Ordsall: #surprisingsalford #7

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The red brick of St Ignatius’ Church in Ordsall

Ordsall in Salford is sandwiched between the A57 and Salford Quays and close to the border with Manchester.  An area of housing, Ordsall has had an important place in the recent history of Manchester and [in a way] a place in the heart of the nation.  Walking around Ordsall you can still get glimpses of why the now demolished terraced streets of Ordsall were the inspiration for Tony Warren’s long running soap opera Coronation Street.  You might also meet Smith’s fans who still come to Ordsall to stand outside Salford Lad’s Club [on the corner of Ordsall’s own Coronation Street] to recreate the photograph on the sleeve of The Smith’s The Queen is Dead album.  Salford’s Lads’ Club opened in 1904 and is now a listed building, its tiled interior unchanged and a fantastic example of this type of community provision.

Known as the New Barracks Estate, the houses of Ordsall were built on the site of a former army barracks in the early 1900s.  Before the barracks the area had been countryside and it was the development of the docks that led to the need for decent workers housing.  The estate was designed by Manchester architect Henry Lord following a competition in 1899 and was Salford’s first public housing scheme.  The scheme was ambitious and community buildings were an integral part of the plan for the estate along with the housing.  During the 20th century many of the streets were cleared and by the 1980s the area had became derelict.  Since then local residents have worked tirelessly to renovate the houses and the area.

St Ignatius’ Church, next to Salford Lads’ Club, had a different architect to the houses.  Alfred Darbyshire, a local architect who also worked on various theatres in Greater Manchester, designed the romanesque style building in red brick and terracotta.  The design of the church compliments Salford Lads’ Club and the houses of the New Barracks Estate and is a local landmark, although no longer in use and falling in to disrepair.

Ordsall today has a profusion of new housing built on the cleared areas of land but it is the older houses near to Salford Lads’ Club and around Regent Square that are the most attractive.  These handsome Edwardian terraced houses with gardens face in to a small park and yet, in a clear example of how important location is, when occasionally offered for sale [they are mostly social housing] these houses fetch around £160,000, whereas a similar house in the south of Manchester would cost you two or three times that amount.



If we hadn’t blown a load of £s on a gap year would we be retired by now?

Two goats enjoying the sunshine

In 2009 and 2010 Mr BOTRA and I went away on a later life gap year.  Gap years weren’t fashionable in the late 1970s when Mr BOTRA graduated and I went straight to work at 16-years old; taking a gap year wasn’t something that working-class young people did.  So between us we had never really spent much time when we weren’t in education, working [or looking for work] or being the carer of our child.  In 2009, after saving up loads of money, selling the house and downsizing and buying a campervan, we gave up our jobs and took off for mainland Europe for a year living in that campervan.  We had a ball on what we called our ‘Big Trip’ and the fun times were recorded on our blog.  The gap year refreshed us and we were lucky enough to find employment when we returned .  Of course, if we hadn’t blown a load of cash on our gap year we could have been retired by now but I find myself wondering how important that year travelling was and if we would have made the leap into early retirement without the gap year?

What with one thing and another the gap year cost us a bit more than the savings for one extra year of retirement.  If we had done without the year away and carried on working and saving, we would have reached our target last year and now be twelve months in to retirement.  But that would have meant waiting seven years before getting the break and the truth is that I have an impatience to do things sooner rather than later and I worry that opportunities might disappear.  This anxiety and need to take action means that I am not a procrastinator.  When you have seen a parent die in their 50s you learn that putting things off can lead to regret and I prefer to take my chance.  Mr BOTRA is always the more cautious one but when we returned from our year away we both felt pleased to have done it; we knew whatever happened no one could take that year away from us.

So the gap year was fun but I am sure that without the gap year we might not be about to retire now.  Without the year away we would not have been so sure that retirement [still in our 50s] is the thing for us anyway.  The year away from full-time work made us braver, stronger and more sure that we wanted to stop work as soon as we could.  After spending a year away living in a campervan we knew more about what we were capable of and felt confident that we would be happy doing it together.  The gap year helped us to formulate our plans for early retirement and financial independence.  This clarity of the goal we were working towards made it more likely to happen.

Fingers crossed we will both have a long and happy retirement over many decades but if that isn’t how our story goes then at least we took an opportunity when it was there and had that year away.  Now roll on retirement!



