Winter walk on the Wirral

2018 Boxing Day Wirral Walk with Matthew and Rachel (6)
The Marine Lake at West Kirby

West Kirby’s Marine Lake is a large artificial coastal lake, surrounded by water on three sides and large enough for various sailing events.  Walking around the lake is a wonderful way to get that out-at-sea feeling without a boat and from land the walkers following the wall look like they are walking on water; it always makes me smile!

On a fine wintry day we set off from Hoylake on the end of the Wirral Peninsular.  When the tide is out, look out towards the Irish Sea here and you are faced with a vast beach.  At low tide a popular excursion is to walk out to the rocky Hilbre Island.  The shore is lined with big houses, each one with a telescope in a picture window for bird watching.  You might see dunlin, knot, bar-tailed godwit, red shank, grey plover or tiny sanderlings along this shore.  On the day we visited the waves were breaking a long way from the shore and the birds were hard to make out, we may have seen knot or dunlin, it was difficult to be sure.  More easy to recognise were the egrets and herons.

Walking around to the Dee Estuary we joined other walkers on the coastal path to West Kirby and its marvellous Marine Lake.  After lunch in one of West Kirby’s many cafes we headed up to the impressive hilltop war memorial.  This powerful monument was built in 1922 and is superbly crafted, with an obelisk and life-size bronze figures, ‘Humanity’ and ‘Soldier on Defence.’  West Kirby’s memorial is a poignant and dramatically set monument that is a fitting tribute to those who died in the First and Second World Wars.  The views from the memorial are panoramic, taking in the north Wales coast and across to Liverpool with the Irish Sea at your feet.  I think this must be a perfect spot to watch the sunset.

We found a path down from the memorial that eventually took us to the cycle route by the railway line and we followed this back to Hoylake.  We walked between six and seven miles; your own distance will depend how much you wander over the sands.  This isn’t a long hike but it is a perfect winter day out, fitting in well to the short days, with plenty of interesting things to see and loads of variety in changing weather and tides.

 

 

Perfect frugal veggie / vegan winter pie: Creamy leek & nutmeg

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I think I went somewhat over-the-top with the pastry decorations

In a British winter I long for warming and comforting food and this leek and nutmeg pie fits the bill.  This is an affordable but impressive pie with a creamy and tasty filling.  The pie is great for an everyday meal and also perfect for impressing guests.  It is easy to make and the ingredients below make enough for a 7 inch diameter pie dish.  This will feed two hungry and active people with a side serving of carrots and greens.  If you are entertaining it is enough for four adults if it comes after an appetiser / soup and the pie is served with your favourite potato dish [mine are roasties or Dauphinoise potatoes] and a colourful selection of vegetables.

Ingredients

  • 3 large leeks
  • large chunk of Butter or margarine
  • Fresh grated nutmeg
  • 3 tablespoons of creme fraiche (low fat is fine) or vegan cream
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Shortcrust pastry to line and top a 7 inch flan tin

Method

Halve the leeks and wash all the dirt from the layers.  Finely chop the leeks.  Melt the butter or margarine in a large pan and add the leeks.  Stir well, cover and leave to soften for about ten minutes, stirring occasionally.

Once the leeks are soft, add pepper and nutmeg and maybe salt if you haven’t used butter.  Put this aside to cool for an hour or so.  Before adding to the pastry case stir in the creme fraiche or vegan cream.

Preheat your oven to 180C/160C Fan/Gas 4.  Grease your flan tin.  Make your favourite pastry to be really frugal or buy it ready-made if you are short of time or room too roll.  Line the flan tin and fill this with the cooled leek mixture.  Top with another layer of pastry and decorate with left over pastry in your own style!  If I have time I sometimes create a lattice effect with strips of pastry for the top.  Brushing with egg yolk makes it look stunning if you are not cooking for anyone vegan and want to push the boat out.

Cook for around 40 minutes until golden brown.  The pie is moist and delicious and makes a good affordable and comforting winter meal.

