The UK Benefits System Discussions - An Update

At the beginning of April I wrote a post about Iain Duncan Smith and his throwaway comments regarding the  welfare reform system entitled "How (Not) To Survive On Benefits".  It went off at a bit of tangent and I talked about my 19-year old son who is currently unemployed (albeit in the Territorial Army) and mentioned a bit about my daytime job (working with  16-25 year old NEETs).

Events snowballed a bit after I hit the publish button so, at the end of the month, it seems appropriate that I round everything up.  The original post hit a chord with many people and there are some very personal stories shared in the comments (comment thread).  It was also suggested that a round table discussion should take place which would collate the many opinions that were being heard on the social media channels.

So I did just that.  I organised a Google Hangout On Air with four other people from very different walks of life and with very different personal situations.  A planned half hour discussion (with a vague agenda) turned into an hour and a half conversation about finances, housing, savings, benefits, tax credits and so much more.  It's a long time to set aside to watch/listen to the whole conversation but if you are signed into Google then YouTube will save your place each time you watch so you can come back to it at a later date.

With thanks to +Chrissie Saunders+Jax Blunt+Lynn Schreiber and +Ruth Douglas for their participation on the night and also to everyone who was watching live (or has viewed since) and interacted on G+ or YouTube.



Letter from the Rt Hon Jack Straw MP
After a conversation with Katie Haworth on Twitter (she is assistant to my local MP, the Rt Hon Jack Straw MP)  I sent a link of both the Hangout and my blog post to our local Labour Party contact email address.  Last week a letter arrived from the constituency office thanking me for the email and also enclosing a copy of a letter that had been sent to Iain Duncan Smith, highlighting specific sections of my post and the hangout in relation to his recent comments.

So where do we go from here, especially when we consider that this week two events specific to benefits and the cost of living are very much in the news?

Firstly, the new Universal Credit is being rolled out over the next four years (source: BBC News) and is something we touched upon in our Hangout discussion.  Benefit entitlement (for job-seeking claimants) will be merged and paid monthly, the intent being that it will replicate a monthly salary so the move to an employed income will be smoother.  This will include rent and council tax entitlement (instead of being paid direct or deducted) and will rely on honest, appropriate budgeting and the availability of a basic bank account.  This is going to be a huge change for many families.  A month is a long time, even for those of us who are paid a salary.  I still get my Family Allowance and Child Tax Credits weekly to help my own budgeting system. 

Secondly, this week is #livebelowtheline week (ref: Live Below The Line UK) where people are encouraged to live off just £1 per day for a week to highlight global poverty.  The BBC details how easy it is to live off this amount with appropriate planning but the breakdown of costs relies heavily on the fact that cheap(er) pricing is available through bulk buy and store cupboard essentials. Something that is not always possible on tight budgets.  Maybe this is where IDS got the idea from that he could live on £53 a week?

There is never going to be a one-size-fits-all solution because we are all so different.  Guidelines are great as long as they are achievable and manageable long-term and this discussion is ongoing.  In a world where unemployment is rising, many jobs are reliant on having digital/online knowledge (ergo, retraining is needed for many) and the school leaving age is rising there are still many changes that we have to embrace.  It can feel very overwhelming though, can't it?


Soundtrack To My Life - Cathy

soundtrack to my life
I first 'met' Cathy in a Google Hangout last year.  It was my first HOA and I was a bit nervous.  Cathy's online persona is 'Wandering Sheila' which derives from the fact that she is from the land of Oz and has found herself in the UK after travelling through Italy.  She says that her name also comes from the fact that she loves to discover new places.  I'll link to Cathy's particulars at the end of the post.  Here are her song choices...


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My sister introduced me to Muse and this would still have to be one of my favourite songs of theirs.


Anu is an Australian singer. She didn't write this song. It was written by Neil Murray and first recorded in 1987. It makes me think of my home country, Australia (and if I am truly honest, a touch homesick).


Having lived in Italy for over 7 years in total, I have gained an appreciation of foreign music. I found this song when I was looking at Zero Assoluto songs in general on youtube. Occasionally you come across songs in two languages. This one features Nelly Furtado singing part of the song in English. 'Appena prima di partire' means just before you leave.


I love the fact that English radio stations play some songs that date back many years. This took me back in time when I was living in Australia and listening to Rage on Saturday mornings.


I love listening to this song on a sunny day. We've had a fairly bad summer here in England, but there have been a few days where sunshine has been present and I've listened to this song.



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soundtrack to my life
You can find Cathy talking about her life away from Down Under over at her blog, Wandering Sheila.  Catch up with her on Twitter as @cathylpowell or on her Facebook page.  

If you want to join in with Soundtrack To My Life you can complete this form and I'll be in touch when your feature is due to go live.  Click on the mix-tape to the right to read all the "Soundtrack To My Life" entries.

Limited Edition Chocolate Soreen

soreen, chocolate loaf,
Soreen are celebrating 75 years of malt loaf goodness by creating chocolate malt loaf and I've had the chance to try it!  Now, you know I don't recommend anything unless I love it and this is definitely something a little bit different.  

I promise you - get this before it disappears, never to be seen again.

