vinegar for a streak-free finish, these are great for dealing with the constant splashes you find on the kitchen window above your sink. Handy for mirrors and other glass surfaces too.

Parazone Wipes Plus, around £1.50. There are times when your toilet seat just needs a bit of an extra clean and these wipes are really useful to keep to hand. Flushable wipes containing disinfectant, these are a hygienic way to keep your toilet clean and fresh.

1001 Carpet and Upholstery Wipes, around £2. These handy, biodegradable wipes can be used on wet and dry stains on carpets and upholstery, leaving carpets and fabrics fresh, whilst removing the offending marks. These are great for tackling isolated stains and spillages, without having to resort to carpet shampoo for small areas – a quick and easy solution for dirty marks.

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Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Jacqueline Winspear – The Maisie Dobbs Series

Continuing my look at crime/mystery writers, today I’m reviewing the Maisie Dobbs series of books by Jacqueline Winspear.

Maisie Dobbs is a great character, very likeable and very resourceful, originating from humble beginnings and entering service before being singled out for her academic abilities by her employer. Maisie spends time as a nurse in World War I, attends university and gets mentored by an intriguing gentleman, before finding her niche as a private investigator.

Throughout her investigations, Maisie is aided by her sidekick, war veteran Billy Beale, and together they take on cases that include murder, disappearances and even a bit of smuggling.

With a well-depicted 1920s/1930 backdrop, set in London and Kent, these stories make enjoyable and intriguing reading, in which you can really ‘lose yourself’. Highly recommended.

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Monday, 18 March 2013

Self-Serve Checkouts

My local branch of Asda has been busy removing some of their traditional, cashier-operated checkouts and installing yet more self-scan tills, this time with conveyor belts suitable for larger quantities of shopping.

My nearest Sainsburys already has a large number of self-serve checkouts, both ‘basket only’ style and ‘trolley-sized shop’ variety. However, despite the number of these checkouts, many shoppers still opt to queue at a cashier-operated till, especially if doing a large shop. I have to say, I’m not a big fan of the self-scan concept, and tend to avoid these tills if possible.

If I have just two or three items and the other queues are very long, I may be persuaded to go for the self-serve option, but it’s never an automatic first choice. However, if I’m filling a trolley, I find it quite enough just to load my shopping onto the conveyor belt, and then pack it at the other end, without having to scan it myself as well.

Indeed, there are quite a number of shoppers who actually need help to pack their purchases and therefore need to be served by a ‘real person’. The elderly, disabled, harassed mums with babies and toddlers in tow, or me on a day when my hands are refusing to work, all appreciate the human touch.
It seems that the most worrying aspects of increasing the number of self-scan checkouts is the effect it will have on staffing numbers. Fewer checkout operators need to be employed in supermarkets as a result, delivering yet another blow to employment figures.

Of course, you may feel that self-serve checkouts are a great innovation, and in small numbers they do have their place, but spare a thought for those whose jobs may suffer as a result and fellow shoppers who really need the input of a friendly cashier.

What do you think?

Friday, 15 March 2013

DS Games – Murder In Venice

The latest of my DS game reviews looks at Murder In Venice, yet another hidden object game (well so many are), which features some novel minigames.

The story switches between 1967 and 2010 and follows a tale of murder, intrigue and a KGB plot of the Cold War era.

Progress through the game by solving hidden object levels, interspersed with a selection of minigames, my favourite of which is ‘gear code’, matching combinations of coloured balls (not unlike Jewel Quest/Jewel Link boards).

In addition to the lists of hidden objects (some of which you use) in each level, you need to find a chess piece in order to collect a full set. You can also earn a number of awards on the way for completing certain tasks to certain standards.

Once you have played in story mode, then you can play the full range of ‘Hidden World’ (hidden object scenes) and ‘Minigames’, which include extra levels not available in the main game.

I enjoyed playing this games, despite it being similar to many others that I’ve played. The picture quality was good and there was a reasonable assortment of activities.

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Thursday, 14 March 2013

Add A Condiment

Many of us add a spoonful of apple sauce to our plates when eating roast pork, or a dollop of mint sauce if we’re having lamb, but do you ever use any of these sauces in your cooking?

