Monday, 25 July 2016

Five things we love about Airbnb

I had never heard of Airbnb until just over a year ago when an acquaintance mentioned they had used the website to find somewhere to stay in France. Perhaps I'd been living under a rock* or something up to that point, because then it started popping up everywhere...Several of the frugal blogs mentioned Airbnb in passing, as if it was already a word in the Oxford English Dictionary that had been in common parlance for years. A friend came to stay and told me all about renting out her spare bedroom. And it's featured in the media a lot over the last year - the Airbnb'ers who throw wild parties in rented apartments and make life a misery for the neighbours, the insurance and tax implications for hosts, and Airbnb as part of the rise of the sharing economy.

Last summer we were after some accommodation in Devon for part of a week, after staying with family. If you've ever tried to find holiday accommodation in Devon in August for an unusual amount of time i.e. not a full week, it's tricky. Accommodation is at peak price and peak demand. You can probably see where I'm going with this...Yes, I found myself on the Airbnb website, and lo and behold, booked accommodation for four, for half a week, and it didn't cost an arm and a leg.

Since then we've used Airbnb for a bargain break in Lille, France, for a few days, and I nearly used it for an overnight stay in Bristol although I later cancelled the booking, which unintentionally gave me the chance to test out Airbnb's cancellation process.

I suppose you could say we're Airbnb converts. Especially as we've not had any negative experiences. What, therefore, are our favourite Airbnb things?

1) The relationship with the hosts - I guess they're out to get good ratings from their guests, but all our Airbnb hosts have been a pleasure to deal with via email and in real life. The host in Devon deserves a bonus for giving us the chance to feed her Alpacas, whilst the host in France gets extra points for tolerating my attempts to practise my rusty French on her. The Bristol host (whom I never met in person) was also admirable in returning my payment when I cancelled. (I didn't meet the criteria for a partial, let alone a full refund, so this was totally unexpected but much appreciated).

Friendly Airbnb Host and Alpacas
2) You get to see parts that other b'n'bs cannot reach...the slightly rough around the edges or residential parts that wouldn't normally attract a b'n'b. In France this meant that we stuck out like sore thumbs in the local boulangerie and supermarket, but this was a good thing because we got to chat with the locals who wanted to know where these weird English people had sprung up from and what we were doing there. 

3) You can get a good idea of the accommodation and the hosts from the website. For us, this has meant we are able to bypass places where it looks as if you would have to tread on egg shells or incur a hefty cleaning fee (not that we'd be throwing wild parties or anything) and are able to go for places that are more of a home from home i.e. practical and non-deluxe but comfortable. And therefore, relatively cheap. France was the cheapest of all - £37 per night for a whole, large, lovely appartment.

4) There is something appealing in the ethos of the sharing economy - using what's already there rather than consuming 'new' feels more sustainable. However the sharing economy isn't necessarily sustainable - as users we have to make it such. (And in fact there is an argument that the likes of Uber and Airbnb are anything but sustainable and are in fact part of a neoliberal, tax-evading, unregulated private sector...)

5) The website is super easy to use, even for a non-techy like me, and in all cases the hosts have responded really quickly.

So for now, based on our minimal experience, Airbnb gets a cautious thumbs up from us. How about you, have you got any Airbnb stories to share?

* If you, like under-a-rock dwelling me, have ever wondered what Airbnb is all about, here's an overview (taken from the BT website) : "Airbnb is an online marketplace which lets people rent out their properties or spare rooms to guests. Airbnb takes 3% commission of every booking from hosts, and between 6% and 12% from guests. There’s plenty of criteria to list for/search a property: from a shared room to an entire house, to having a swimming pool to having a washing machine. There are photos of the property, and the hosts/guests, with full map listing."