The original recipe remains the same since Soreen first began baking malt loaf in 1938!  It's lovely with a little bit of butter on or toast it for a mix of warm squidge and cripyness!  I also love their lunchbox loaves which are fab for sticking in my handbag for snacking on the move (banana flavour is a huge hit in this house) - great energy boosters!

To find out more you can follow @SoreenHQ on Twitter or like them on their Facebook page.  You can also enter their competition to win one of 75 Chocolate Soreen Loaves.  

Limited edition Soreen Chocolate Loaf is available from 25th April in most main Asda stores but is only being stocked for six weeks!  It is available from 20th May in Morrisons for three weeks and from 23rd May in Sainsbury's also for three weeks.

This is a promotional post in conjunction with Soreen.  For more details please see my disclosure policy.

Top family fun in the great British countryside


yacht at Fleetwood © Nickie O'Hara 2012
As soon as the weather shows the first signs of improving, our thoughts immediately turn to long weekends spent rambling around in the countryside.  From adrenalin-fuelled sports to lazy walks amongst nature, nothing feels more precious than those warm weekends spent relaxing as a family in the Great Outdoors.  There really is so much to see and do, so here are some great ideas to make your family weekends ones to remember, even after the sun has disappeared for another season.


Visit a working farm

Families used to keeping their weekend breaks UK centric, know just how much children love the taste of authentic rural living. And with so many working farms now open to the public it’s the perfect time to let them experience the thrill of a working farm.  The early months of spring are lambing season. Many farms open their nurseries to allow children to watch the lambs being born. You can even bottle feed them too. It’s an eye opening experience that’s not to be missed.  Later on in the year farms are busy bringing in the harvest, giving children a real insight into how the food they eat everyday arrives at their table.

Go pony trekking

Saddle up and head out into the woods for a leisurely hack through some of the UKs finest beauty spots.  If your children haven’t tried it then make sure that this is the year they finally do. There are riding schools across the UK, all of which provide a gentle introduction to novice riding.  Pony trekking family holidays are amongst the most memorable of all. And it isn’t just fun that your children will have; spending time with horses really boosts their overall confidence levels too. 

Learn bush craft

If you have slightly older children then a day spent learning bush craft is bound to be something you can keep coming back to over and over again.  It’s a chance to develop some great skills, and by the time you finish you’ll all be having long family discussions about the different species of plants and fauna to be found on the forest floor.  You’ll soon know all about their beneficial (and not so beneficial properties) too, and one or two of you might even master the art of fire making too.

Take a bird watching nature trail

With around 574 different species if bird in the UK it will take your family quite a while to spot them all. But this shouldn’t stop you from getting out there and experiencing the many pleasures to be had from seeing birds in their natural habitat.  As the days get longer bird spotting opportunities improve across the UK, with the crows and blackbirds of winter making way for merrier sounding species such as Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers. Definitely not to be missed.

Quad biking

If animals and nature are a little too sedate for your family, then you could all have a go at this high octane four wheel motor sport.  There are quad biking centres all around the UK and many of them cater for junior quad bikers from as young as six, so there’s a chance for the whole family to get involved.  It’s noisy, messy and a lot of fun, and after just a few practice laps with an instructor you’ll be handling the dips and bumps of a standard track with ease. It’s definitely one to leave the whole family feeling happy and tired by the end of the day. 


If any of the above has got you yearning to get the whole family outdoors and active, a family holiday at CenterParcs could be just the ticket, with activities for all palates you can be as active as you like.


 This is a featured article provided by CenterParcs
For more information about article placement please see my disclosure policy

How to make Grandparenting full of Win!

Being a grandparent means that you get most of the good stuff in short, manageable bursts (sometimes).  But there has to be a plan so you can appear to be The Best Grandparent In The World.  And, whilst they are young enough to have the wool pulled over their eyes, you might as well take advantage of it.

grandchildren




post-it notes

Post-It Notes

A block of Post-It Notes and a pencil make an instant art gallery.  Quick drawings on small pieces of paper that can be stuck to the wall without fear of creating marks that will stay there until the next time you decorate. And if you really want to go retro then amaze your grandchildren with a stickman flip-book using another block of Post-It Notes!


Hexbugs

Hexbugs

I was sent Hexbugs to review AGES ago and the batteries are still going strong.  A toybox staple and used to enthrall and scare in equal measures.  A Hexbug down the vest is cause for great hilarity... and that's just Grandad!




two grandchildren and a dog Treats for the dog

It's hard when you introduce a puppy to young children who aren't in the house all the time.  Especially when both puppy and afore-mentioned children are a bit too young to sit quietly for any length of time.  We are building up trust between both by taking the dog to the park together and allowing for lots of treats.  Time out in the crate works well too.  We make the decision of whether it's children or dog depending on who is most excitable...



roundabout

Not wearing shoes on the park

Just as the children whip off their shoes less than a minute after walking into the house, they do the same on the park.  Apparently it makes the slide slidier, the roundabout faster and the swing higher.





