Wednesday, 31 July 2013

July’s Blog Review

Wow what a scorcher! The temperature rose, along with tempers in some cases, but I’ve had a fun month and hope that you have too! We’ve been out baring our lily-white legs and complaining about the heat in typical British style, whilst making the most of what the great outdoors has to offer.

With the change in weather I managed a spot of camping and am spending much of my summer in my static caravan on the east coast. What are your summer plans?

Back on the subject of rising tempers, some of the things that annoyed me this month were free bus passes being automatically issued to those in their 60s however well off they are, stores putting their returns departments on their upper floors and people having loud phone conversations, peppered with expletives, whilst on public transport.

There were mixed reactions on the bus pass front, with suggestions that there should be some form of charge for issuing the passes to help with admin costs and comments that the qualifying age should be raised to 70, both of which I feel would help the situation.

In response to my ‘Mobile Madness’ blog, bemoaning the loud, explicit phone conversations passengers have on buses, JC remarked that this is a generational thing, which I agree with to a point, although I can’t help but smile when a really upbeat, current tune sounds as a ringtone, and is promptly answered by some grey-haired little old lady on the bus.

Reviews this month included ‘bake at home’ products, body creams, curl treatments and coffee shops. I also took trips to Colchester Zoo and Penshurst Place, both of which I highly recommend.

There’s lots more planned for August, so keep reading!

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Monday, 29 July 2013

From Treat To High Street

It used to be that you could only buy candy floss at the seaside or at a fair, which made it a big treat and an essential part of a family outing. Watching the sticky, pink confection being wound around the sticks, in anticipation of the sweet, melt-in-the-mouth experience (and the wind blowing it into your hair) was a highlight of many an outing for me. But now it seems this is no longer a treat reserved for trips to the fairground or days out by the sea, as my local shopping centre now has a permanent stall selling candy floss and popcorn.

Fresh popcorn (as opposed to the toffee stuff in bags) also used to be somewhat of a treat that formed part of a trip to the ‘pictures’ as we once called it. Cinemas still sell boxes of popcorn in a variety of sizes, but now this can be bought at the shopping centre stalls too.

Some of you may love the fact that these sweet treats are so readily available, but I feel that somehow they have been ‘demoted’ to something as mundane as a loaf of bread.

By making former treats seem like everyday items, what do we leave for treats in their place? Maybe we all expect much more from a treat today, in a world that has become ever more materialistic, or perhaps that’s just me being cynical.

Of course, we can opt to ignore these stalls (which I do) and still reserve these treats for seaside or fairground days. My son is a big fan of candy floss, but he only ever has it on traditional seaside trips. For him it remains a treat.

What else do you think has lost its ‘treat’ status?

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Friday, 26 July 2013

July’s Random Thoughts

Is it just me, or is there something sinister about the Birds Eye polar bear? I much preferred the ‘cool dude’ bear that used to advertise Cresta fizzy drinks – it’s frothy man!

It's not that random to wish I was there!
What’s happened to Mr Kipling Caramel Slices? They now have an uninteresting sponge base as opposed to the shortcake one, which meant they resembled a millionaire’s slice.

Have you noticed that in stores that are spread over more than one floor, the refund/exchange desk is often on an upper level? Is this to deter customers from using this facility, or is it just really bad planning?

Why is it that as soon as the hot, summer weather comes, the shops ditch all the summer dresses and swimwear and start stocking up on their autumn/winter lines? I want to buy clothing for the season that we’re in, not the one that’s coming in a couple of months!

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Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Refrigerated Dough Products

I remember when the Pillsbury Dough Boy was on our TV screens in the 70s extolling the virtues of his ‘home bake’ products. The Pillsbury products came in a type of can, which seemed to magically unroll to reveal the dough for the biscuits, buns or whatever you had bought.

Today, you can buy similar products still in these cans, made by Jus-Rol, a company under the General Mills umbrella, the people who bought out Pillsbury.