Some of my favourite, regularly served recipes include ingredients such as redcurrant jelly to add flavour and interest to a meal.

Here are a few suggestions that you may like to try.
Braised Pork Chops. I like to cook pork chops/steaks in vegetable stock (made with 1pt water and two vegetable Oxo cubes), to which I have added finely chopped onions, thinly sliced carrots, a dash of wine and a generous tablespoon of apple sauce. I particularly like Tesco Bramley Apple Sauce, 75p for 270g, it is nice and chunky and has a lovely flavour.

Minty Lamb Casserole. Lean, diced lamb makes a tasty casserole when cooked in vegetable stock, combined with onion, carrots, tomato purée, red wine, a dessertspoon of mint sauce and a generous tablespoon of redcurrant jelly. I find that you can get away with one of the cheaper varieties of mint sauce in this recipe, such as Sainsbury’s Basics Mint Sauce, 29p for 160ml. For a rich redcurrant jelly, try Sainsbury’s Redcurrant Jelly, 92p for 250ml.

Of course, Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce (£1.19 for 150ml), is a great all-rounder. I use it in Bolognese sauce, chilli con carne, beef stew and cottage pie.

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Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Travelodge Tips

Following my Travelodge Tales last week, I promised to share a few tips with you on how to get the most from your Travelodge stay.

Despite some mixed reports, I feel that Travelodge offer good value, basic rooms, which are sufficient for overnight/short stays, whilst visiting family or friends, breaking a long journey or for going to visitor attractions that are too far from home to visit in a day.

Just remember the following points to help make your stay an enjoyable one.

  1. Book at least 21 days in advance to get the best deals, which can cost from just £19 per night for a family room.
  2. Don’t expect luxury, rooms contain what you need without the frills. If you want luxury, then Travelodge is not for you.
  3. If you have children staying in your room, remember they will need towels as a maximum of two bath and two hand towels are allocated per room per day regardless of the number of occupants.
  4. If you don’t have enough pillows, then do ask for more. Travelodge are usually happy to provide extra on request.
  5. If you have children staying with you, take some extra cups as usually only two are provided per room.
  6. Daily provisions for each room usually include two tea bags, two sachets of regular coffee, two sachets of decaffeinated coffee, some sugar sachets and four pots of milk, so consider taking some extra supplies. I often take sachets of instant latte or hot chocolate and cold drinks can be useful, as the rooms can get quite warm.
  7. Check on parking facilities when booking. Information is available on the Travelodge website for each individual branch. Out of town Travelodges tend to have reasonably sized, free car parks, although some may have limited spaces. However, branches in towns and cities tend not to have their own car parks, and you will often be directed to a local car park instead. In some cases, this can prove costly, adding somewhat to the price of your stay. On our recent Travelodge stay at Norwich Central, we used the local (Chapelfields) shopping centre car park, costing a flat fee of just £1.50 for parking between 3pm and 8am, even when we stayed until almost 11am the following day it only cost £4.40. This was a secure car park, which was locked at night.
  8. Plan where you are going to eat. Many Travelodges do not have their own restaurants, although many have a Little Chef or some such eating-place next door. These can be pricey and not always great. Even when we stayed at a Travelodge that did have a restaurant we did not eat there, as their menu seemed quite dear for what was on offer. We tend to make good use of out-of-town supermarket cafés (great for cheap breakfasts) or trusted local pub chains for evening meals.
  9. If you do have any complaints report them to reception, but clearly and politely. The poor person on reception may not actually be responsible for your problem and it’s not going to help shouting at them.

Enjoy your stay.

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Tuesday, 12 March 2013

This March I’m Loving …

My new Brita Marella Maxtra Water Filter Jug with memo function. I’ve owned a fair few water filter jugs over the years, but this is by far the best. Its streamlined shape allows for it to be stored in the door of the fridge and it fills and pours like a dream, unlike some very leaky, dribbly ones I’ve used in the past. The memo function reminds me when the filter needs changing so I don’t even have to think! I wish more household gadgets came with memo functions.

Warburton’s Seeded Batch Loaf which has a lovely nutty flavour, whilst making me feel quite good for eating such a wholesome product.