 

Extreme de-cluttering & minimalism? Throwing away those teenage diaries

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Who didn’t start keeping a diary as a teenager?  I started writing a journal when I was 13-years old and continued pretty much daily into my mid-twenties.  Each diary was a hardback note book and was sometimes super-neat and at other times I filled it with pages of large angry scrawl.  Unlike many people I no longer have these diaries.  Some of you will be horrified that I have thrown away something so personal, but these notebooks were ditched in an early quest for a minimalist life, in fact before it was even a thing.  My teenage diaries went into the bin in my late twenties and it felt good.  I realised I had no regrets and after keeping the later diaries for a while longer, eventually I could no longer justify the space they took up and these hit the bin too.  How did I find the strength to throw away the inner ramblings of my younger self?

I was an unhappy teenager, lacking in self-confidence and I poured my heart out to these diaries.  Every day I wrote about the self-obsessed life of a miserable and often lonely young woman.  Living in a village I was isolated from my school friends; many living in even more remote locations miles away.  My evenings, weekends and school holidays were often spent in solitude with music, books and the radio and writing my diary.  My best friend didn’t even have a home phone!  Instead I wrote to an imaginary best friend in these diaries.

My diaries were the only place I recorded my unhappiness and overwhelming longing for someone who would care for me and I wrote at length about the ups and downs of unsuitable and ultimately dismal relationships.  My diary kept many secrets, including the night of my unsuccessful suicide attempt and surprise when I woke up the next morning feeling dreadful and light-headed.  My diaries helped me deal with the death of my best friend at the age of 14 and were where I slowly learnt to be thankful for every day I am alive.

There were good times in these diaries too.  My love of school and learning was recorded and I had fun with friends but it was my imaginary friend in my diaries that I was closest to.

After a painful year in my early twenties when I survived my first marriage ending, my parents separating and my much-loved grandma dying, I discovered how resilient I was.  Living alone and still isolated in my country cottage, often with no human contact through the evenings and weekends I matured and became less self-obsessed.  I found strength and self-containment and started to figure out the person I could be and my diaries were where I explored some of my ideas.  In my mid-twenties the love of Mr BOTRA helped me turn my life around and I started to become the person I am today.  The very large pile of around 30 notebooks was a weighty symbol of the person I had been and I carried them to and from the first two houses we lived in together.  I found I had less need to revisit that intense period of teenage navel gazing; that person wasn’t someone I wanted to see again.  For me, throwing out those earlier diaries was an important and meaningful first step that helped me realise I didn’t need to hang on to the past.  This made the second and final de-cluttering episode easier.

This extreme de-cluttering might be harder if your diaries record happier times but I grew to know that the diaries remembered a life I had no need to hang on to.  I can’t undo that past and it has made me who I am but I didn’t want anyone to read those diaries and judge me for being the person I was.  Getting rid of those diaries was liberating and I felt re-born and buoyant as I dumped them in the bin.  It was time to move on, as they say these days!

 

 

 

 

A Winter ‘s tale from a campervan

2012 Nov Norfolk and Lincs trip Seals Donna Nook (135)

In our first campervan we only had one winter camping trip.  It was a memorable February weekend of below freezing temperatures that found us shivering under the duvet after the leisure battery lost power and our diesel heater no longer worked.  Moving on to our Devon Sundowner [for some reason] we were keen to try winter camping again and I persuaded my hardy partner to go along with a late November trip that would perhaps quieten the ghost of that cold February weekend.

We chose to go to the coast of North Norfolk and Lincolnshire and the Fens, thinking the south-east of Britain might be warmer and drier; we’d never visited that part of the country before, as our natural compass takes us north from Manchester and we were keen to visit some of the many RSPB and Wildlife Trust reserves in that area to see the migrating geese and other wildfowl.

In the Sundowner our on-board facilities were limited to a toilet, a kitchen sink and a kettle.  I found that campsites open during the winter that hinted at the promise of warm showering facilities were few and far between in the area we were exploring; so although we like to be free spirits, we decided to research, plan and book campsites for each night of the trip.

Friends raised eyebrows when we told them we were taking the ‘van camping at the end of November and their incomprehension only increased when the five-day weather forecast was predicting storms and heavy rain for the weekend we were away.  These storms did arrive and hit Cornwall very hard and we were relieved we had chosen the east side of the country for our holiday, where it was breezy, but no one had to leave their homes because of rising flood water.