Spotting these products on half price offer at my local Tesco, I couldn’t resist giving them a go. I selected pizza bases (complete with tomato sauce), garlic pizza bread and croissants.

The pizza bases turned out to be an excellent buy. Each kit contains two quite large pizza bases with a jar of tomato sauce to spread on top. The slight snag is that you have to unroll the two bases which are joined to each other (there is a slight perforation), and you have to be careful not to let the bases stretch too much when doing this otherwise they can become too thin and holes can emerge. You can then top with whatever takes your fancy (I recommend Sainsburys Basics Grated Mozzarella at £1.15 per bag) and bake. The bases are light and crispy and represent really good value even at the full price of £2.65.

The garlic bread was delicious too. I liked the fact that it didn’t have a hard crust, but was soft and tasty. Just unroll the dough, spread with the garlic butter, separate into portions and bake.

The croissants proved to be the most disappointing of the products, as they rose very little and the taste was nowhere near as good as others I've tried. They can make a handy standby, but don't expect too much of the croissants.

These products are a great way to cheat at home baking!

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Monday, 22 July 2013

Summer Holidays

Well, here they are, the summer holidays have officially arrived, with many schools having now broken up for the next six weeks or so (my son finished last Friday).

You may now be looking for ways to pass the time and entertain the kids, unless you've signed up for one of the many holiday play schemes around the country. Perhaps you’re going away for at least some of the time, be it near or far, or looking to spend some recreation time nearer to home, in between juggling work and all the other commitments that you may have.

I’m fortunate in that I write to earn a crust and can pick up pen (yes, I do still draft some work in longhand) and head for my happy place (for those of you who aren’t familiar with this, my static caravan on the east coast).

In addition to writing my blog (purely for pleasure), I write for a few businesses, composing copy for their websites, brochures, company blogs and press releases, and inventing slogans. Fortunately, there is no conflict of interest with my own blog writing as the businesses that I write for include an engineering firm, construction company and some double-glazing suppliers, as opposed to High Street retailers or visitor attractions.

I’m also putting the finishing touches to a couple of short stories, and have drafted the synopsis of a book, which I may or may not actually get round to writing.

So this summer I will be combining time at my caravan with trips back home, so that I can keep an eye on my elderly mother (she suffers from dementia) and see my daughters and baby grandson. I may even get to throw in a brief camping trip if I’m lucky.

With a busy schedule ahead, I’ve decided to reduce my blog posts to around three a week (you may already have noticed that they’ve fallen from five to four), to allow time for other projects and to enjoy summer pursuits with my family, especially my son during his school holidays.

Whatever you’re doing this summer, I hope you have a fantastic time, and do continue to look in on my blog when you get the chance.

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Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Free Bus Passes

As it currently stands, individuals in their 60s are eligible for a free bus pass, allowing them travel on local bus services around the country, regardless of affluence or fitness. Should this really be the case?

With an ever-growing ageing population, many of whom enjoy good health, surely it’s time the age limit for a bus pass was raised. The sheer number of bus passes that are provided must be huge, putting a great strain on funding, which could be diverted to more pressing issues, such as healthcare.

Free bus passes are funded by the Government (Department of Transport), who pass the funds on to local councils, who in turn pay the relevant bus companies. But in some cases funding falls short of what is required, and council taxes may be raised.

Age on its own should possibly not be a qualifying factor, or at least not before the age of 70 or even 75. Individuals younger than this should still qualify if they are on a very low income (it could be related to those receiving pension credits for example) and those whose state of health limits their mobility. Bus passes are already issued to those who have been judged to have a ‘severe disability’ or particular medical condition.

Why should public funds be used to enable really quite wealthy individuals to travel for free? The amount of times recently I have heard well-heeled ‘celebs’ crowing about their free passes is quite sickening. I am certainly of the opinion that this is not right.