The range of Savoir T-shirts available from the current Spring/Summer K&Co catalogue. I particularly love the striped, V-neck t-shirts (cat no. 2AFH712) at £9 each (I own two in pink and turquoise) and the scoop neck butterfly print t-shirts (cat no. 2ADST12) also £9 each (I have this in grey and navy), They’re a comfy fit, look cheerful and go with just about anything.

Twinings Cherry and Cinnamon tea bags – they make a tasty, refreshing change from your day-to-day cuppa.

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Monday, 11 March 2013

Cleaning Up – Vacuum Cleaners

For some years my vacuum cleaner of choice was a Dyson (cylinder). The suction power was very effective and the capacity good, but I sometimes found the cleaner slightly more cumbersome to move around than I would have liked.
Then things started going wrong with it and I was shocked to discover that replacement of even a basic tool cost around £40. At this point I decided that it really wasn’t cost effective to pay out for various parts and repairs and opted to shop for a new vacuum cleaner instead.

I decided to stick with a bagless, cylinder model, but wanted something lighter and more compact, whilst still offering a high level of suction. After some deliberation I chose the Russell Hobbs Power Cyclonic.

My initial impressions of the cleaner were good: it was definitely lighter and easier to manoeuvre with effective ‘carpet lifting’ suction power.

However, after a time, the suction started to lessen and I realised that in order to restore it to its original level, I had to wash no fewer than four, yes FOUR, filters. The first is a plastic cylinder and very straightforward to rinse, the second a foam square that’s OK to wash but harder to dry, the third a fibre pad also slow to dry and the fourth a HEPA (stands forhigh efficiency particulate air’, apparently) filter that has to be handled with care. I feel exhausted just explaining it, let alone doing it!

It’s true that once these filters are all washed, the suction power returns to its former ‘carpet lifting’ glory – but what a palaver! I tend to give the filters an interim shake to get rid of the dust, which at least has some effect.

Next time I buy a vacuum cleaner I’m going to endeavour to find one that I’ll spend more time using to clean the floor, than I spend cleaning it. Still, you can’t win them all!

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Friday, 8 March 2013

DIY Pizzas

I’ve never been a fan of pizzas. Takeaway or shop bought, big brands or supermarket own – I could take them or leave them. Well, leave them mostly.

However, my family are quite partial to the odd pizza, although they tend to disagree about toppings. Just cheese and tomato for my son; added pepperoni for one daughter; pineapple and olives for other daughter; ham and mushroom for my husband.

So I’m pleased to announce that not only have I found a way to give everyone their topping of choice, but have also discovered pizza that I like better too.

“Of course, home-made”, I hear all you culinary whizzes cry.

Well no, actually. It’s simpler than that. Shop bought bases with a variety of shop bought toppings to mix and match. We don’t even have to make a whole pizza with the same topping, we can arrange different ones over halves, thirds or quarters of the base.

So to make your ‘DIY’ pizza quickly and easily, here are the basic products that I recommend to get you started.

Sainsbury’s Thin Pizza Bases, £1.05 for a pack of two.
Sainsbury’s Pizza topping, 80p for a 290g jar.
Sainsbury’s Basics Grated Mozzarella £1.15 for a 200g bag.
Sainsbury’s Basics Black Pitted Olives (refrigerated) £1.05 for a 90g pot.

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Thursday, 7 March 2013

Travelodge Tales

I have recently completed my sixth stay in a Travelodge, this time at Norwich Central. I’ve read some very mixed reviews about the budget hotel chain, but have to say my own experience has, on the whole, been favourable.

Our Travelodge stays around the country have cost between £19 and £35 per night for a family room (myself, my husband and our son), consisting of a double bed, sofa bed, bathroom containing a bath with a shower over it, TV and some basic storage. Towels have been provided (for the adults) along with a little tea and coffee. Ok, five-star accommodation it is not – but then the prices are hardly top notch so what do you expect?

Don't expect this level of luxury
Speaking to a few fellow guests, I’ve had the impression that they are sometimes disappointed by what they find, but have their expectations been too high? We know what to expect, and providing our room is clean and equipped with the basics we are happy. Of course, people with real grievances should report their problems, but need to be polite to the reception staff. I’ve seen a Travelodge employee being shouted at very loudly, when they had only just come on duty and could not possibly be responsible for the problem at hand!

