Monday, 22 September 2014

Saving megabucks with Megabus

We're recent converts to Megabus.

I was vaguely aware of their existence and tantalising promises of travel for £1 but thought they operated between big cities only and were not for the likes of us country bumpkins. Even when a friend mentioned that her recently graduated son was catching the Megabus from Corsham to London for a job interview, I thought it was maybe just for youngsters. After all, I've hung around frugal blogs for long enough now, and I've never heard anyone mention catching a Megabus anywhere. (I'm sure someone probably has - please do link to your Megabus blog post in the comments if you have!). Perhaps it's such a frugal no-brainer that it doesn't need mentioning. I'll mention it anyway.

Husband has been needing to get to London every week for some training, and really, the easiest and cheapest way is to catch the Megabus. It's not just for youngsters, and it definitely does not stop in cities only (although admittedly we are on a fairly direct route along the A4 to London. It's not £1, it's a whopping £4.50 per journey for Husband. Still a bargain. That's almost cheaper than getting the bus to Bath, which is all of 10 miles down the road, (as opposed to London which is nearer 100 miles away). And if Husband was driving to the nearest train station, it would cost him more than £4.50 in parking.

What's the catch? Once you've got over the fact that they do not operate through all towns and cities in the UK there are not many catches. 

You have to book online - you can't just turn up at the bus stop. But you don't even have to print out a ticket - having the reservation number will get you on the bus. 

In Husband's experience the Megabuses are on time, they're comfortable and there are several services a day from here to London. From Corsham they wiggle around Chippenham and Swindon, but after that it's a straight run to Victoria Coach Station. And from there, Europe is your oyster with Megabuses to various destinations in Europe. In fact, the only catch is that each week we worry that perhaps Husband won't get the coach home after his two days' training but will decide to go to Barcelona instead...

Anyone else love Megabus?

Friday, 19 September 2014

Knitting my own yogurt - at last

Earlier on in the life of this blog, I felt that to be a half decent frugality/simple living blogger, I really ought to be making my own yogurt. After a few failed attempts (you can have a laugh at previous attempts by clicking here), including a disastrous slow cooker yogurt recipe, I realised that there are no oughts in the frugality world. Everyone has their different strengths and carves out their own path, and mine didn't seem to involve home-made dairy products

Previous curdled yogurt making attempt...

This year the price of yogurt has gone up considerably (or if you're Yeo Valley, the prices have stayed the same but the pots have got much smaller) and the Co-op withdrew our staple, its own brand Simply Value natural yogurt, from the local store. 

Time to think about knitting our own yogurt again. I'm all for a growth mindset. Try, try and try again. Just as I was pondering yogurt making, I chanced upon a Low Cost Living book in a charity shop, which has a yogurt recipe in it. The first rule of low cost living is that you mustn't buy too many how to live for less books in charity shops*, but there's no harm in browsing through them for new ideas or yogurt-making tips.

And after years of research and failures, home-made yogurt is finally a go go here! (Yogogo, for short I suppose).

My new, all improved method is based on the Low Cost Living recipe and Angela from Tracing Rainbows' suggestion (which she posted on my original yogurt-making blog post). If I can do it, anyone can!

It goes like this:

Use UHT milk so that you don't have to worry too much about heating it to a high temperature and cooling it down to kill off unwanted bacteria, like some of the other recipes I've read suggest. This is cheaper too. Heat the UHT milk to luke warm/body temperature, ascertained by dipping your finger in a few times.

Dig Great Granny's thermos flask out from the back of the cupboard. (Husband noticed that it leaks so is probably not airtight, which may account for some of my other failed yogurt-making attempts. In the absence of any other large thermos flasks however, I have been persisting with GG's old flask.) Warm it by filling with boiling water at the same time as faffing around with the milk.

When the flask and the milk are the right temperature, pour the milk into the flask, with a couple of spoonfuls of live yogurt. For extra special leaky flask insulation, wrap in Son's ski jacket. (We've never actually been ski-ing so the jacket's pleased to come into its own). Then leave the yogurty bacteria, lactobacillus acidophilusto do its multiplying.

