Thursday, 30 January 2014

Laughter and lightness...

Over Christmas and early January, we had two big family get-togethers in two different locations. 

At both of them, my Dad could be found on several occasions changing light bulbs. 

"Ooh that's strange!" I exclaimed. "We've had a few light bulbs go at ours this winter - I think it's because we fitted low energy light bulbs in several light fittings when we moved in and they're all starting to go at the same time." 

Dad, a retired maths teacher and very logical thinker, disagreed. "It's winter, your lights are on more, so there's a greater likelihood of a light bulb dying." 

I think he may be right. At this time of year you will sometimes find lights blazing in empty rooms here. Tut, tut! It would be easy to blame the kids, but I have a nasty feeling that I might also be guilty.

Fortunately it's the Citizens Advice Bureau's Big Energy Saving Week this week, which is a great reminder of ways to save ourselves money on energy, and help save the planet in the process. 

Big Energy Saving Week logo

In conjunction with the Big Energy Saving week, I was sent an infographic about light bulbs to share on the blog, in particular the benefits of LED light bulbs. I hadn't got a clue about different light bulbs, so I had to do some research. I knew the old incandescent bulbs = BAD (and are now banned in the EU), and that the curly wurly and traditional low energy ones (CFLs or Compact Fluorescent Lamps) = BETTER but I didn't know anything about LED bulbs. It seems they are more energy efficient than CFLs so probably = BEST. I imagined they might be brighter too, but I don't think this is the case, yet. LEDs have been more expensive than CFLs in the past but prices are dropping and because of their longevity, there are savings to be made in the long term.

There is an excellent report at the Ethical Consumer website, if you want to go into the whole area in more detail. As ever, once you start delving deeper, there are issues about the production of light bulbs when it comes to both CFLs and LEDs ('rare earths', readily available in China, are used in LEDs) and this is well explained in the EC article. 

Due to the materials used in any light bulb, you should always make sure that you are disposing of them responsibly. (In Wiltshire you can do this at the household recycling centres where the light bulbs are then transported to Cambridgeshire for processing).

Oh, and the 'Laughter' part of the blog title? I think it's got to be one for my Dad...

How many mathematicians does it take to change a light bulb?

Three: one to change the light bulb and two to figure out what to do with the remainder... 

LEDs - do you use them? How do you rate them? Favourite light bulb joke?!

Here's the infographic. (It came courtesy of LightBulbs Direct but please note I received no incentive from them for writing this blog post (not even a teeny tiny LED light bulb) - it just piqued my curiousity, and I'm always happy to promote energy saving.)

Monday, 27 January 2014

Idle Pleasures

I've discovered a new idle pleasure - reading The Book of Idle Pleasures (Ed. Dan Keran and Tom Hodgkinson)...

On discovering the book in a charity shop a while back I gave it a miss, but when it showed up in the library it seemed just the right kind of light reading for January.

Once I had read the introduction I knew I'd made a good choice. It fits well with this blog: "It is the purpose of this book to prove that the best things in life really are free...When we take a stroll at a deliberately slow pace through the city, and merely observe the currents of life without submitting to the urge to shop, we are making an enjoyable protest against the work-and-consume society...Idle pleasure can also reconnect us with nature...There is nothing less harmful to the environment than doing nothing..."

Different writers have made contributions on their favourite idle pleasures (there must be about 100 in total), usually with wry humour, and all beautifully illustrated by Ged Wells. Some of the pleasures are predictable, others more quirky.

It's just the book to zip through whilst infusing and drinking a cup of tea (Waiting for the tea to brew appears on page 12!)

Here are the first ten Idle Pleasures, with some quotations from the text:

Taking a Bath "'s well to remember the simple pleasures of a long, relaxing bath, preferably taken at 11am when everyone else is toiling in the mills..."

Poking the Fire "Once you've got a roaring fire going, indulge yourself in the simple pleasure of giving it a good poke."

Slouching "...slouching is the posture of calm rebellion."

Leaf Catching "It sounds easy, but twisting, spiralling, flying leaves are not easy to snatch out of the air."

The Balcony "A good balcony is an essential ingredient for a day of langour."

Waiting for the Tea to Brew "Only by handing your full attention to the pot will you be able to truly relish the taste when the moment comes."

Messing About in Boats "From Ratty and his chums to Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men In A Boat, the daydreaming enemies of work have always sought solace in the slowed-down worlds of our rivers and canals."

Tree Houses "Tree Houses should be flawed, beautiful, scruffy and unique."