Arriving on a campsite in the dark left me in a slightly disconcerted state, I like to orientate myself, check where the sun will come up and what the ground is like and after the first night we vowed to try and arrive before dark in future, although in late November this means arriving by 16.00.  However, my perturbed state didn’t stop us making the 10-minute walk through the village to the cosy Burnham Green pub.

The next morning we woke to faultless blue skies and were immediately sold on winter camping for all time, no matter that the shower cubicles were so cold, only the most hardy would consider baring all in there [apparently there have been renovations since our visit].  I reasoned that we were so wrapped up against the chilly air, no one would ever notice we were grubby and we were just keen to get out on to this bright November coastline.

Titchwell Marsh RSPB reserve is an excellent spot, providing the opportunity to stretch the legs alongside fresh water and salt marshes to the vast stretch of beach.  I am not a natural bird watcher but I like to know the RSPB and other charities are out there managing habitats for birds and I enjoy what I see.  Oystercatchers are my favourite, as they are easy to spot and always so lively and vigorous and I also enjoyed watching the red shanks feeding in the mud, easily spotted with their red legs and the more ponderous godwits and then spotting the different ducks, including Teal and Widgeon.  If you are lucky and patient here you will see a drift of Snow Buntings on the beach, but it was too wintry to stay still for too long.  The reserve staff also feed the birds in the woodland near the visitors centre and I got just as much pleasure watching the garden birds coming and going at the bird tables while we warmed up with a mug of hot chocolate; this reserve certainly has something for everyone in the winter months.

After lunch we drove the few miles along the North Norfolk coast to Wells-Next-The-Sea to walk along the sands, comparing the size of the beach huts that are lined along the beach to the dimensions of our Blue Bus and wondered why no one was using them on this glorious November afternoon.

We succeeded in reaching the camp site on the edges of Swaffham before dark and were pleased to find much warmer facilities where we were prepared to shower and scrub off the accumulated grime of the last couple of days.

Although this trip was focusing on wild life, the next day we made a short pilgrimage to the Burston Strike School.  Whatever your politics, I dare anyone not to find this small building inspirational.  It is the site of the longest strike in British history, starting on 1 April 1914, when two popular and devoted teachers at the village school, Kitty and Tom Higdon, were dismissed by the school committee for lighting a fire to warm the children and dry their wet clothes.  Of the 72 children, 66 marched around the village to protest about their dismissal and refused to attend the school, instead they continued their education with Kitty and Tom in temporary accommodation, supported by trade unions from across the country.  In 1917 sufficient funds were secured to build a new school building and bricks in the walls are carved with the names of the trade unions that had provided financial support; a small museum is now housed in this building.  The Burston strike school continued to be the place of education for the village children until 1939.

Redgrave and Lopham Fen is the largest river valley fen remaining in England, with pools, reeds, scrub and woodland it will be a buzzing and lively place in summer, with butterflies, insects and flowers.  In winter it is sultry and peaceful; the reserve is well laid out with five different marked trails to follow.  We watched a tree creeper flitting up and down a tree trunk and a flock of gold finches and enjoyed the sense of space and stillness this strange landscape offered.

We chose to stop in Thetford Forest to have our lunch, an impressive area of mixed woodland and heath, criss-crossed by roads.  High Lodge is the main visitor centre for the forest, with a cafe, shop, toilets, access to numerous footpaths and cycle tracks, all with a large car park and even in winter it was lively with cyclists and walkers.

We arrived at the small camp site at Littleport in rain that didn’t stop until the next morning; we were catching the tail end of the storm that had hit the West Country and we hunkered down in the van with a bottle of red and never made it to the nearby pub by the Great Ouse.  The site owners let us pitch on the track, as there was no hard standing available, which saved churning up their grass or worse the embarrassment of needing a tow to get out.  Our neighbours, two stalwart fishermen, slept in a tent and were disturbed all night by the wind and rain, we had sleeping bags and duvets and slept soundly until daylight.

The sunshine returned after the storm, although the strong wind stayed with us a little longer and we were feeling blessed for having such good weather for our winter venture.  We now pointed the Blue Bus north towards Lincolnshire, into a fascinating landscape of vast flat fields of vegetables, driving over drainage ditches and through an environment where the sky dominates, rather than the land.