After 8 hours my leaky flask produces a fairly thin yogurt. No recipe I've ever read suggests leaving yogurt to brew for 16 hours, but once when my morning ran out of time for processing overnight yogurt I left it in the flask for another 8 hours until I got home from work and we had our best, thickest yogurt yet. The addition of milk powder might also help produce a thicker yogurt so I'm going to try that some time.

A litre of UHT fills my large leaky flask and a small non-leaky wide-necked flask. The non-leaky flask makes thicker yogurt, proving that a bad yogurt maker can blame her thermos flask after all. Although I love my heirloom 1970s thermos, a new, large flask is definitely on my wish list.

* After two successful yogurt-making attempts I felt a skinflint for pilfering the recipe without buying the book so I went back to buy it, in gratitude for my new found skill, however it had gone! Win:win - I don't feel guilty any more and somebody else gets to try out yogurt making and thrifty living!

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Zero Waste is not just for Zero Waste week, and Angry Squirrels.

Zero Waste Week 2014 is over, and we discovered that, although we didn't succeed in our 'NO snacky food packaging at all' pledge, we reduced it, and it's really not that difficult. Lunch boxes and in-between meal times shouldn't be all about over-packaged goodies. And too much sweet stuff is not a good thing anyway, either. All in all, the kick up the backside delivered by Zero Waste Week was very welcome.

So the attempts at zero waste continue. At the moment we have simply the very best zero waste snack dropping out of the sky onto our front drive. And dropping onto the road. And our car. And the alley next door to our house. And just about everywhere. The hazel trees in our hedge have produced an abundant crop this year. We've been enjoying them and other small hazelnut lovers (that is, lovers of small hazelnuts) have been enjoying them too. A neighbour has collected some especially to go in her Christmas pudding, and Daughter's friend, who calls for her every morning, arrived yesterday brandishing nutcrackers so she could enjoy a handful on the way to school. 

The smallest small hazelnut lover is a poor squirrel, however, who arrives annually to collect some of nature's bounty. He or she has been most frustrated to find that two cats have come to live here since last year, and spent a couple of days making angry squirrel noises at them from the top of the hedge in an unsuccessful attempt to shoo them away, before leaving in disgust.

As well as eating them neat, (the hazelnuts, not the squirrels) we have so, so many that we have been wondering what else we can do with them.

Son was immediately on the case, researching his favourite option. So much for less sugary snacks...

We have learnt that cracking enough hazelnuts to make 250g of shelled hazelnuts takes a very long time. Although we have a lot of hazelnuts in their shells, once they're cracked maybe we won't have quite so many. The nutella mixing was almost too much for our poor wand blender stick thingy which was making sounds worthy of the dentist's surgery. We used much less sugar (as a gesture towards our new healthy snack regime) and had to forego the vanilla extract because we didn't have any, but a rather delicious, rich, Ferrero Rocher, dark chocolate truffly type concoction emerged after all the hours of effort.

It's like a golden nectar that shouldn't be guzzled all at once, so we carefully froze a couple of small bowlfuls as well as leaving one out for consumption. (I have no idea if you can freeze freshly made nutella but we shall find out). The unfrozen bowl is supposed to be eaten within three weeks but I don't think there's much chance of it hanging around that long.

Ooh, and we also learnt that when you're cracking hazelnuts the shells get everywhere. I even found some in my bed (which is nowhere near the kitchen) this morning.

All ideas for things to do with an abundance of hazelnuts gratefully received!

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Zero Waste Week

It's Zero Waste Week 2014, and many businesses and bloggers are on board with the 'one more thing' theme. What one more thing could you do to cut your landfill waste?

It's the food packaging that gets us every single time, so that's our pledge. To keep it simple we're focusing on snacky food waste packaging this week...crisps, biscuits...stuff that comes in that crinkly plastic packaging that is so hard to recycle.

How's it going so far? I'm not going to lie - it's certainly not easy. In a week full of change for us all in one way or another, my plans for concocting lovely zero waste, home-baked alternatives to snacky things have come to naught so far and there have been transgressions. 

I arrived home from work on Monday to find an empty packet of chocolate fingers lazing on the sofa...