Chimney Pot Park #suprisingsalford #6

One of the doorways of the houses around Chimney Pot Park

In any city I will seek out the parks, those green spaces that are important for the health of people and wildlife.  I therefore found my way through the streets of Salford to Chimney Pot Park soon after we had moved here.  Although this handkerchief-sized park is not the most beautifully landscaped it is unusual and I always make the effort to walk through it when I am nearby as I love the airy views this elevated park gives across Salford.  Everyone calls the park Chimney Pot Park, although Salford City Council call it Langworthy Park on their website and local people are familiar with and pass down the park’s singular story.  That first day I came looking for Chimney Pot Park I was initially confused as at street level all I could can see was a long brick wall facing Liverpool Street.  Exploring I found the sloped entrance from Highfield Street through St Ambrose Gate, with a plaque remembering those who worshipped at St Ambrose Church nearby and I climbed up to find a small park that has everything a park needs and an unrivalled view over Salford; to the south the lights of Salford Quays and to the north the neat rows of red brick terraced houses.

The park was opened in 1915 on the site of the former Highfield Reservoir and Salford Online reports that there were originally plans to create a boating lake here.  Instead, a park with bowling greens and tennis courts was built for local people.  Whenever I walk along the paths looking across the rooftops of Langworthy I think about the enormity of the task of filling in the reservoir to create this park early in the 20th century.  Salford Online reports excerpts from the Mayor’s speech on the opening of the park, when he suggested that ‘ladies could “bring their sewing and mending to the park” and sit in comfort doing their work in pleasant surroundings.’  Today you are more likely to meet dog walkers in the park than anyone with a sewing basket.

Harold Riley, a local artist and friend of LS Lowry, dedicated his working life to documenting life in Salford in paintings and photographs, although he is best known as a portrait painter.  His dark and brooding stylised painting of Chimney Pot Park  shows the small park lost in the circle of terraced streets and tall chimneys.  This isn’t the park I know today and on a sunny day it feels to me that the park suspends me above the bustle of the streets and the houses to somewhere just a little more peaceful.

The memory of the reservoir survives in the surrounding street names; there is a Reservoir Street, Wall Street and Highfield Street.  The former two streets were part of a recent award winning and innovative redevelopment by Urban Splash that turned the terraced houses upside down, putting the living areas on the first floor and the bedrooms on the ground floor.  The development got caught up in Urban Splash’s financial difficulties and failing to deliver the final phase this was handed over to another developer in 2014 and the houses are now almost completed.  Many of the brick terraced houses here retain the attractive ornamental brickwork fans over the doorways that always catch my eye.

Chimney Pot Park or Langworthy Park gives you a rooftop view

Reducing our use of plastic progress report

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French markets are the loveliest places to shop

Shopping has always been a minefield.  We have tried to use our buying power [small though it is] as a force for good for a long time, balancing our desire to do as little as possible to damage the environment and workers rights alongside our need for quality and to save money for retirement.  Recently we have been constantly reviewing how we can avoid plastic packaging as much as possible and I have blogged before on how we manage all our shopping by bicycle [even through the winter].  The cycling is easy, avoiding plastic packaging is the tougher call.  For years we were part of a vegetable box scheme that supported a local organic grower and every week was a ‘Ready Steady Cook’ week as we ate whatever vegetable arrived.  This is no longer an option and we have joined the masses trying to find supermarket vegetables that are not wrapped tightly in plastic.

The need to save money had taken me to Lidl and Aldi for all our shopping but these supermarkets lovingly wrap most of their fruit and vegetables in heaps of plastic; even the spring onions come in a plastic bag!  Fortunately, I now have time to move around the supermarkets for different items.  Our four local supermarkets sell lots of vegetables such as broccoli, carrots, potatoes, peppers and onions loose but only our local Tesco sells large bunches of coriander and parsley that are not in sealed plastic, whereas Booths [a wonderful northern supermarket institution] is where I can fulfil my desire for cherry tomatoes and gorgeous tasty large flat mushrooms.  I take a cloth bag on my shopping trips to help carry these items home.

We have now not only given up shop-bought hummus we have also given up all those plastic wrapped meat-free slices for sandwiches and we do without.  The only convenience food we buy is Linda McCartney sausages that come in cardboard boxes [no plastic and they taste the best, hurrah!]   But there are plenty of things there are no alternative for; Mr BOTRA isn’t able to give up his need for packets of crisps, although he has reduced his consumption and, although we make most of our own bread, so no plastic there, we’re not prepared to do without hot buttered crumpets for occasional breakfasts.  We are certainly not perfect; sometimes we splash out on expensive butter wrapped in paper, but sometimes we save the money and throw in to the bin the combination of foil and plastic the budget butter comes in.  We don’t have the space or a supplier for bulk pasta and rice [and even in bulk these items come in a plastic bag].  For non-food items we try and keep the cleaning ‘stuff’ to a minimum; it is easy to buy washing powder in a box but washing up liquid still comes in a plastic bottle.