Some days I board a bus where I appear to be the only fare-paying passenger. Although many of my fellow travellers appear deserving of their passes, there are others for whom it seems totally inappropriate. Take the group of ladies I see in their designer sportswear heading to a local (expensive) gym on their free passes! Ok, maybe I shouldn’t judge, it just seems pretty inappropriate when so many deserving people are struggling for want of other things that could have received the finance instead.

I really do believe new criteria should be introduced when deciding who should qualify for a free bus pass. What do you think?

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Body Creams

I always make sure that I use some form of body moisturiser on a daily basis. The main all-over product that I use is usually Dove Firming Lotion, which is light, easily absorbed and keeps my skin in good condition. However, for drier areas I apply a richer body cream.

One of my favourite body creams is Nivea Soft a light, yet deep moisturising product with a hint of the classic Nivea scent. However, I was recently tempted by Avon Naturals Cherry Blossom Moisturising Body Whip, as I expected it to have a gorgeous smell. I was somewhat disappointed when I came to use it however, as the product was thinner, verging on watery, and less luxurious than I had imagined, whilst the scent was far too delicate – I could barely smell anything. This product just doesn’t work for me.

Another body product that caught my eye recently was Wilko Mango Body Butter from Wilkinson, which comes in a really eye-catching orange tub and smells absolutely gorgeous. It's rich, without being too heavy and is easily absorbed into the skin. I'd previously avoided buying body butters, believing they would be too greasy, but I actually love this one.

Which products would you recommend?

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Tuesday, 16 July 2013

This July I’m Loving …

The Painted Bridge by Wendy Wallace, a gripping story set in Victorian England that makes for excellent reading. Anna Palmer finds herself in a private asylum, much to her frustration and disbelief. Why has her husband put her there? What will be her fate? A chilling, yet compelling read, certainly a book to recommend.

Nutmeg children’s clothing range available at Morrisons, which has some great, fun garments at very reasonable prices.

Perceive Dew Perfume by Avon, a light, delicate, summery fragrance with the scent of lemons, fragrant and refreshing.

Aunt Bessie’s Summer Berry Sponge Pudding, a light, tasty sponge, with a delicious fruit topping, that takes just 3 minutes to cook in the microwave from frozen. We love this with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

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Monday, 15 July 2013

Get Crafting!

Crafting products and publications have become big business in recent times, not that the crafts involved are anything new.

The emergence of shops such as Hobbycraft (too pricey for my liking, I prefer little independent craft shops) has further boosted the trend for home-crafted items. In supermarkets and newsagents the shelves are lined with magazines featuring knitting, crochet, cross-stitch and paper crafts.

There has definitely been an increase in popularity in crafting, but for me, some form of handiwork has nearly always been a part of my life.

When I was at infants’ school, our entire class was taught how to knit – boys included! The girls made hats for their dolls, whilst the boys knitted ties in the school colours, then we all went on to make dishcloths for our mums, using both plain and purl stitches – and all at the age of just six!

At junior school, we continued the crafting theme, this time working on weaving projects, raffia work and stitching simple items. It’s true that many primary schools participate in at least a little craft work today, but not, I feel, quite on the scale that we did.

As I grew older I added crochet to my skills, then cross-stitch and tapestry and I even attempted a few minor sewing projects. Paper crafting, however, is not an area that particularly interests me, though I admire people who make stunning, individual greetings cards.

If you’ve not previously tried any of the many craft forms available, it couldn’t be easier to start learning a new skill right now. Many retailers sell starter kits for the various crafts, hobby magazines have pages aimed at beginners, teaching simple stitches etc, and the chances are that amongst your friends and relatives there will be someone who is able to pass on a valuable skill to you.

So what are you waiting for? Get crafting!

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Friday, 12 July 2013

Mobile Madness

Mobile phones, love them or hate them they’re very much part of our daily lives.

They can be really handy, especially when you think of something that you want to tell someone straight away before you forget, but know that they won’t be able to answer a call. Just send a text and the recipient will read it when they can.