And Husband snuck past me yesterday with a cup of tea and a penguin biscuit pre-empting any of my zero waste outcries by claiming that he was going to upcycle the biscuit packet into a piece of jewellery...

On the positive side, the reusable Onya produce bags have carried home lots of vegetables and fruit from the market for healthy zero packaging snacking. Out with the crisps and in with the greengages.

Stay tuned to see how we do during the rest of the week, and visit the Zero Waste Week website for tips and hints. There are plenty of links to other Zero Waste blog ambassadors, so you can see if they are faring any better than we are. 

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Happy Campers!

"Was there a club house?" my soon-to-be sister-in-law asked of our recent stay at a campsite in Pembrokeshire.

Our summer holiday this year needed to be dirt cheap. And the first rule of dirt cheap camping is to avoid sites with lots of facilities. Which we did. So no - no club houses.

We're huge fans of the Cool Camping books and website. They've never let us down when it comes to locating amazing campsites in stunning locations, and this year was no exception. Their recommendations often include small sites and the more quirky. (All our own judgement here - I'm not being paid or sponsored to mention them).

After rejecting a couple of Cool campsites further west into Pembrokeshire on the grounds of cost, we decided upon Skrinkle Bay Campsite. 

Photo swiped from Cool Camping's picture of the campsite
- that's not our tent.

Near the village of Manorbier, a few miles west of Tenby, it's a cliff top site, with spectacular views of the coastline and the ocean. And all this comes at a price of £8 per night for a small tent, or £10 for a large tent, regardless of the number of occupants. Although camp fires are allowed, the other facilities are few and far between: three loos, a 'cool' shower (appropriately enough for a Cool Camping campsite!) and a water tap. Definitely no club house. And absolutely no wi-fi. At the tail end of Hurricane Bertha, not many campers either. Fantastic! All the more room for the kids to fly the kite and play football.

Church Doors beach with the little Shoestrings
frolicking in the waves if you look very closely

And for much of the time we had the nearest beach, Church Doors (which is a few minutes walk down the cliff) all to ourselves.

The 'Church Doors' rock formation - wow!
At high tide you can swim through the doors

It was our first visit to this area of Wales and we loved it. There are beautiful beaches (as well as Church Doors and Skrinkle Haven, we visited Tenby, and on the way home, Pendine Sands) and coastal walks along the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path. This kept us fully entertained for most of our visit.

For a slight variation on the theme of beaches we visited Caldey Island. I would like to think that the kids will remember all the things we learned about the Cistercian (Trappist) monastery (which owns the island) and the fascinating history, however I suspect that the highlight was the return boat trip at low tide, which featured a ride on an amphibious vehicle for part of the journey.

The Italinate Cistercian monastery on
Caldey built in the early 20th century
The joy of camping, especially shoestring camping, is that it's always a reminder of how little we really need to be happy. Agreed, the beautiful landscape and the relaxed, holiday mindset all help, but in the short term no-one missed hot water, fancy food or the internet. Seeing how the Cistercian monks on Caldey live a simple life of vegetarian food, study, prayer and work in the community, only served to emphasise the value of a simple life. It's continually a challenge, but we came back inspired to keep everyday life at home simple whenever we can.

Other top tips for a successful dirt cheap camping holiday
  • Keep travel costs down - don't venture too far from home. (We're lucky - for us the Severn bridge is not far; as soon as we're over it we're in a different country and it feels as if we are miles away from home!)
  • Acquire camping stuff second-hand. A lot of our gear is second-hand, including our tent (see a picture of our leaky tent here in last year's camping blog post!). And now is a good time to look for stuff in the sales, ready for next year.
  • Borrow stuff. Most people's camping kit sits around doing nothing for most of the time. This year we borrowed a top box for the car from our neighbours. And when we were at the campsite someone left their camping chairs by the bin when they left the site so we borrowed those too!
  • Our trip was from early Monday to late Friday, so although it felt like nearly a whole week it was actually only four nights. A tenner each for nearly a week's accommodation! Not bad!
  • Keep the catering simple - we had a hearty camping breakfast, a light lunch of sandwiches or rolls and usually pasta in the evening. 
  • Apart from the Caldey Island trip, by picking a location with lots of natural interest, we didn't need to pay for any other days out.
  • Ignore the weather forecast - we nearly bottled out of the whole trip when we looked at the weather forecast for our week, but it turned out to be one of the driest (although also the blusteriest) holidays we have had.
  • Good old fashioned games are lots of fun. Battle ships was the game of this holiday.
  • You're never too old for a bucket and spade. Nearly-14-year-old Daughter begged us for a bucket and spade in Tenby, which provided, perhaps not hours, but many minutes of fun!
  • Don't be completely miserly - make sure to budget for the odd ice cream, milkshake or cup of coffee!
Any other tips for frugal camping? Have you been camping this summer - any great locations to share?