Looking at the spreadsheet, it seems that although we’ve moved away from the cheaper supermarkets for our vegetables, by giving up the [often expensive] convenience foods our food bill hasn’t increased over the last twelve months and so we can stay within budget.


Worsley: #surprisingsalford #5

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The Bridgwater Canal at Worsley in Salford

You might forgive me for thinking I was in Cheshire when I stepped off the number 33 bus at the end of the line in Worsley, surrounded as I was by handsome black and white timber framed buildings.  Think of Salford and many people will bring to mind rows of terraced streets in the style of Coronation Street but on the edges of Salford are suburbs that challenge that stereotype in a big way and demonstrate the variety of this city.  The Tudor-style building in the photograph is The Packet House which dates back to 1760.  The building stands on the banks of the Bridgewater Canal and is where you would have bought your ticket for the packet boat.  By 1781 there were daily sailings from here to Runcorn along the Bridgewater Canal; the boats were pulled the thirty or so miles by horses and the journey took eight hours.

I had taken advantage of a wintery and yet sunny day to explore Worsley, a suburban village cut through by the Bridgewater Canal, often described as England’s first canal.  Opened in 1761 the canal is named after its owner Francis Egerton the third Duke of Bridgewater.  He lived nearby in Brick Hall and limited his personal spending so that he could secure the best engineers of the day to build his vision of a canal system to transport coal from his Worsley mines to Manchester and later Runcorn.  This now peaceful suburb of Worsley was once a bustling industrial village with lime kilns and boat building as well as coal mining.  At the delph, a watery hollow below cliffs, is a tunnel entrance that once took barges in to 46 miles of underground canals to access the coal; two main underground canals were built, one 100 feet above the other.

Recreating the Tudor style became popular in the nineteenth century and Worsley is teaming with these attractive buildings, including the Court House.  After walking around the lovely buildings in Worsley and Worsley Green in the sunshine I followed the canal towards Boothstown.  I soon lost the roar of the traffic on the motorway and I was surrounded by fields and trees on this lovely and rural-feeling section of the canal.  I returned by Worsley Old Hall, now a country pub in the city and followed the paths through Worsley Woods and Old Walke Dam.  To reach the bus stop I crossed the interestingly named Alphabet Bridge in Worsley, so called because it is made from 26 planks and local school children would practice their alphabet as they crossed it.



Staffordshire oatcakes & The Roaches: an almost perfect combination weekend

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Looking over the Mermaid Pool to the Roaches and Cloud in the distance

Almost anyone living near Leek on the edge of the Peak District in North Staffordshire will have been bought up to enjoy Staffordshire Oatcakes for lunch and breakfast.  Leek oatcakes are not the paper-thin oaty imposters you can buy in the supermarket, these phonies give only a hint of the deliciousness of the oatcake.  The ones to buy and savour are the thick and fluffy oatcakes that you must travel to Leek to find at the simply named ‘Oatcake Shop‘ on the edge of the town.  We generally return from this area with a dozen for the freezer to satisfy our cravings until our next visit.  Oatcakes are a local delicacy that existed before the UK had ever discovered the wrap and they are perfect hot or cold and rolled or folded with all sorts of fillings, although our favourite remains grilled cheese.

Leek is a small market town surrounded by hills and the Roaches, an outcrop of gritstone crags that rise from the heather moorland above the town.  If you don’t get to the Oatcake Shop in time to buy your oatcakes you can always call in to The Roaches Tea Room to enjoy an oatcake lunch there while taking in the splendid view over Tittesworth Reservoir.

We had a great and restorative weekend in this area.  On Saturday we walked along the disused railway line between Rudyard and Leek and I reminisced about the days when this walk was my commute to work.  On Sunday we walked from Flash to Three Shires Head where Staffordshire meets Cheshire and Derbyshire.  Flash claims to be the highest village in Great Britain and as children we learnt that it is where the term ‘flash money’ came from.  At the remote Three Shires Head criminals could easily jump from one county to another to escape arrest and this may have led to it being an ideal spot for illegal activities, one of which may have been counterfeit coins.  Three Shires Head is one of my favourite spots but on this Sunday it was noisy with the sound of scrambling bikes and the air was heavy with the smell of two-stroke oil that took me back to my motorcycling days.  I am always impressed with the skillful handling of motocross riders but the pretty and generally peaceful spot of Three Shires Head is not an appropriate place to practice this sport.