Strolling Through the City " You can be a modern- day flâneur in your own town: just set out from your front door and make a deliberate attempt to walk slowly."

Procrastinating "When else are those few extra minutes in bed so utterly delicious than when you should really already be on your way to work?"

I'd go along with most of those, in fact I'm an expert at enjoying some of them. (Possibly too much of an expert when it comes to procrastinating )

What's your favourite idle pleasure?

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Food Waste Friday - Marmalade Cake

Being super careful about spending the pennies this month, and eating up what we have in the freezer and cupboards, has meant fewer shopping trips for food. And less shopping always means less food in the house to waste, so January has been a low food waste month so far.

This week there were just breadcrusts and two dried up oranges in the fruit bowl that could count as food waste. The breadcrusts will be soaked for the chickens, and the oranges? Well, this week a blog hop or two led me to the delightful Circle of Pine Trees blog and a wonderful marmalade cake.

Marmalade has been on my mind this week. Should I or should I not attempt to make any this year? Last year's attempt led to several pots of very runny marmalade; I reboiled a couple of jars with pectin but then thought the pectin had gone off, threw it away, and ended up eating all the runny marmalade myself (over the course of the year - not all in one go). No-one else here likes marmalade, so it has been left to me to stand over the sink eating toast as quickly as I can before all the marmalade juice drips through the bread. And it was just way too embarrassingly sloppy to give away to any other poor souls.

Seeing a delicious marmalade cake photo on Circle of Pine Trees clinched it. What a good way of using up the last of my runny marmalade (and the two old oranges), leaving a blank canvas on which to start this year's attempts at mucking around with Seville oranges.

Earlier this week I did say we were off the sugary treats post-Christmas. However a grim, grey, very wet Friday calls for an exception to the rule, and after all, I did also say this week that we're trying to make sure January is jolly...

What could be jollier than Marmalade Cake? (Except I have to call it Orange Drizzle Cake in this house, so as not to put off the marmalade-haters. And they have nearly eaten it all up so my cunning plan clearly worked).

For my version of the marmalade cake I used:

175g margarine
175g sugar
3 eggs
grated zest of one ancient orange
175g self raising flour
75g very runny marmalade

Cream the marg and sugar, add the eggs and then the marmalade and orange zest. Beat in the flour. Usually the cake's baked in a loaf tin, but I had no grease-proof paper so needed to use my most non-stick cake tin, which is round. 

Similarly in the original recipe, which you can find at Circle of Pines, the cake is decorated with orange icing. We were out of icing sugar, and as I've been trying to avoid buying non-essential food items so as to cut costs, I mixed the juice of the two oranges with a little granulated sugar to make a syrup, and poured it over the cake, lemon drizzle style. This is just as yummy. 

I do believe it will be worth making marmalade, even if it turns out runny again, just to be able to bake more completely home-made Marmalade Orange Drizzle Cakes.

Food Waste Friday was dreamt up by, to encourage people to use up food instead of waste it. This week you can find Food Waste Friday hosted by 

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Keeping January upbeat...

I'm working hard to ensure January's jolly not bleak. Part of the strategy involves music therapy - good tunes. Learning to play some new ones on my fiddle, listening to the radio and CDs (no fancy technology for me), and even better, live, and even better than that, live and completely free (apart from the price of a ginger beer).

How I love my local arts centre and its once-a-month Free Fridays! Last week they brought us The Flamenco Thief, otherwise known as Craig Sutton from Warminster. The bar was so crowded, and me being so short, I couldn't actually see him (until he had to weave his way through the crowd to get to the loo in the interval). His guitar playing and clever trickery with a loop machine thing was still toe-tappingly fantastic though, and thanks to Youtube I could enjoy it all over again, complete with visuals this time, once I got home. 

Is there anything on your January playlist that's helping you beat the seasonal blues? 

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Twenty ways to save money on food

It's low-spend January here, as it is elsewhere in frugal blogland. We're making extra specially sure that we're not frittering money away - no unnecessary expenditure is allowed this month and it's all about saving. There's the stuff that has to be paid for: all the utilities, the boring old mortgage, the petrol, the kids' stuff like swimming lessons and music lessons, and how come so many of our friends seem to have birthdays in January? But one of the places where there is some wriggle room is the food budget.

Below are some of the ways we're saving money on food this month. You probably won't find anything new here - as well as using my own common sense acquired over a lifetime of frugal cooking, I've picked up a gazillion good ideas from other frugal blogs along the way and try to implement them, not just this month but all the time. Sometimes I miss a trick though, so I thought I'd run my own revision session, for myself as much as anybody else...Here goes!