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Elizabeth's Footprints

Wallace and Gromit's Grand Appeal which fundraises for the Bristol Children's Hospital, has long been a charity we like to support. (I blogged about why it is so close to our hearts here). Over the last year and a half we have once again benefited from the expertise of its staff, so earlier this year, when a friend alerted me to the story of one woman's incredible fundraising efforts, 'Elizabeth's Footprint', for the Grand Appeal, I was only too happy to dip into my pocket and support her.

Natalia Spencer is walking around the entire coast of England, Scotland and Wales, in memory of her daughter Elizabeth, who died suddenly and unexpectedly from a life-threatening condition called HLH, at the hospital last November. 

It's a moving and inspiring story on several counts. For a start, embarking on a year-long walk of that length is not a light undertaking in itself. And then to add to the challenge by setting a fundraising goal of £100,000...(£30,000 raised so far). But really, all of that pales into insignificance if you imagine walking so far, and fundraising, and blogging about it, whilst at the same time grieving for your five year old daughter. In fact, I just can't imagine. To me, that seems to require a superhuman amount of strength and courage.

But Natalia is doing it as a way of focusing her energy positively. If you follow her Facebook blog, there are moments of enormous pain and sadness, but somehow she continues to put one foot in front of another. There are also heartwarming moments that restore your faith in humanity. People she meets along the way show enormous kindness - providing food, accommodation and companionship. Inevitably she also meets others for whom her journey resonates deeply because of their own losses. Some people have been so touched by her story that they are actively seeking her out and walking with her.

The walk started (and will end) at Durdle Door in Dorset, and is moving in a clockwise direction, with Natalia currently located in West Scotland, heading towards Glasgow.

I know that there are so many deserving causes crying out for attention all of the time, but if you felt able to then there are many ways of supporting Natalia - from simply reading her blog and being with her in spirit, making a small donation, or buying her a hot drink if you are near her route, to walking with her for part of her journey or even putting her up for the night.

Follow her story on Facebook here or via her website here.

GA Fundraiser Logo

Thursday, 7 July 2016

The time sponsored by Accurist...or the end of my wrist watch woes.

I suspect old-fashioned wrist watches are a dying breed. My kids certainly can't understand why I insist on wearing a watch, when I could just check the time on my phone, but phone-checking isn't always appropriate. Many people my age have 'fitbits' and digital wrist thingies that talk to their phones. I'm not knocking them; you can't argue with their motivational usefulness and health benefits for some people, but me, I don't like being beholden to devices if I help it. So I'm sticking with a watch that doesn't need charging, and with my aging brain to work out when it might be a good thing to exercise, or to work out how many hours sleep I'm getting. 

The only trouble with this strategy is that as simple as it seems, it's been difficult and expensive to keep a wrist watch functioning over the last few years. A combination of nowhere nearby to buy watch batteries, the watch batteries from Timpsons not lasting very long, and watches that stop working altogether.

For a while, I worked out that it was cheaper to buy a watch in a local charity shop (who always put new batteries in their watches before selling them) and then re-donate it when the battery ran out, and repeat the process. 

My last charity shop watch turned out to be a Race For Life goodie bag watch, which as well as giving me an ethical dilemma (I had to 'fess up to being a charity running fraud to a couple of Race For Lifers with identical watches), was probably never destined for a long life, and died a death. 

Then the charity shop seemed to stop selling watches for months until eventually I asked, and hurrah! There was a big box of watches out the back but the battery installing volunteer was poorly, so all the watches were stopped watches that they couldn't sell.

I persuaded them to sell me a non-functioning timepiece, choosing the brand that I thought would be most likely to work with a new battery, and would hopefully last longer than the RFL watch. 

That would be an Accurist. I don't know anything about watch brands really, but I decided that anybody who sponsors time has to be good. Except that Accurist doesn't sponsor the speaking clock any more, and hasn't done for the last 8 years. And Accurist isn't really Accurist any more either, because it's owned by a company that own Sekonda and a couple of other brands. Oh well.

Back to the story. What's the moral here?