I regularly converse with my family and several of my friends by text. It’s been particularly good to keep in touch with my daughter when she’s on holidays overseas (I can be a bit of a worrier as she has mild learning difficulties). However, if I want a long chat with someone, I tend to use the landline from the comfort of my own home.

Where the ‘hate’ part of mobile phones comes in is when I have to listen to other people’s conversations. It’s so annoying sitting on a bus with someone shouting into their phone at full volume, divulging their most intimate affairs, especially when peppered with a colourful selection of expletives. I’m sure this wasn’t the imagined scenario when mobiles finally became a reality.

Although I may occasionally use my phone for calls whilst out, these tend to be of the more urgent (well, vaguely important} variety. When asked for my phone number by companies for any reason I tend to quote the number of my landline. This is often met with a shocked, and maybe slightly pitying, “Don’t you have a mobile phone?” To which I usually answer, “No”, which stuns them into silence. Quite honestly, I’d rather someone left me a message on my answer phone at home, then try to contact me on my mobile in the middle of Tesco/bus journeys/dental treatment etc.

When I was a child (violin time again), we didn’t even have a landline! Keeping in touch with friends meant walking to their houses and knocking on their door, or for those a bit further away, going to the nearest phone box (providing they had a phone, of course). However, it used to drive me mad that I couldn’t enter the phone-in competitions on the Multi-coloured Swap Shop on a Saturday morning!

But now I have both a landline and a mobile, and to me they both have their place. As do intimate, graphic conversations – the place for these I would suggest, is definitely not on the bus!

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Thursday, 11 July 2013

Curl Control

I have been blessed (or cursed, depending on how you look at it) with hair that has a tendency to curl. Not the tight perm-effect type curls, but looser kinks and waves, which become more noticeable the damper the atmosphere.

Over the years, I have alternately chosen to increase the curls or battle against them, with mixed results. As a child, my mum would often tie strips of rag in my hair for special occasions, to produce the ringlet effect. In the 80s I jumped on the ‘big hair perm’ bandwagon, then during the 90s I patiently blow-dried my hair into sleeker styles, though I never quite got into the whole hair straightener thing.

More recently, I’ve decided to ‘go with the flow’ and allow my hair to dictate its own special style. I’ve ditched the blow-drying in favour of a natural ‘leave and let dry’ (was that a Bond film?) approach. Apart from regular (well, kind of) trims, a decent brush and a dab of ‘curl tamer’, I pretty well allow my hair to do as it pleases.

I now tend to shop for products aimed at curly hair and have tried a few in order to keep my locks luscious. Trevor Sorbie Curl Cream proved somewhat disappointing, as even the smallest amount left my hair feeling sticky, although the shampoo and conditioner in this range weren’t bad. What I much prefer is Umberto Giannini Curl Friends Scrunching Jelly, which is light and not at all sticky (despite its name), it's easy to work through hair and a little goes a long way.

I’ve just bought Phil Smith Curly Locks shampoo and conditioner that I will be trying shortly, so I’ll report on those at a later date.

In the meantime, what products do you recommend to keep your tresses beautiful?

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Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Colchester Zoo

Ahead of my son’s birthday last week, we allowed him to choose a venue for an outing, and he picked an old favourite of ours, Colchester Zoo in Essex.

You really need the whole day to work round all the areas of Colchester Zoo, we were aided by the fact that on the day we visited they were offering late night opening until 9pm, a fact of which we were unaware until our arrival.

Colchester Zoo is very much an ‘all round’ zoo, with a wide variety of animals from across the world as opposed to a particular speciality. However, we certainly have our favourite areas that we love to visit.

The ‘Edge of Africa’ experience is one of my personal favourites, as amongst its inhabitants it features giraffes (much loved by me), which you are actually given the chance to feed (you can feed the elephants as well) at special, keeper-supervised sessions. Many animals are free to roam together on the ‘savannah’ as they would in the wild, including the giraffes, zebra, ostriches and rhino – talking of which we were thrilled to see a baby rhino on our visit.