Dance to Gangnam Style

It might be the worst song in the world but you will always be amazed that your four year old knows the dance moves and when to come in with the final "Eh, eh, eh, eh".  (Hearing her sing Olly Murs' 'Troublemaker' to herself whilst doing jigsaws is pretty cute too!)


odd shoes

Wear unusual clothes 

The best sound in all the world is the exclamation of "Oh Nana, I LOVE your pink shoes" or "That's your monkey jumper!".








If you're a grandparent, what's your ideal "Full Of Win" activity?

Soundtrack To My Life - Catherine

soundtrack to my life
Catherine has been a Twitter friend for about three years now (is it really that long?) and we share a love of all things quizzical which started with the Friday Twiz.  Her Soundtrack To My Life is short and sweet but sometimes you only need a few words to get your point across.  For now, it's over to Catherine for her tunes...




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The Ramones - Baby I Love You  

Very special to me because it is the top of "our" songs. I just love the words, the music, everything about it. Makes me cry every time. Which is good.

 

David Byrne - Don't Fence Me In  

This express how I am more than any other song. I can't stand being fenced in, forced to do things I don't want to do, go places I don't want to go to. I want to do what I want and be free to always make my own choices.

 

Ella Fitzgerald - Manhattan  

Everything about this song is perfect to me: Ella's voice: the music: everything. It transports to you to a place of perfect happiness.

 

Ian Dury - Hit Me With Your Rythym Stick  

First song I ever danced to with my husband. It always reminds me of the brilliant and very mad times we all had then. And the sax on it is amazing.

 

Sisters of Mercy - First and Last and Always  

Well, obvious reasons ~ hope my hub is always my first and last and always. But in the days he used to do discos he would finish off with this. Which meant I would then have him back to my (greedy) self.

 


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soundtrack to my life
Cath's official website details her holiday cottage in Ireland - Daisy Cottage.  You can find her on Twitter as @DaisyCottageIRL or driving the @MondayMusicQuiz which is, er... a music quiz, on Twitter, on Mondays.

If you want to join in with Soundtrack To My Life you can complete this form and I'll be in touch when your feature is due to go live.  Click on the mix-tape to the right to read all the "Soundtrack To My Life" entries.

Double Payment Taken By Asda (UPDATE AND CONCLUSION)

Because I have a voice via my blog and my twitter account - and all the support from the people connected to me in that way - I am documenting the timeline of Asda taking money from my account whilst I attempted to pay for goods in store.

This is to emphasis the level of anger, upset, inconvenience, customer service and all that is connected to this experience.  It is not an isolated event as you only have to search for "Asda took money twice" on Google to see almost half a million related searches.

Friday 19th April 2013 - 7pm

  • Visit to Adsa Blackburn to purchase goods costing £24.  Also request £10 cashback.
  • Debit card inserted into chip&pin machine at the till.  Screen reads "remove card", cashier tells me to remove card.
  • The till does not produce a receipt.  I am told that the transaction hasn't taken place so to insert my card again and repeat the process.
  • The till does not produce a receipt again.  I am told to try again.
  • On the third attempt my card is declined.
  • I know I have money in the account as I checked before going in-store.  I tell the cashier that I will go and draw money from their ATM outside.
  • The ATM shows that I have a balance of £26 in my account.  I request a mini-statement.  This shows that two payments of £34 each have been taken in the last ten minutes.
  • I walk back into store and request to see the duty manager.
  • The duty manager obtains the till receipt from the till, examines it and explains that Asda do not have my money.  My money is apparently in a "holding account" and will be returned to me in about three working days.
  • The conversation that follows sees me getting slightly angrier and explaining that I now do not have enough money in my account to see me through the weekend. 
  • Another manager is called.  He explains that no-one from Head Office is available to assist as they are closed.
  • After a 45 minute conversation, the second duty manager agrees to refund one payment of £34 in cash to me as "a gesture of goodwill".  I will have to wait until Thursday to see if any money is returned to my account and then go in-store to return this £34 if both payments are "refunded".
  • I give the staff my contact details in case the till is "up" by £68 when cashing up is done later in the evening.
  • I am not allowed back in store to re-purchase my goods.  I am told that I am not banned from the store.  The £34 "goodwill gesture" is to ensure that I have enough cash for the weekend.
  • I go home and take to Twitter to express my anger.  Tweet 1 |  Tweet 2 (you can read the rest on my twitter account @nickie72)


Saturday 20th April 2013

  • No contact from Asda
  • A few people tweet me to ask if anything has been resolved. I have to reply in the negative.


Sunday 21st April 2013 - 11.30am

  • Asda Service Team tweet me and ask to make contact by phone.  I request the name of someone within the team so I can speak to them direct.
  • Phil, duty manager of the customer service team assures me that he intends to sort this out today with a positive outcome.  He is sympathetic, understands my anger, expresses that if it was him in this situation he'd also be angry.  He acknowledges my twitter following and again expresses determination to sort the issue out today.  He is going to ring the Blackburn store and find out exactly what happened from their point of view.
  • Phil returns the call a little under an hour later.  The outcome is not good.  The managers that were on duty on Friday are not in the store today.  The duty manager in store today is aware of the situation due to hand-over information.  Phil informs me that this will not be resolved today.  He is ringing me on Monday at 12 noon to update me on the situation.
  • I feel deflated.