Friday, 8 August 2014

We're all going on a summer holiday...

We're gearing up for our annual camping trip.

We're really last minute here this year and there have been all sorts of debates about where to go. Do we combine camping with visiting family in Devon, Norfolk or the North East? Do we go somewhere completely new to us? Do we go somewhere we've been before that we know we'll like? 

With these discussions going on at home, I've been observing the habits of our friends and neighbours. I haven't got any data to back up my hypothesis but from my observations I'd say that for summer 2014 most people round here are either visiting family or going somewhere they've been before. And we're just as unadventurous!

There are various family visits east and west over the summer but for the camping trip it's Wales. Again! Albeit a different, new-to-us, part of Wales. Pembrokeshire.

And of course I'm using my own camping checklist again to help make the prepararions easier!

How about you? Do you go back to the same place again and again? Visit family? Staycation?

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Summer Holiday Frugal Fun!

Random summer holiday frugal fun so far, in no particular order:

  • Picnics. We've been back to our favourite local river picnicking spot with a bunch of friends, and everyone from the 2 year old to the over 50s, as well as the teenagers in between, enjoyed themselves.
  • Parks. Whilst we were in London we visited two fantastic free parks: Bunny Park in Hanwell, Ealing (which has a small free zoo (except they call it an animal centre) and an amazing maze as well as play equipment and extensive green space), and Dukes Meadow in Chiswick which has a wooden adventure play ground suitable for both younger and older kids. It also has a water play area (which sadly wasn't working when we were there).
  • Decluttering. I've attacked a very neglected pile of paperwork. Not owning a shredder, I tried out a means of disposing of personal paperwork suggested by a friend. It involved soaking bank statements etc in a washing up bowl, mushing them up, drying them in the sun, and then recycling the whole lot. My methodology was queried by some but it was surprisingly quick and easy, and much more pleasant on a hot day as well as lower in carbon emissions, than burning it. Fortunately Husband is so used to my strange ways that he didn't bat an eyelid at discovering a ton of squodged pay slips sunbathing in the garden.

  • Reading. We all love a good read in the holidays. Inspired by our visit to the big smoke, one child is reading A bear called Paddington by Michael Bond and the other has his nose in Bob, No ordinary cat by James Bowen (the children's version of A Street Cat named Bob). I've finished Talking to Zeus and am about to move on to Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman. Husband doesn't do fiction but is happy with his newly arrived CTC Cycling magazine.
  • Guests. Friends from up country coming to stay with us for the night en route to their holiday destination. There's nothing like a houseful of boys fuelled with pizza and icecream performing magic tricks and gymnastics, sharing their loom band expertise, playing the guitar, fiddling and twiddling on their technological gadgets, and doing all this seemingly simultaneously.
  • Haircuts. Son and I have let Husband loose on us with his clippers; a number 8 seems to do both of us just fine! (Who needs a Cleopatra fringe anyway?!) Thanks to fellow bloggers Lovely Grey and Simple Suffolk Smallholder for convincing me that clippers are the frugal way forward when it comes to short hair cuts for ladies as well as gents...
A rare appearance on the blog 
by me complete with clippered hair.

If there's one thing I want to give my kids, it's the learning that real happiness comes from their relationships with others - time spent with the people that are precious to them and the people around them, not from desiring and owning lots of stuff and looking beautiful and having expensive haircuts and living a virtual life through Facebook, Instagram, or the like (blogs included!). I may never be able to persuade Daughter to let Husband clipper her long flaxen locks but in all other respects I think I'm just about winning in my mission this holiday...