Frampton Marsh is accessible down narrow lanes that take you to the RSPB coastal wetland reserve on the edge of The Wash; once at the modern visitors centre there is a good size car park.  Frampton Marsh has enough brent geese to satisfy anyone and I also saw plenty of acrobatic lapwings, always a cheery sight.  I easily spotted little egrets in the shallow pools, their white plumage bright in the sunshine and watched curlews feeding on the wet grassland areas.  Despite the strong winds, we walked down the lane to the dyke, where we had a clear view across the salt marshes to the North Norfolk coast.

Slightly further north, Gibraltar Point National Nature Reserve is a popular and well known reserve near to Skegness; this area of dunes, salt marsh and beaches is a beautiful wild spot with many walks and managed by the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust.  As the sun dipped towards the horizon, we had a windswept walk through the dunes to the beach here, before tearing ourselves away and driving through the bright lights of Skegness to our refuge for the night, The Nurseries at Mumby, before dark.  Karl and Dianne have been enthusiastically developing the camp site since they moved to the old nurseries house in 2010 and have created a lovely site.  They are both very welcoming and we were thrilled when Dianne appeared with two chunks of homemade cake to go with our brew.

Karl and Dianne are both also full of information about things to do in the area and while chatting to Karl, he mentioned the nearby seals and pups and we soon had the map out planning a trip to Donna Nook on our way home.  Donna Nook is a long sandy bay which during November and December each year is the place of choice for over 1,000 grey seals to give birth to their pups and mate, ready for next year.  There are two  car parks and they get busy, particularly at weekends but we were surprised how popular it was even on a wet Monday morning.  The beach is managed by Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust and they ensure visitors get excellent views of the seals while staying safe and avoiding the danger of getting bitten by an angry grey seal.  Photographers will love the opportunity to get so close to adult grey seals and their pups.  The white fluffy pups lie in the sand and cannot help but look cute with their big eyes and whiskers, the male grey seals are large and cumbersome and manage to both flop and be aggressive at the same time.  You can see pups being born, suckled and having their first taste of swimming in the shallow pools; it really is a special wildlife experience that concluded our holiday on an unexpected high.

As we drove back to Salford we reflected on our few nights winter camping; the van had been cosy and warm, the wildlife had been spectacular, the weather had been kind and we had coped with some chilly sanitary facilities with the hardiness of northerners.  This trip was a few years ago and gave us confidence so that today we don’t think twice about getting away whatever the weather.

Achieving frugal minimalism? 2018 finances reviewed

Strathdearn day (2)

In 2017 I was feeling a trifle smug.  We had spent around £24,000 in our first year of retirement, way below budget.  That smug smile was wiped off my face earlier in the year when I reported that things were not looking so positive in 2018 and I was feeling a frugal failure.  With inflation I could have expected our spending to increase to around £25,000 in the year, instead it seems we were just saving up all our big financial hits for 2018.  In 2018 we were just average [2017 UK average household spending was £28,818).  This isn’t much comfort when we’re supposed to be being frugal and minimalist.  In our spending you won’t find any costs for haircuts, party frocks, frippery or pay TV, so what went wrong?  I’ve divided our spending this year in to essentials, stuff, experiences and giving.  The graph gives a summary.

Screenshot (1)

Essentials – total £9,654 [34% of total spending]

Food – £3,870 – We are two vegetarian who like to drink red wine and gin & mostly use the discount supermarkets.  I do know that wine and gin are not essential but we haven’t separated the costs of these from our supermarket shops during the year and together these probably represent about £400 of the total.   [2017 £3,612] 

Utilities, insurance & service charges for a 2-bed 58 sq mtrs [624 sq feet] flat – £4,841 – This year we have changed supplier for our gas and electric and moved to a cheaper mobile phone contract to save money.  The increase is only because we payed up-front for the gas boiler servicing to receive a discount  [2017 £4,621 mis-reported last year!]