I am disappointed that the weekend duty manager at the Blackburn store knew of the situation but has not contacted me to confirm if the till balanced or not at the end of the day on Friday.  I am even more disappointed by the fact that Phil from the service team was able to make a confident promise to sort this out and then not see that through.  Phil asked me how I expected this to be resolved.  I explained that I expect it not to happen in the first place.  I expect the Asda store in Blackburn to be able to cash a till up and return my money immediately.  I expect that this not-so-rare event to have been addressed and for it not to be happening in a day and age where we rely so heavily on electronic systems.  I expect to be kept up-to-date with developments without me having to turn to social media and my blog to get attention.  I expect customer service to do exactly what it says on the tin and not leave the customer hanging on, waiting, not knowing what the outcome will be.

My main concern is that I do not have enough money now to put petrol in my car to be able to travel to work for the next three days.  How is it fair that I am having to be placed in almost financial hardship (albeit for a couple of days) whilst Asda attempt to sort this out?

For those who would query a contingency plan for not having any money available I say to you that my contingency plan is actually having money in my account after budgeting effectively.  It is not my fault that there is an electronic fault on the Adsa chip&pin machines.

If you have found yourself in a similar situation please let me know in the comments.

UPDATES 

1 - 22nd April 2013 - 8.30am

  • Phil from Customer Services phone (early) to request my debit card details.  He is going to contact the bank to ensure the payment(s) are returned to my account before our booked phone conversation at noon.  It is hopeful progress.

2 - 12.00 (noon)

  • Phil calls again as promised.  He cannot authorise the return of money to my bank account as the transaction number from Friday has not yet been obtained!!  (three and a half days, and counting...)
  • As a(nother) gesture of goodwill he tells me that there is £100 in cash waiting for me at the Blackburn store to collect on my way home from work.  This is to keep.  Once the original payments are returned to my bank account they are also to keep - I do not have to return to store to 'give any money back'.  
  • Phil has sent me an email confirming our conversation and I explain to him that I want to pick this up again on Thursday to confirm if the money has or has not been returned to my account.  This still isn't resolved by long shot.
  • Phil attempts to reassure me that the "chip&pin transaction error" issues are being looked into.

3 - 5pm - in store

  • I request to see the on-duty customer service manager who is one of the staff that was part of the conversation on Friday.
  • She remembers me (!) and hands me £100 in cash as arranged.
  • She explains that there is no transaction number for the till error as no receipt was printed on the day. I query the fact that there was indeed a receipt because four of us were pouring over one trying to work out the error on Friday.  She decides not to respond.
  • (at the ATM) I check my bank balance and no money has been returned to my account.  I shall check each day until Thursday when I shall pick up this conversation again with Phil.

4 - Wednesday 24th April 

  • I notice that a direct debit has bounced, incurring charges of £10.  An email is sent to Phil.
  • I forward an appropriately redacted screen grab of my bank account by email as ordering a paper statement will incur further charges.
  • Phil responds quite quickly and offers me a cheque for the amount of the bank charges (which could take two weeks to arrive) or a gift card (which could take a week to arrive).  I accept the gift card, even though I know it is a bit contrived because I can only spend that amount in store.
  • I stress to Phil that no money has been returned to my account yet and I would like to book a call with him the following day if we are still in the same situation

5 - Thursday 25th April

  • No money has been returned to my account!
  • We are now on the "fourth working day" so I email Phil again and ask him to call me to discuss this as arranged.
  • Phil feels as let down as me (I doubt it very much!) so has decided to escalate this complaint to the Executive Relations Team who will call me later today.
  • They have until 4pm as I leave work shortly after that.

6 - Thursday 25th April - 2.50pm

  • I receive a phone call from Lauren in the Executive Relations Team who tells me that I've been fed bullshit for the past six days (my words, not hers) and that it can take up to five days for my money to be returned to my account.  
  • I wonder if you can guess what my reaction to this was?
  • She also tries to tell me that it was my decision to escalate this to her team until I read out Phil's email. She then admits that she has the email in front of her.
  • She sympathises with me and "understands" how I feel.  I ask if she's ever experienced this.  She replies in the negative so I tell her she cannot understand how I feel.
  • Lauren is ringing back at 12.30pm tomorrow (Friday) to see if my money has been returned to my bank account.

7 - Friday 26th April

  • I work in an educational environment.  Phones are to be off or on silent.  I miss two calls but as the number is private I cannot call back.
  • I return home from work after 5pm to an email from Lauren:
As promised, I called at 12:30 I’m sorry you were unavailable. I do hope the funds have dropped back into your account. If this has not been the case, you will need to contact your bank as the money is holding with them. These funds must pass through their clearing system in the same way a cheque does.  This is what slows the process down and is something we have no control over.  The banks ultimately control this aspect of any refund back into a customer's account.  We are unable to push this through for you. Thank you for your time, I hope you have a lovely weekend.
  • I check my bank account and no money has been returned
  • I have attempted to call my bank but the out-of-hours foreign call centre do not understand what is going on and have advised me to go into my local branch on Monday.
  • *huge fucking sigh*
  • I hope Lauren and Phil are having a "lovely weekend".  No.  Wait!  I don't mean that, do I? 