We stayed at Goatfell Farm, a Caravan Club Certified Location at Bottomhouse near Leek for £13.  This lovely and welcoming site sits in an open field and we had a glorious sunset across the fields in the evening and we tried a bit of star gazing in the clear night away from the city streetlights.


Premium bonds, are they still worth it?


We have a spreadsheet that tracks our savings [of course], where they are and what they are earning.  One strand of our savings is a chunk of premium bonds and what this lovely spreadsheet reveals is that the amount of our winnings from these premium bonds has decreased [okay let’s be honest, it has halved] over the last three years.  In 2014 and 2015 we received a return of around 1.5% from our winnings on the fluctuating amounts of premium bonds we held but last year our return was only 0.75%.

I was bought up in a rural post office and so have always been a little sentimental about premium bonds as before the internet it was the local post office where you bought your premium bonds.  My parents were in a premium bond club, where a handful of neighbours pitched in every week and bought a premium bond for one member of the club, this way they received a premium bond every month or so.  I remember the excitement at home when they occasionally won a few pounds.  I have also long had a soft spot for ERNIE, the Electronic Random Number Indicator Equipment that chooses the winners each month but it seems ERNIE doesn’t have the same loyalty towards me and it might be time to part company.

And yet, we will miss the excitement of the win.  These days we receive an email when one of our premium bonds has been chosen by ERNIE and there is always much heart pounding and nail biting in the BOTRA household until we have checked our account, followed by inevitable disappointment when we find we have not won a life changing amount but just another £25.

In the  Money Saving Expert article from October 2016 premium bond winnings are discussed.  Apparently premium bonds are the number one saving product in the UK, with over 21 million people having at least one, although no doubt many of these people have forgotten all about the one or two bonds they own.  Although any winnings are still tax free, the changes to tax on interest in the UK make this aspect of premium bonds less appealing today.  The article describes much better than I can that, although the annual prize rate is currently 1.25%, this does not represent the winnings you are likely to receive and that with £31,000 saved in premium bonds each month one in 240,000 people will win nothing at all.

Premium bonds are really a lottery [after all there is a chance of winning anything between nothing and a whole shed load of money] but at least it is a lottery where you don’t lose your capital.  Mr BOTRA and I have agreed that sentimentality is not always the best way to decide where to save and despite my childhood memories of premium bonds the numbers are pushing us to reconsider this aspect of our savings.


Creating a shared retired life

The beautiful beach at Montrose

I am now five weeks in to retirement and I have settled in to the swing of it, the elation hasn’t faded and I am still grinning all the time.  How I spend my day is mostly dictated by the weather but is always very much my choice; I no longer have to spend a sunny day gazing longingly out of an office window.  If it is fine I will get out walking around Salford, exploring new hidden corners and wandering around favourite haunts picking up litter.  If it is damp and dark I stay home and work on a travel article or the blog or plan our spring trip in our campervan or meet a friend for coffee.  I don’t have anything that would resemble a routine and I am loving not having to be anywhere or do anything and the sense of freedom to be flexible and please myself.

I have had time to help and spend time with friends and organisations and that gives me a sense of usefully contributing to the world.  When I have so much, giving my time isn’t much of a gift but it is one that I can now give willingly and generously.

Mr BOTRA chose to continue working until March 2017 and so I have had this period of time to adjust to retirement on my own.  Having faced his fears about retirement Mr BOTRA has now overcome these and is looking forward to retirement with a positive frame of mind.  Everyone in his workplace now knows he is leaving and this has helped him make the adjustment and his focus is shifting from his employment to being an ex-worker and he is looking forward to projects of his own.  He is spending his last few weeks at work winding down, tidying up and finishing off tasks.  He was in high spirits recently when he delivered his last ever health and safety training session.

Although I really appreciate having this work-free period in the gap between retiring and taking our first long-term trip away in our campervan, I am thankful that I won’t be the lone retiree in the house for too long.  I can already see that if this continues for much longer I would have carved out my own way of doing things and got used to my own company, leaving Mr BOTRA to fit in or around this, rather than our adjustment to this next phase of our life being shared.  It is perhaps just as well that by taking ourselves away from home for a few months while we travel in the campervan we will have the chance to settle in to a redrafted retirement.