  • Look out for the good old orange sticker. Our local supermarket has specific sections set aside for its reduced items, and there's always a queue for the fridge shelf bargains!

  • Go for the Simply Value range, or whatever it's called where you shop. 

  • Compare prices on the same product. I always spend ages working out which cheese is cheapest per kilogram. Currently, this grated cheddar works out cheapest in our Co-op. (Cheese is even cheaper at our local Tuesday market; shame I'm at work and can't get there).
  • Set a budget for food spending and sticking to it. Another way I curb my food spending is to shop on foot with a bag or my trusty shopping trolley, so I really can't get more than I planned to because I physically won't be able to carry it.
  • Use up what we've got. Our kitchen is too small to build up huge supplies but even so, there are loads of things lurking in the freezer and plenty of tins to fall back on.
  • Get your pulses racing...In the last week we've had yellow split pea dahl (thanks Nigel Slater!), tomato and lentil soup and veggie sausage casserole with kidney beans. Pulses are dirt cheap: the split peas cost 55p a packet and the recipe only called for half a packet - that makes 27.5p for a protein which served four of us - can't grumble at that!

  • Following on from pulses...vegetarian meals will often cost less. I'm a lapsed vegetarian and tend to serve a lot of veggie meals anyway, so nobody has noticed that we haven't eaten much meat this month.
  • Make sure you use up the leftovers. I haven't been very good at accounting for my waste on the blog recently, but the food waste here has been fairly minimal. Quite often there is one portion of a meal left which we all fight over for our packed lunch the next day. (And it's packed lunches for everybody here this month - way cheaper).
  • Use up food from outside too; we are still foraging apples from our tree and spinach from the allotment. And our ex-batt chickens are getting good at laying lots of eggs.
  • Buy flour in bulk and make bread. (We use a breadmaker - this can either be seen as either lazy or environmentally friendly (not heating the whole oven to bake a loaf)! I prefer the latter.) For good quality bread, making your own always works out cheaper. We also regularly use the breadmaker to knock up dough for homemade pizzas.
  • Make full use of loyalty cards etc. I've been enjoying my member coupons at the Co-op this month - two '£5 off if you spend £20' vouchers represents a decent discount.
  • Bulk up...base meals around pasta, rice and good old jacket potatoes)....
  • ...and eke out...for example a few sausages stretch further in a sausage casserole than if you served them on their own with mash, and things like olives go further if you finely chop them, rather than add them whole to sauces and pizzas (and of course we're talking the cheap olives in brine not posh olives).
  • Look for cost-cutting ways to make sure you get your five-a-day. Bags of frozen veg can work out cheaper than their fresh counterparts.

  • Substitute expensive ingredients for cheaper ones. I found a spicy prawn and rice recipe that I wanted to try this week but prawns are expensive. A sea food collection (lurid pink crab sticks and all) is much cheaper. Spicy prawn rice, spicy sea food rice? It's all the same to me! Fresh coriander at £1 a pop or dried coriander leaves that have been sitting in a jar on my herb rack for years? I'll take the old coriander leaves thanks!
  • Minimise the choices; in our house people have learned that porridge or shreddies to choose from at breakfast is perfectly acceptable - we're not living in a hotel so we don't need a huge menu to choose from. Likewise, Christmas is over so it's time to wean ourselves off the sugary treats; back to plain after school snacks - such as fruit, toast, malt loaf, rich tea biscuits, oat cakes or crumpets.
  • Cook from scratch. It's a frugal no-brainer - making your own meals will reduce both cost, excess packaging and is likely to be healthier. I'm no great chef but even when time is short, it's not hard to rustle up something - pasta and passata or tinned tomatoes with a sprinkle of herbs and some grated cheese (or even ketchup...), scrambled egg on toast etc.
  • Menu planning will help ensure that you are using up what you have or making a shopping list for things than you need rather than whatever tempts you in the supermarket. It will also help you to see where you may need to get ahead with any preparation to fit in with your timetable.
  • If it's cost-effective shop in the budget supermarkets like Lidl and Aldi or place an order with Approved Food. I use my local supermarket, the Co-op, which may be more expensive for some items but doesn't incur any petrol costs. I save Lidl and Aldi, which are both several miles away, for when I'm passing, rather than making a special trip there. Another advantage of using my medium-sized supermarket is that it has no clothes section, no shoes, no housey things, no gardenware, no toys, no CDs etc so therefore there's no temptation to buy extra stuff on a whim.
  • When it's gone, it's gone. Not everything needs replacing immediately.
Over to you! What have I forgotten?