8 - Saturday 27th April

  • The 'missing funds' have appeared in my bank account overnight
  • The gift card as repayment for the bounced direct debit fees arrives

Conclusion

All appears to have been resolved but I still don't believe that I should have to wait EIGHT DAYS for the return of MY MONEY, regardless of who or what is to blame for the initial error.  Someone, somewhere knows what went wrong and how to fix it.  There is no such thing as a 'computer error'.  All computer are programmed by humans initially.  

I deal with payments and transactions at work, can send a money authorisation from our business account and expect it to appear in the payee account almost immediately, or at least within two hours.  I can do the same from my own personal bank account but have limited control over that.  I do expect it to move within the same working day though.  Even Paypal transactions and withdrawals are now almost immediate.

It would be nice to have a continued dialogue with Asda from a customer perspective so that they continue to try and fix this issue as was mentioned by Phil early last week although I doubt very much that will happen.  It would also be nice to have feedback from the CEO, Andy Clarke, because, as mentioned right at the beginning of this fiasco, this is not an isolated incident.  It happens on a regular basis and some people aren't lucky enough to have a blog to spout off on or a social media following to help share their anger and disappointment.

I have had amazing offers of help from friends and strangers (no names mentioned, you know who you are) and for that I am eternally grateful even though I did not need to take up the offer.  As regular readers here know, I am a huge believer in the method of  'paying it forward' so the kindness will continue to ripple.  

However, my final word is something I said a few days ago.  In the current climate, where many people (myself included) have finances that are stretched to the limit, effective budgeting has been created and there is no emergency fund, it IS NOT FAIR that we are still at the mercy of large, profitable organisations who can choose whether or not to assist.  

Thank you for reading, following, sharing and supporting.


Zalando UK Wishlist

I'm addicted to Zalando!  Regular readers of this blog will already know this.  I am like a not-so-secret Zalando dealer after managing to get a few friends completely and utterly hooked too!  I can't decide whether it's their choice of designers that suit my sense of style or the fact that the clothing is affordable (and even more so when you check out their sale items).  Designers Anna Field and Vera Modo are my current favourites - you only have to look back at my previous posts to see that!

A couple of recent purchases have included this Vera Modo jumper dress and this Great Plains maxi skirt, both of which I'm loving more than I thought I would.  Not my usual choices but I'm glad I took the plunge and chose something a bit different.


vera modo jumper dress from Zalandogreat plains maxi skirt from Zalando



I've also just found out that they have a 'Home' section and now want this plastic bowl or this turntable beanbag!  Both are now on my "Wish List" on the website along with a variety of other items to remind me to buy them or just to drool over from time to time.
spalsh fruit bowlturntable beanbag



The Gallery : Youth

Occasionally there is a Gallery prompt that makes me revisit my past rather than post a picture up from recent times.  This week, Tara's theme of "Youth" has given me the opportunity to share yet more images that have, until now, been banished to the family photo albums, only seeing the light of day to embarrass friends and family at (in)opportune moments.

Firstly, you can see how I was a social media trailblazer.  I went to a primary school in St Annes called Our Lady Star of the Sea so when we entered sports events our name was shortened to "OL".  However, as the team line up you can clearly see us spelling out "LOL"!  I wonder who else was laughing at us that day?

primary school sports event

Next,  a shot of a particularly amazing hair style and fashionable shirt.  I can't remember where we'd been but we'd obviously enjoyed ourselves.  No, I'm not smashed, that's my sultry look.  Isn't my husband (not on the picture) a lucky man? 

living in the 80s

And finally, the money shot!  Me in a bikini, on a boat in Ibiza somewhere.  I wish I'd flaunted this body a bit more as it's only now that I appreciate it.  I should have looked after it and honed it instead of presuming that I'd always look like this (with or without the dodgy perm).

on a boat in a bikini


You can join in with The Gallery by clicking on the image below.  
You can also see all the other entries for this week's theme on the same link.

TheGallery




25 FANTASTIC Energy Saving Tips

energy saving tips


I recently ran a giveaway in conjunction with EON and a compulsory entry mechanism was to provide your best energy saving tip.  There were lots of obvious ones which I hope everyone is already putting in place (they are first on the list) however there were more that I believe need sharing and I have collated the best twenty-five here.   

If you would like to add your favourite please share it in the comments.