Our most recent stay at Norwich Central was ideally located for the visitor attractions and shopping centres alike. Our room was very clean and comfortable – in fact the bathroom was the best we’d had – the staff were friendly and helpful (extra pillows were provided on request) and we had a very enjoyable stay.

Other Travelodge Experiences include:
Chichester Emsworth, an out of town location, although conveniently placed on the A27. We visited this one a few years back and had a reasonable stay although it was looking a little tired. Apparently it was due for refurbishment however, and we’ve not visited since.
York Tadcaster, another out of town location, but very easy to access York from here. We were provided with slightly more ‘rations’ (more generous with tea and coffee) here and staff were helpful – slight blip with the hot water though.
Acle, situated on a roundabout, but much more peaceful than we would have thought. We were ‘greeted’ (used loosely here) by a very surly man on reception, to whom being helpful didn’t come naturally. We arrived to find our room bereft of towels, which he would only provide following interrogation. Thankfully other staff members were more cheerful and the room itself was fine.
Rugby Dunchurch, a rural setting, with good country smells wafting through the window to prove it, but within handy reach of Warwick, where we visited the castle. We loved our first stay, great standard of cleanliness and friendly staff. However, a subsequent stay was very different. Our room on arrival was fine, but the following day it was not serviced – no clean towels, no fresh tea, coffee, milk etc. When we complained we were told there were ‘staff problems’, which may have been true, but it was disappointing after such an excellent first visit.

However, we will continue to use Travelodge for short breaks, family visits etc, as they are reasonably priced, convenient and largely clean and comfortable (in our experience). To get the best price be sure to book at least 21 days in advance, but remember you can’t expect luxury if you’re not paying luxury prices.

Next week I’ll be sharing some ‘Travelodge Tips’ to help you make the most of your stay.

What’s your experience of Travelodge?

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Scents Of Spring

With spring in the air (theoretically at least) and Mothers’ Day fast approaching, I thought that now was a good time to look at some of the lovely, light, fragrances in the shops, which make ideal gifts or lovely spring treats for floral yourself.

I am a big fan of floral scents finding they lift my mood, whilst smelling fresh without being too overpowering. Here Scents are some of my favourites.

Go floral for Spring
Elizabeth Arden Green Tea, £9.99 for 100ml at Superdrug. I’ve used this on and off for years as it has a lovely refreshing scent, which always makes me think of spring. It has both citrus and floral notes that really wake up your senses.

Marks and Spencer Florentyna, £12.00 for 100ml. A delicate flowery scent incorporating gardenia, jasmine, lily of the valley and orange blossom, presented in a bottle with a flower-inspired lid. Shower crèmes, body lotions etc are available in the same fragrance so that you can create the ‘layering’ effect.

Avon Simply Her, currently on special offer at £5.00 for 50ml. A delicate, new fragrance containing rose and lily of the valley, although I think this smells of citrus when first sprayed, changing to a more subtle 'powdery' scent over time.

Anais Anais by Cacherel, currently £14.99 for 30ml at Boots. Another of my old favourites that I return to from time to time. Based on white flowers including the Madonna Lily, it also has fruity and woody notes. The ultimate classic perfume in my book.

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Tuesday, 5 March 2013

DS Games – Millionheir

In my latest DS game review, I’m looking at a hidden object game with some interesting twists – Millionheir.

The aim of the game is to solve the mystery of the missing millionaire, discovering the heir to his fortune and the identity of the villain along the way.

You can play the game in three modes within the single player option – rookie, detective and gumshoe (which has to be unlocked by playing the game). Each mode has a different time limit and number of hints available. There is also a multiplayer option, which can be played in hot-seat mode or wireless communication, though I’ve not tried this.

You progress through the game by finding hidden objects in various settings, meeting a number of characters along the way. To add interest in the hidden object rounds, there are additional tools to use such as an x-ray device and underwater goggles. It’s sometimes necessary to interact with objects too e.g. you may be asked to find a lemon slice, but in fact you have to find a whole lemon and ‘slice’ it with the stylus.

In addition to the hidden object rounds, there are spot the difference pictures, jigsaw puzzles, a DNA game and a fingerprinting activity, which offer some variety.