Monday, 13 January 2014

December River Walk

Nearly every month in 2013 we did one of our favourite circular walks from Ford in North Wiltshire up the Bybrook to Long Dean, a little way towards Castle Combe and then back to Ford. We took photos every month to mark the seasonal changes.

December's river walk got slightly delayed what with all the festivities, so we ended up doing our last walk of 2013 in 2014! That was OK though - it was satisfying to be doing the last walk of the cycle on the very same day that we began - 2 January.

So what did we find on the river walk's first anniversary?

Well, just like last January it was wet. But this January it was very wet. The river was really high.

The Bybrook, Jan 2014, nearly reaching the top of the bridge's arch
The same place in spring 2013

At the little 'beach' area where we have picnicked in sunnier times, the river was roaring, and it was just too deep and dangerous to paddle.

The fields were flooded and Son would have got soaked if he had laid down on the grass to take photos, which is what he usually likes to do.

In several places the river had burst its banks and it was tricky to get across the water.

Finally we got to a point where we could go on no further. The wooden footbridge was surrounded by water. This meant that we couldn't do our usual circular walk which was a shame, but we had a conversation about the saying 'go with the flow', and how sometimes in life you have to do just that.

So we retraced our steps and walked up the other side of the valley, where the path is on higher ground. The pigs were enjoying the sun and the mud. 

We argued about these grassy mounds. I think they are just mole hills that have grassed over.

The beech trees are completely bare.

There must have been some sort of trail around the woods; Son enjoyed looking out for the names that were dotted around, not all so visible as Hercules (Hurcules being the Wiltshire version...) We found Ben Affleck and Marie Curie too, but couldn't work out any connection between them.

We took our usual shot up the Bybrook Valley but rather than overload this blog post with photos, I shall do another wrap-up blog post with all the shots for the entire year for a final comparison.

It's been a good year in the Bybrook Valley, and we've enjoyed seeing the cycle of nature turn in this small area of the world. A few people have asked whether we shall do the same thing this year, maybe another route, but we're not sure yet. It's been a great way of making sure we get out, and we've all enjoyed it - it's one of those walks that really lifts the spirits and we always came back feeling happier than when we set out, no matter what the time of year. But whether to repeat the exercise? I really don't know. What do you reckon?

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Nice weather for Cluedo

Yesterday, New Year's Day, it poured and it poured and it poured and then it poured some more in Corsham.

We had planned to go and do our final December river walk (strictly speaking it's no longer December, I know, but 1 January is close enough...). It was so wet that there was really nothing else to do except play Cluedo.

Secondhand Christmas presents totally rock, in my opinion. Who needs a Playstation 4 or whatever when you can have 1970s Cluedo for £1.50 from the Dorothy House hospice charity shop in Melksham?! Fortunately Son agrees (some of the time) and was really pleased that he received proper Cluedo and not the complicated new version that we tried to play when we stayed in a Youth Hostel during the summer, or perish the thought, Simpsons Cluedo. D'oh!

Retro Cluedo

A rare occasion where the cats weren't trying to join in
by walking all over the board

I love a good board game. Not because I'm a competitive player and let's face it, a lot of board games are quite literally, bored games, and seemingly interminable (Snakes and Ladders, I'm looking at you...) but they are a good way of anchoring a few loved ones around a table together for an hour or so. There are usually a few laughs, completely unrelated to the game, and sometimes a bit of cheating, and if you throw in a box of chocolates or maybe a glass of sherry, the whole thing can really be most enjoyable.

Charity Shops have been the source of most of our board games and I have my dentist to thank for Cluedo. My reward for completing all dental visits is always a look in the Dorothy House hospice charity shop which lies conveniently half way between the dental practice and the car park. How lucky that since I lost a filling on New Year's Eve I'll be getting a head start on my 2014 secondhand Christmas present shopping. 

The back of the instructions on Son's 'new' Cluedo suggests other Waddingtons' family board games we might like: Monopoly (check), Totopoly, Buccaneer, Formula One, Table Soccer, Sorry, Funfair, Ratrace and, wait for it, Ulcers. I can imagine what the other games on the list involve but Ulcers? The mind boggles. I really hope it turns up in a charity shop near me some time.

So, board games, love 'em or hate 'em? What's your favourite? And most importantly, has anyone ever played Ulcers or got any guesses as to what it might entail? Do tell!