  • Whilst useful and really helpful for some people - fitbits and the like - there's always an old-school alternative - watch, paper, pen, diary.
  • There's always a frugal alternative (to Timpsons and the like) too.
  • There's often a secondhand alternative - charity shops are brilliant and it's worth asking when you can't see what you want.
  • There's sometimes a local alternative - local hardware shops are brilliant too. I discovered that ours fits watch batteries for a very reasonable price. 
So for £8, I have a watch that works and a local charity and a local business have benefited. What's not to like?

Obviously, this post was NOT sponsored by Accurist! Or Timpsons.

Monday, 4 July 2016

Half as much...

Reading blog post comments can be a worthwhile exercise. Sometimes you glean just as much wisdom from the comments as from the original blog post. (Look at my last blog post for example - the comments were more useful than the blog post!)

Rhonda's Down To Earth blog is always full of warmth and wisdom - a veritable haven of sanity in a mad world - within the blog posts and comments. Scrolling through the comments on one one of her recent blog posts where people were sharing their preparations for the impact of Brexit on their lives, I was struck once again by just how far-reaching this decision will be, and just how many people will be brought along for the ride, without having had any say in the matter. Several people, and not just in the UK, were talking about redoubling their efforts to get their affairs in order, and thinking of ways to make further savings.

I discovered one quick hack - cutting dishwasher tablets in half. Yes, I like things I can implement quickly and easily. (Why haven't I thought of this before?) And this one's another case of what's good for my pocket being good for the planet. 

OK, it might not get the mortgage paid off any time soon or, on its own, buffer us against a deep recession, but cumulative small changes all add up, and help to build a mindset. There are probably plenty of other things I could use half of or do half as much that would have a positive impact too...I'm thinking that watching the news half as much could be beneficial right now...and free up some time. (Any other ideas are welcome...I'm angling after some more useful comments!)

And it's a good reminder that what we do individually, matters. It's easy to feel powerless and that we're swimming against the tide, but we can always be kind to those around us, and always do our little bit. And if enough of us do that then we might just change the world, half a dishwasher tablet at a time. 

So far, so good. Stuff comes out as clean and shiny as before.

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Jobs for the kids

It's been one of my paradoxical parenting dilemmas. Allowing my kids to have a childhood where they don't have to grow up too soon in age when they're inevitably exposed to all sorts of ideas, issues and imagery, whilst trying to nurture competent human beings who will be able to look after themselves and find their way in the big wide world.

At their age, I'd already started my first part-time job: serving and clearing up afternoon tea, and laundry wrangling, in an old people's home. At the time it was all about the cash, and I certainly appreciated the value of money more when I'd earned it through my own hard work, but the benefits were wider than that: learning to get along with all sorts of people, time-keeping, responsibility. The sort of thing you roll your eyes at when you're a teenager, but which sound very appealing as qualities you'd want in your children.

These days it seems to harder to come by a small part-time job in your mid-teens. Perhaps it's all the elfin safety and safeguarding that never existed back in the 80s.  So it was a cause for celebration when the 15 year old finally bagged herself a babysitting gig, with others lined up. We took the precaution of re-reading Shirley Hughes' An Evening at Alfie's, in which the capable Maureen MacNally is faced with a burst pipe whilst babysitting Alfie and Annie Rose. Fortunately there were no such mishaps and daughter came back having grown a little in confidence, and happy to be £12 the richer.

Image result for Maureen MacNally babysitting Shirley Hughes
Maureen MacNally mopping up...

Anyone with older kids, I'd love to hear how easy or hard they found it to get work and what sorts of jobs are out there. What does the teenage job career ladder look like? Is it all about the globalised market of the multinational chains these days, or are there alternatives?

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Poppy Love

Recently I've been noticing flower beds and road verges full of poppies on my travels locally. Maybe they're there annually but somehow they have seemed especially splendid this year. 