  1. Unplug all electrical items when not in use, especially overnight (but not your fridge and freezer, obviously).
  2. Turn the thermostat down by one degree and add a layer of clothes instead of putting the heating on.
  3. Turn lights off when you leave the room and use energy saving bulbs.
  4. Shut doors to keep the heat in a room.
  5. Put tin foil behind radiators to reflect the heat back into the room (and if your radiator is under a window, tuck long curtains behind the radiator for a similar effect).
  6. Anything that can be charged via USB can be done when you are using the PC or laptop.
  7. Don't charge your phone overnight. It wears down the battery and wastes your electricity, 
  8. Always use comparison websites when changing utility suppliers.
  9. Use a glass of water when brushing your teeth instead of leaving the tap running.
  10. Keep a jug of tap water in the fridge. That way, you won’t have to run the tap for a long time just to get a cold drink.
  11. Put lids on saucepans when cooking.  The water boils quicker and uses less energy.
  12. Use a vegetable steamer instead of cooking with lots of saucepans.  The veggies taste a lot nicer too.
  13. When you turn your oven on, cook lots of things at the same time, e.g. cakes and meals.  It only takes a few minutes to warm a meal but a long time each day to cook one.
  14. Turn your oven or electric hop off a few minutes before you need to as there will still be some residual heat to carry on cooking your food.
  15. Leave the oven door open to heat the room after using it.
  16. If your freezer isn't full, plug the gaps with loaves of bread or polystyrene.
  17. Put waste food and vegetable peelings in a composter and feed the birds in your garden with leftover cooked food.
  18. Get a water butt to collect rain water and use this to water your plants and home-growns.  Rain water is actually better than from the tap as it has no additives.
  19. Make sure you have good loft insulation to prevent losing heat through the roof.
  20. See if you are eligible for a government/council grant for extra insulation.
  21. Collect up all the old woolly jumpers, towels and so on that you would normally throw away. Unscrew the side of your bath and pack the old clothes around the tub and replace the bath side. Now your water will stay hot for longer and you won't need to keep adding expensive top-ups! Just check it after the first use to make sure the clothes are still dry and you have no leaks.
  22. Recycle packaging and Freecycle all your unwanted stuff (or join my recycling group on Facebook).
  23. Use a wheat bag to keep young pups warm at night.  Wrap it in a fleece blanket and they will keep warm and snug for hours.
  24. Spend the day outside in the fresh air.  It's good for your health and your wallet!
  25. Have a lie in every day!


You can see all the tips in the comments section on the original post.



Soundtrack To My Life - Alex

soundtrack to my life
Alex has been hinting about taking his turn on Soundtrack To My Life so much that he posted up "The Ones That Didn't Make It..." on his own blog last week. By his own admission, he used to be a bit rubbish at blogging but seems to have improved over the years.  I'll link to his credentials at the end of the post but, for now, over to Alex...



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Simon & Garfunkel - The Sound of Silence

I grew up listening to Simon & Garfunkel because my dad was massively into the New Folk Revival (but not Bob Dylan oddly) but their songs, of which this is my favourite, took on a new resonance when we had the boy. In his early days he suffered from silent acid reflux and was often up all night in distress. Once it was diagnosed, he'd got into a routine of not sleeping so we started putting a CD on in his room to soothe him off to sleep. Where we live is so quiet, it's often difficult to sleep because you can hear every conversation that happens. We alternated between Simon & Garfunkel and Cat Stevens but I still think of him as a tiny baby whenever I play any Simon & Garfunkel.

 

Pink Floyd - Shine On You Crazy Diamond parts I-V  

I didn't have a great first term at university. I went from being a big fish in a little pond to a big fish in a massive pond and I didn't like it. I think I lost about 4 stone, as well as my self confidence in that 10 week period. What I did find though was Pink Floyd. I'd had the Wall for a few years but never really gave it a listen. Once I did, I was hooked. That lead me on to Dark Side of the Moon and eventually to Wish You Were Here, which I put off buying because fifteen quid for an album with 5 songs on seemed a con. How wrong was I?

20 years on, it's still an album I listen to regularly, and the opening near instrumental is probably my favourite track on the album. It's haunting but still very relaxing. When I've had a hectic or stressful day, it's a great way of relaxing. I used to crank my stereo up to 11 and lie on my bed in a darkened room listening to it when I was at uni. It helped a lot.

 

Dave Matthews Band - Two Step  

I'm not a huge fan of the Dave Matthews Band and I can even leave the rest of the songs on the album Crash but Two Step has a great introduction and doesn't outstay its welcome. I choose to interpret the song as a song about love and being with someone you care about very much (although I am aware there are other interpretations). To that end whenever I listen to it I always think of the great things I've done with my fabulous wife, which makes it all the more brilliant.

 

Dream Theater - Space Dye Vest  

Dream Theater are a extremely proficient prog-metal band from America. Space Dye Vest is one of the few songs that their erstwhile keyboard player Kevin Moore wrote. It's not a cheerful song but it is a great song. I don't know why a lot of the songs I like have a melancholy tone to them, perhaps it's my subconscious balancing things out against my usual cheery disposition. This reminds me of commuting by car up the A10 to Cambridge every day (usually in the pissing rain) for a year. It was a round trip of 70 miles and most of it was on the edge of two radio transmitters, so I usually relied on a trusty C90 tape for my car journey.

 

Terrorvision - Alice, What's The Matter?  

Now I'm stuck. I've got Beta Band, Guns N Roses, Megadeth, Jack Johnson, Dire Straits, Transvision Vamp, Jefferson Airplane, The Beach Boys, Deep Purple and dozens of others vying for the final spot. But you know what? I'm going for Alice Whats The Matter? by Terrorvision.