Another of our favourite areas of the zoo is the sea lion tunnel: here you can wander through a tunnel underneath the sea lion pool and watch these fascinating creatures swimming above and around you. In turn, this tunnel leads to the orang-utan area. Orang-utans are my son’s favourite and he loves visiting Rajang and Tiga (the zoo’s resident orang-utans) to see how they’re getting on.

Other animals that we enjoyed seeing were the meerkats (complete with tiny babies), red panda, Asian short-clawed otters (who were fighting over a fish), aardvarks and one of the most amazing to our minds, the anteater. What an incredible creature!

However, we must remember, many of the animals in the zoo are endangered in the wild and Colchester is involved in conservation work and animal rescue.

As usual, we had a great time at Colchester Zoo. There are lots of picnic areas and benches (understandably these got very busy at lunchtime), shops selling refreshments (ice creams reasonably priced) and plenty of toilet facilities.

Admission costs £19.99 for adults, £13.50 for children aged 3-14, with a slight reduction if you purchase an e-ticket, and Tesco Days Out Vouchers are accepted. Parking is free.

I can certainly recommend Colchester Zoo for a fun, family day out.

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Monday, 8 July 2013

Online Shopping Vs Stores

I’ve previously written about the downsides of online shopping, but what I’d now like to know is why some stores appear to be suggesting shoppers abandon their shopping trips and go online instead?

Although I’ve made a few clothing purchases online, I do prefer to actually view the garments in store. I like to be able to see, touch and try on clothes, so that I can judge whether they look, feel and fit to my liking, instead of trusting a picture and short written description.

However, on a recent rip to Matalan, the cashier started to extol the virtues of their website and positively encouraged me to shop online, comments backed up by producing a money-off voucher for my next online purchase. Apparently, if I order clothing to be picked up at my local store (half an hour away from my home), I don’t have to pay postage (though this is cheaper than the bus fare to the store anyway).  But hold on, if I’m going to the store, why don’t I just buy the garments there to start with. OK, so my size may not be in stock, but then how do I know what is my size if I can’t try it on? Clothing sizes vary so much (another of my past gripes), my wardrobe contains three different sizes.

So do stores no longer want to get customers through their doors? Or would retailers prefer not to have to deal with the public and have us all shopping from home instead?

Online shopping certainly has its place. It’s great for those who don’t have the time, opportunity or sufficient mobility to go to the shops, or for making a mundane purchase that is more straightforward in the comfort of our own homes.

But shopping is not just about the end results; it’s about the experience too. The browsing, the touching, the trying, the sharing with others – the whole outing! So please retailers, allow us to continue enjoying the shopping experience!

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Friday, 5 July 2013

Coffee Culture

Coffee has become a big part of our daily lives. Everywhere you go, you see individuals suited and booted for work armed with a ‘coffee to go’, or coffee shops filled with friends meeting over a cup of some caffeine-laden concoction.

Coffee shops have become big business, with our High Streets filled with Costa, Starbucks, BBs etc and many shops and stores also having their own coffee lounges.

Since coffee was introduced to the UK (there are mentions of it in 16th century writing, with coffee houses taking off in 17th Century) we have enjoyed it to some degree. However, ‘coffee mornings’ used to mean meeting up in someone’s house over a cup of instant and a plate of bourbons, as opposed to congregating at the local coffee shop, chatting over double shot skinny lattes.

The English have long been considered to be more of a nation of tea drinkers. Advice issued to American serviceman when they came over in the 1940s included the comment, ‘The British don't know how to make a good cup of coffee. You don't know how to make a good cup of tea’. But whether we prefer tea or coffee, it’s easy to buy a huge variety of either when out and about.