Perhaps I'm just getting better at waking up and smelling the roses poppies - an art that has been severely tested over the last few days, when there has been so much to ruminate upon.

I have a recollection that poppy seeds were given out to schools and community groups in 2014 as part of the commemorations of the centenary of the outbreak of WW1, maybe some of the poppy beds are the legacy of those seeds? 

Or maybe they could be part of ongoing commemorations; centenary events begin on Friday to remember the one million soldiers who lost their lives during the Battle of the Somme, which lasted from July to November in 1916. A battle which typifies our perceptions of WW1 - helpless soldiers and blundering generals. It's a stark reminder of the futility of warring with your neighbours...

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Back in the saddle...

It's always the season for cycling, but especially now during the UK's summer. And it's always the season for blogging, but for me, especially now when things are less busy.

So what's new? The wheels are still turning. Part of our busy-ness has been a new twist in the quest to find a permanent home for Corsham's Community Bike Project, Spindles and Sprockets. It found one, at last! (Read the sorry tale of Spindles' earlier plight, here). Smack, bang in middle of the High Street.

A proper shop. So, one of us has been busy working there part-time alongside his other job - the project has had to morph into a slightly more commercial venture in order to meet the costs of leasing a property.

Today's frugal top tip? Get on yer bike for a cheap journey, cheap exericise and cheap fun. And if your steed is rusty and you need some help to get pedalling again, take yourself and your wheels down to your local friendly bike repairer who'll sort it out for you...

Check out this blog's earlier no-lycra everyday cycling guide here!

And Spindles here!

Sunday, 17 January 2016

The icing on the cake?

They got rather excited when they saw me mixing up a big bowl of icing last week. We didn't have a Christmas cake last year - had I made a belated one in January after all? Complete with royal icing? They asked hopefully.

No it's something far more useful than that. With an under sink cupboard that's bursting with eco cleaning product ingredients following my over calculations for a WI workshop back in 2013, I'm using up some bicarb in a home-made cream cleaner. The recipe comes from Jo in Tasmania, at her All the Blue Day blog - she's got a special tab on her blog right here with information on planet-friendly cleaning products. (Jo's a thoughtful blogger and true wordsmith - quality writing, always, as well as quality cleaner recipes).

Jo's cream cleaner recipe
1 cup bicarb
1 tablespoon cream of tartar
10 mls castile soap
40-50ml water
10 drops clove oil

When did I ever follow a recipe properly though? I don't have any cream of tartar, so I didn't bother with that. Nor the castile soap, which I replaced with Ecover washing up liquid. Clove oil, surprisingly, I did have, and that gives the product a hygienic and Christmassy smell. Although it's in the recipe for its mould inhibiting properties, I'm sure you could replace it with another essential oil, or even leave it out altogether.

And the icing on the cake? When brushed into a  grubby school shirt collar, the cream cleaner works its magic as much as on bathrooms and kitchens. 

That's the 'after'. You'll have to imagine the 'before' - not difficult to do:
12 year old boy + white shirt = grubby collars.

Thank you Jo!

Monday, 11 January 2016

Let's hear it for regional museums

One of my favourite museums is the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. I've been there a few times now and it never bores or disappoints. For all sorts of reasons:

Image courtesy of Jorge Royan - Wikimedia Commons
  • Unlike the Natural History Museum in London, you don't have to queue for ages to get in, nor fight the crowds once you're in there.
  • The Victorian neo-Gothic architecture is amazing - it's light, airy and immediately uplifting. 
  • You can call me an old fart, but I like the fact that the artefacts are left to speak for themselves without too much fancy schmancy interactive kit getting in the way. Even Son, who loves anything techy, spent hours poring over cabinets of insects. 
  • Although it's not as big as the NHM in London, there's plenty of geological and zoological stuff to see. On our recent visit, admiring the birds, the bugs and a geology exhibition in the upstairs gallery occupied our whole time.
  • The collections are excellent, as you'd expect - it being Oxford and all. Grandad says the bird collection is better than London's. (Naturally in this day and age, we don't approve of killing animals for collections, but most of the exhibits we saw looked genuinely historical).
  • We especially enjoyed the current special exhibition about William Smith, the father of modern geology. The geological maps he produced of the UK are fascinating, as is his story (he started life as a humble surveyor and worked his way up). We were surprised by the fact that although he was successful in his field he ended up spending time in a debtor's prison due to his lack of business acumen. ("This would make a great book!" we exclaimed, little realising that there already is one.)
And all this for free. (Although donations were made, of course). Aren't we lucky?