Music really clicked with me when I was at university and Terrorvision were at the height of their powers back then. Alice.. reminds me of doing the pub quiz at the Bowerham Hotel, getting chips and gravy and walking a 7 mile round trip to campus because a return bus ticket was the same as a pint at one of the student bars. The landlady at one of the pubs on campus always used to hit her skip button when my mate put Achilles Last stand by Led Zeppelin on but Alice Whats The Matter is about a fifth of the length, so that always got through.

 


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soundtrack to my life
Alex blogs as Daddacool and just as comfortable in front of the camera too - see here on YouTube.  You can also catch him on Twitter as @daddacool and on G+ as... yes, you've got it - +Daddacool (or +Alex Walsh).

If you want to join in with Soundtrack To My Life you can complete this form and I'll be in touch when your feature is due to go live.  Click on the mix-tape to the right to read all the "Soundtrack To My Life" entries.

An Artistic Journey Through France


Anyone who is remotely interested in the arts should take a voyage of exploration across France. The Impressionist movement fell in love with the crisp clear colours of Provence, and photographers like Brassai were smitten by the atmosphere on the streets of Paris.

Head out to Versailles and see the marvels of the court of Louis XIVth, or just pop in to any of this country’s amazing cathedrals and look at the stunning stained glass and carved woodwork - wherever you travel in France, you will find the roots of many artistic movements that eventually spread across the world.

Paris

Louvre, Paris, Moyan Benn
Louvre, Paris.  Image Credit : Moyan Benn, Flickr
So many artists have made Paris their home that it can be difficult to suggest a starting point for this journey of discovery. The photographer Brassai, in common with the painter Toulouse Lautrec, was fascinated by the louche back streets around Montmartre, and it doesn’t take too much imagination to half close your eyes and take yourself back to the earlier part of the 20th century.

If you are wandering around Paris you probably won’t need any personal transport - the Metro is an artistic adventure in itself - but if you decide to venture further afield, and if you value your independence, you will need to hire a car to explore regional France, if only to admire and look out for all the features that have so influenced generations of painters and sculptors, as well as take a trip off the beaten track.

Versailles

This palace is a prime example of the splendours of the Baroque. Louis XIV (aka The Sun King) never did things by halves. He did almost bankrupt the country in the process, but the dazzling beauty of the Hall of Mirrors and the gardens of le Notre are just a few of the spectacles on show. Try and take your time here - I became so tired walking around the palace and grounds that it started to become tricky trying to absorb so much beauty in one spot. Pace yourself!

Provence

Lavender Field, Provence
Image Credit : oenvoyage, Flickr
Look at the crisp clear skies and the lavender fields surrounding you and it’s no surprise that the South of France became a veritable haven for artists in the latter part of the 19th Century and the 20th century. Gaugin developed his craft here; Van Gogh gained much of his explosive use of colour and inspiration from the surrounding countryside, as did Picasso. The Chapel du Rosaire in Vence has stained glass windows designed by Matisse. The list of painters who fell in love with the lifestyle and atmosphere of the Riviera is endless. They were, though, seeing the countryside before it became the hip and expensive region it is today.

Pre-History

If you want to travel back in time and see some 30,000 year old paintings, then try a trip to the caves of Chauvet Pont d’Arc in Ardeche. The paintings of the bison and the horses that were hunted and ridden in the everyday lives of the Palaeolithic peoples still look as is they might fly off the cave wall and become transformed into animate objects. Entrance is restricted in order not to damage the works, but the South and South West of France is a cornucopia of cave painting delights.

This is a featured article written by Celina Bledowska, journalist, art lover and writer
For more information about article placement please see my disclosure policy

Dog Days

Sorry if you've arrived here under false pretences.  I'm not talking about balmy summer weather but thought it was time for a "You Need To Hear About My Puppy Again Especially If You're Not Following Me On Instagram" type post but it wasn't really a snappy enough title and El had already coined the genius "Pupdate" title for Jarvis who is almost exactly the same age as Michi (see her YouTube Pupdates here and the size difference between a six month old Akita and a six month old Yorkshire Terrier).

I'm a nervous dog owner.  Michi has no sense of recall whatsoever unless you're standing in his eye line and rustling a packet of treats.  But I want a dog I trust as much as he trusts me and without a garden it's difficult to train him.  I've been taking him up to a local country park (yes, we are VERY lucky to have that close by) and using a quiet part of it to have him off lead, chasing a ball (he won't bring it back but he will stand next to it until you walk up to him, pick it up and throw it again and then he will bound after it).  But the nerves are still there.  I envisage a dog fight or Michi running off and never ever coming back or him leaping on someone and knocking them over (he's only six months old but he is so big).

So we went to the beach yesterday. There's nothing more a dog wants that to run as fast as he can in an open space.

dog on beach


I knew I could let him off the lead but was unsure how far he would run.  I knew he wouldn't completely desert me but he has a 'thing' for birds and I was worried about how I was going to run on a beach to catch him if needed.  But he had a really good run around, had a bit of an altercation with another dog but it was friendly playfulness and he didn't run away when I tried to put him back on the lead.  It looks like the tentative training on the park was worthwhile and it's something that I'm going to make an effort to keep up now that the evenings are lighter for longer.