What I really like about this game is that you can play it over and over again, with different outcomes, so you never know who the heir and villain will be.

Once you have solved the main game, you can also play the Treasure Hunt game, in addition to replaying the whole game on a different level.

Millionheir is definitely a game I’d recommend.

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Monday, 4 March 2013

Buy British Meat

I’ve always ensured that any meat that I buy is British and diligently seek out the British Red Tractor mark (which assures the supply chain is legitimate and British), double-checking the stated country of origin if this can’t be found.

Buying British meat from supermarkets used to be straight-forward, but more recently I’ve had to scrutinise the fresh meat counters more carefully, as meat and poultry sourced from other countries has become more common.

On a recent trip to my local Tesco Metro, I endeavoured to buy some chicken pieces and pork chops, which in the past were always easy to find of British origin. However, the chicken pieces were all from Holland and Germany, and the pork chops from Denmark and Holland. I have noticed similar tendencies in other supermarkets too.

It’s not that I have any particular problem with these other countries specifically, It’s just that I don’t see why when there is perfectly good British meat available, we should turn our backs on our native farmers and import meat at a cost to the environment.

As the recent horsemeat scandal has shown, there is obviously a flaw in the regulation of meat from certain sources. I like to know the authenticity of the meat and poultry that I buy, to be assured of the correct rearing of the livestock and the appropriate standards with regard to handling of the products.

Whilst it’s often easy enough to see the country of origin listed on most fresh meat packaging, it’s not so obvious to read that for frozen meat (or associated meat products such as ready meals, but that’s another story). The last time I picked up a bag of frozen chicken breasts, I noted that the country of origin (in very small print on the back) was Argentina! I now tend to buy fresh meat and freeze it myself if needs be.

Of course, another way to buy your meat is from a respected, local butcher, whose credentials you can trust and who tends to stock more local produce.

Wherever and however you buy your meat and poultry, strive to buy British. Support our farmers, support our economy and rest assured of high standards buy looking for the Red Tractor Mark.

Stop Press! Just after I had written this blog post, Tesco announced that they are aiming to source their meat “closer to home”, with their stores only stocking British chicken from July. Don’t wait for July; make sure you only buy British as of now!

What are your thoughts on the subject?

Friday, 1 March 2013

This March Why Not…?

Remember Mum on 10th March (Mothers’ Day) and show your appreciation for all that she does. Why not make a personal gift this year, instead of just giving the usual chocs and flowers? Cross stitch a card or bookmark, take a special family photo and put it in an eye-catching frame, make mum’s favourite meal or take her out somewhere that she’s always wanted to go. Note: When I tried looking up events for Mothers’ Day I found very little, except for restaurant offers, however there seemed to be a fair bit going on for Fathers’ Day. So what’s that about?

Clear out the junk. With the advent of spring, now’s the time to have a really good clear out of all those things that you tend to hold on to, but never get round to using. Remember the rule: if you haven’t worn/used/looked at an item during the past 12 months, then it’s time it went (with a few sentimental exceptions). Once you’ve cleared out all your unwanted items (good quality ones can go to charity, car boot sales or eBay), then invest in some clever storage, to neatly stow away and file all the things that you do need. Supermarkets and shops such as Wilkinson and The Range, stock a great selection of hard-wearing, colourful, storage boxes, with and without lids, that can be arranged neatly in cupboards or on shelving. They’re great for craft items, toys, stationery, keepsakes etc. For paperwork I use A4 clear pocket files, which display letters and bills in a way that are easy to find.

Enjoy the great outdoors. With some warm, spring weather hopefully round the corner, get out and about in some of the lovely parks, woodland areas and country parks around the UK. Many are free to visit, or charge parking fees only. I can recommend:
  • Knowle Park, Sevenoaks, Kent – great for a walk amongst the deer!
  • Bedgebury Pinetum, Goudhurst, Kent – great for wooded walks and adventure play
  • Moors Valley Country Park and Forest, Nr Ringwood, Dorset – great for play and tree top trails
  • Dalby Forest, Pickering, North Yorkshire – great for walking and bike-riding
Remember the ‘spring forward’ rule! British Summertime begins on 31st March, so remember to put the clocks forward one hour to avoid running late.

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