When shopping in the High Street I sometimes grab a McDonald’s coffee, which is low cost, and for every six I buy, I can get one free by collecting the stickers on the cups. Sainsburys’ and Morrisons’ cafés offer cappuccino or latte for £1.55, which though not quite barista quality, is a fair cup. Many other retailers sell a variety of coffees for over the £2 mark and I had previously presumed, wrongly as it seems, that places such as Costa would put a higher price tag on their drinks as say Greggs or Tesco (Fontanella coffee is £2.15 for a small cup at Tesco Family Cafés)

Recently my daughter treated me to a coffee at Costa, where a small (reasonable size I thought) cappuccino cost just £2.15 – the same as Tesco. I also indulged in a lemon and poppy seed muffin, which was rather delicious, containing a surprise (sorry, I’ve now spoilt that for you} lemon curd style filling.

Whatever your favoured choice of coffee and wherever your chosen venue for buying it, we certainly have become much more a nation of coffee lovers.

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Thursday, 4 July 2013

Penshurst Place and Gardens, Kent

Situated near Tonbridge, Kent, Penshurst Place is a great example of a 14th Century house – ancestral home of the Sidney family and birthplace of Elizabethan poet, Sir Philip Sidney.

Today the ‘set’ for many films and television programmes, such as The Other Boleyn Girl’, the building and gardens make for an interesting and enjoyable visit.

We had a great time on a recent day out there, wandering around the stunning, fragrant grounds, which include formal gardens, ponds, rambling orchards and the odd little ‘secret garden’ tucked away. The house was very impressive, boasting many original features, furnishings and artefacts, whilst there is also a great little toy museum. My son was interested to discover that the sound of the creaking floor in the Long Gallery was actually recorded and used in the Harry Potter films.

In between all of this, you can pause with the kids at the adventure playground – a mixture of traditional swings and seesaws and a little ‘assault course’. Ice creams and coffee are a reasonable price (there is a kiosk by the play area) and there are plenty of picnic benches, although there are also two restaurants if you fancy treating yourself to a meal.

Admission prices are good value: Gardens, adults £8, children £6; House and Gardens adults £10, children £6.50. Under-fives are free and family tickets are available.

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Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Complaints Resolution

Sadly we all have cause to complain to a company every once in a while. Sometimes it’s not the fact that we have to complain in the first place that annoys us, it’s the way in which that complaint is then handled that can make or break the situation.

Back in January I wrote about a complaint I had to make to EDF (EDF – Customer Services To Complaints, read more ) concerning their billing. I was impressed that the ‘Complaints Resolution Manager’ responded quickly and resolved the situation to our satisfaction.

In the last couple of weeks, I have again had cause to contact the Complaints Resolutions Manager via email, when the billing department  tried to do strange things with my account once more. I am happy to report that the response was once again quick and efficient, and resulted in the desired outcome, demonstrating that my previous experience was not a ‘one off’.

If you are an EDF customer experiencing a problem that is not being solved by contact with the regular customer service advisers, then do email

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Monday, 1 July 2013

This July Why Not …?

Become a tourist in your home town. It’s an odd thing, but it’s often the places closest to our own homes that we don’t get round to visiting. Attractions and historical sites on our doorsteps are often ignored, whilst we quite happily journey afar to view those on other people’s doorsteps. I was born in and lived in Rochester, Kent, for many years (I’m not far from there now) and yet I never ventured into the keep of Rochester Castle until about three years ago. I had often visited the grounds, playing in them as a child and attending events as an adult, yet had never actually looked inside this great Norman castle. What nearby tourist attractions are you missing out on?

Meet family and friends halfway. Do you live a fair distance from certain family members and friends and never seem to get together due to the journey involved? Then consider finding a suitable halfway point to meet up for a picnic, outing or get-together. A couple of years back, we decided we’d like to see family members that were spread quite widely across the country, so we chose a suitable central point, booked a function room in a pub with catering included, divided the cost between us all, and had a fantastic time catching up with one another. Mass family picnics are great fun too, so be sure to arrange a big ‘meet-up’ this summer.

Send a postcard. Even if you’re not actually away on holiday, take the time to send a postcard, or better still a notelet or handwritten letter on decorative paper, to someone that you haven’t seen for some time. In these days of texts and emails, I still love to send and receive a ‘proper’ letter once in a while.

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