And finally, he's also learning about his own personal space (he claimed the rug in front of the fire at an early age - see here). Early on Thursday morning I woke early and I could hear a noise that sounded like someone was reconstructing Billy Elliott's dance down the cobbles in the back alley.  Tap tap tappity-tap tap tap tap.  But it's not unusual for a strange noise in that vicinity (long story, odd neighbours) so I ignored it and went back to sleep.  When I actually got up for work and went downstairs, I found Michi's crate door open and him laid on his bed inside the crate but he'd obviously been for a wander round during the night once he found FREEDOM.  The tapping noise would have been the cage door against the radiator.  But what amazed me most was that there were no 'accidents', nothing was chewed and he'd taken himself back to bed.

I'm glad we made the decision to crate him at night.  It's something that I've only done with one other dog and it means that house-training and night-time settling has been quicker and easier.  It's something I'd recommend to anyone (ask Sophie - she's doing it now with her new pup, Sadie). The crate is HUGE; it takes up a large space in our kitchen but it's the perfect size for and but I never use his crate as a place for punishment so he knows it's a safe area.

It's so nice having a dog in the house again.

If you're a dog owner, do you have any advice for me to stop the worrying or to help with the training?

Over At The High Tea Cast... It's a post about children's 'artwork'!

high tea cast logo
It's time for another article over at The High Tea Cast.  Today I'm talking about those 'precious' pieces of art that your children bring home from school in 'All That Glitters Is Not Gold'.  I hope you enjoy it. 

One Pot Cooking: Broth

recipe, one pot brothRecently we have been enjoying a broth that my husband has been making.  His mum gave him the recipe and he has spent a couple of weeks honing and perfecting it.  It is a one pot broth that can be made on the stove or in the slow cooker.

We have this sitting in the pan for a couple of days, reheating it when hungry.  It's a great lunch-time meal or evening supper warmer with plenty of crusty bread.

We use shin beef but we are going to try this will all different types of meat.  Of course, the veggie version will just omit the meat!

Here's the recipe, with my usual style of measuring out ingredients (i.e. some, a bit, a handful).  This method makes a really large pot (casserole pot or slow cooker size) and is super-easy for beginners and is idiot-proof for people who profess not to be able to cook very well!



Ingredients

  • 1lb of shin beef (or left-over meat from your Sunday roast)
  • 2 packs of vegetable pot herbs/broth base (we buy ours from the local market).  Make sure they include a sprig of thyme
  • 2 onions, finely chopped (see bottom of page for my fantastic onion cutting tip)
  • a mug full of lentils
  • a mug full of barley
  • 3 vegetable stock cubes
  • enough water to cover the ingredients by about an inch


Method

  1. Finely shred the meat and place all the ingredients into a large cooking pot, crumbling the stock cubes into the water
  2. Bring the pot to the boil, turn down the heat and simmer for about an hour, stirring occasionally, until the meat is cooked through
  3. Add more water if required and allow to warm through


bowl of broth

Additional

  • Store on the stove in the pot with an airtight lid in place
  • Reheat when needed
  • If using a slow cooker for this recipe, I suggest cooking on 'high' for 2 hours then 'low' for 4 hours or just leave overnight on 'low'


The Never Fail, No Tears, Onion Cutting Method

  • Chop the pointy bit of the onion off
  • Place the now-flat part of the onion face down and cut the onion in half through the root (the onion should hold together throughout the cutting process because the root is in place)
  • Peel the outer layer/skin off the onion
  • Place the flat part of the onion on your chopping board
  • Hold the onion at the root end to steady it, gripping around it with all your fingers and thumb
  • Cut through the onion horizontally once or twice towards the root (so the blade is flat)
  • Slice down the onion four or five times keeping the root intact (with the point of the knife towards the root)
  • Slice acrosss the onion working towards the root (as you would normally slice)
  • Throw the root away
  • You now have a perfectly sliced and diced onion



Let me know how you get on and I'd love to hear how you adapt this recipe to suit your family.

This is linked to Slow Cooker Sunday and Recipe of the Week

Finding My Own Style

Kate made a really good point the other day about plus-sized clothing and it's something I referred to in my post on The High Tea Cast the other day.  I struggle to find clothes that suit my body shape and love styles that probably don't flatter me - as my "New Me" Pinterest board shows.



I know I'm going to champion Zalando again but I love the way that their website give you what I call the real size and also tells you what type of fit it is.  Here's three things that I bought myself recently from their website.

anna field boots at Zalandovera modo dress at Zalandolipsy necklace at zalando

Boots by Anna Field - £60 £42 at the time of writing
Dress by Vera Modo - £29 at the time of writing
Necklace by Lipsy - £16 £14 at the time of writing


andy warhol scarf at Zalando
I'm always a bit iffy about jumper dresses because they can sometimes cling in the wrong places but the weight of this one is perfect so it hangs really nicely.  I wore it out last week and teamed it with the boots and a black boyfriend cardigan and even my husband made approving noises (a rare occurrence).  I'm also digging necklaces and scarves at the moment so this is next on my wishlist - an Andy Warhol inspired scarf by Pepe Jeans.  Only £29 if anyone fancies buying me a present for being awesome?

What are you loving at the moment?