As if that's not enough, the Pitt Rivers Museum, which houses the University's archeological and ethnographic collections, lies directly behind the Oxford Natural History Museum. Trouble is, it's hard not to get sidetracked by the Natural History Museum on your way there. One day I'm going to 'do' the Pitt Rivers Museum in its own right. 

Have you got a favourite local museum I should check out one day?

Saturday, 9 January 2016

A Simple Living challenge is for life, not just for 21 days...

A year ago, exactly a whole year ago in fact, I joined in with Kindspring's Simple Living Challenge. Like many of Kindspring's challenges, it was a 21 day thing. (Go check them out here if you like a challenge with heart). Although I found it difficult to cram in the challenges to the three weeks, I never quite intended to be still completing the challenge and blogging about it one year after the event. But why not? Simple living should be for life after all, not just for 21 days.

The story so far? Well, Days 1 - 7 featured challenges such as mindful eating, unplugging, decluttering, emptying your email inbox, spending some time in silence, doing something you'd been putting off, and reflecting on the meaning in your life. Weighty matters, so you can see why it was difficult to complete a challenge per day...

I juddered to a real halt when it came to Day 8 - the challenge was to 'Do It Yourself!', reflecting on the hidden costs of convenience and making something you need with your own hands. "Maybe you'll learn how to sew curtains, or make your own chocolate. Maybe you'll build a bird feeder or make a birthday card for a friend", Kindspring kindly suggested. They even helpfully provided a link to a website called Instructables, which tells you how to make just about anything. I have made curtains, chocolate and cards in my time, but last year, the months rolled by and, if you exclude cooking, I didn't actually conjure up anything from scratch. Perhaps Kindspring is right - I have become distanced from my 'inherent creative skills'.  Oh dear. I seem to do much making do and mending, and using up and doing without, but not much creating of 'things'.

Daughter came to the rescue though. She has been desperate to use the sewing machine and when she found some festive fabric in the box of Christmas decorations, she asked if she could make some Christmas bunting. Of course! She did it mostly herself but I helped. So I think this counts towards the DIY challenge. I mean, everyone needs a string of Christmas bunting at some point in their lives, don't they?

Monday, 4 January 2016

Happy New Year!

2015 was not my best blogging year. These last few months I did type an awful lot of words - but on other things. Essays - the university studying sort where you have to read and think - and work stuff, mainly. So unless I wanted to spend all of my time sat at a computer (which I didn't), blogging sort of fell by the wayside.

But I do still enjoy writing, especially the sort that doesn't have to be academically referenced, and I do still try to live a little bit more sustainably, and I do try hard to keep things simple, even when they're really rather complicated with work and family and studying, and what not. And being a student again means I definitely have to be frugal. So all is not lost. And of course my favourite thing of all is to try and minimise food waste and to eat leftovers. Especially Christmas leftovers. And take bad photographs of said leftovers. 

Can you guess what they are?

The thing about blogging is that it does make you think about all that stuff more and keeps you accountable, and then there are all the others out there who are thinking about that stuff and blogging and commenting about it, and eating leftovers. It's heartwarming. 

So whilst I can't resolve to be a more frequent blogger in 2016, I can resolve to dip in and out still. And eat leftovers.