Our health [including tai chi classes [?essential?]] – £943 – An expensive year thanks to some dental work [£235] and both of us needing new specs [£503] [2017 £376]

Stuff (electronics, newspapers and other kit) – £3,333 [11% of total spending]

Household items [including parts for the bikes] –  £2,364 – Although this category does include a multitude of things, including postage, one newspaper a week, books [often second-hand] and bits and bobs for repairs, it also includes stuff.  In 2018 we decided to buy a new laptop [£450] and one new mobile phone [£115], replace our ageing head torches [£70] and cycle helmets [£50]; although all replacing old and well-used items these are purchases that we don’t make easily and we had been putting off for some time.  [2017 £1,668]

Clothes & accessories – £969 – Whenever we can we buy second-hand clothing.  The almost £1,000 we have spent is mostly for replacements for walking gear that has worn out.  Even with the best quality clothing things don’t last forever and this year we have bought new walking shoes, trousers and rucksacks.  It is true that about £100 of this spending is for a couple of things that were bought because of a want, rather than a need.  [2017 £525]

Experiences – £14,095 [51% of total spending]

Holidays [our favourite spending line] – £4,681 – Despite being away on holiday for even longer, around 40% of the year [155 nights in the campervan, plus a couple of other holidays in self-catering cottages] we have spent less on this budget line in 2018.  Result!  The spending is mostly on accommodation and ferries and also includes £380 for a 2019 holiday.  [2017 £5,285]

Restaurants & cafes – £2,963 – Only a tad more than last year [2017 £2,864]

Running the campervan [servicing, insurance & parts] – £2,578  – a big increase on last year [2017 £1,636] all due to replacing brakes and tyres, failures in the air conditioning and power steering and a bit of wing mirror jousting.  What a year!  Readers might not agree that the costs for our campervan come under experiences but for us this is an important part of our lifestyle and so this is where it fits best.  Friends might be surprised that I didn’t put it under essential spending!

Diesel for the above ‘van – £1,937 – the price of diesel has increased and we drove more miles in the Blue Bus this year, particularly on our trip to Croatia [2017 £1,641]

Tickets for concerts, football & attractions – £1,114 – Wow!  We must have been to a lot of events this year!  Tickets for the football have increased in price and in Croatia we visited more paying attractions than we might have as we’re unsure whether we will travel so far again.  Although this is experiences, rather than stuff, this is definitely an area we could try and make savings in 2019. [2017 £633]

Public transport – £670 – We don’t use the campervan around Manchester and cycle and walk to do things or visit friends but sometimes [if it is raining/cold/too far] we take the tram, the bus or the train [2017 £517]

Unknown spending – £152  – [2017 £81]

Giving – £1,025 [4% of total spending]

Gifts & donations – £1,025 – we buy our family and friends birthday presents and buy Christmas presents for a shorter list [2017 £1,173]

TOTAL SPENDING FOR 2018 – £28,107 [2017 £24,196]

I’m pleased to see how much our spending is weighted towards doing things, rather than buying stuff so perhaps a tick for being minimalist if not uber-frugal.  Despite having a year that has still been a bit heavy on replacing things 51% of our spending has been on our own version of enjoying life.  We have a plan to cut down our spending on stuff in 2019 and I hope spending only 4% on giving make us look frugal rather than mean as I’d like this to remain this low.

It is impossible to make any conclusions from one year and averaged over two years our spending of £26,152 a year still seems fairly low.  This year has shown us how important over-saving or over-estimating budgets is for planning to live without any earned income.  After this expensive year my travel writing income is becoming essential, rather than extra cash.

Having spent more than our original budget of £27,000 our future annual budgets have been increased to reflect this.  We’ll see what 2019 will bring and try hard to have a low-spending year but at the moment we have no need or plans to go back to the nine-to-five!

Canada Geese: #surprisingsalford #36

River Irwell Feb 2017 (2)
A Canada goose by the river Irwell

I enjoy all the wildlife we have in Salford but one bird that brings particular joy is the Canada goose that is found in large groups around our waterways; these geese are always full of character, lively and beautiful to see.  Take a walk down to Salford Quays and the Canada geese will be there, pottering under the trees along the quay and bobbing on the water of the Manchester Ship Canal.  Stroll around Peel Park and you will often find a group of these gregarious birds on the river Irwell.  Introduced to the UK around 300 years ago as an ornamental bird, over 60,000 breeding pairs are now living here.  These geese have adapted well to life in the city and to warmer climates.

The Canada goose is a large goose and has a black head and neck and large white throat patch.  These geese were introduced from North America [Canada I guess] and have successfully spread to cover most of the UK.  In North America these geese migrate [as most geese do] but in the UK they are resident all year round and have never learned migration routes.  With a wingspan of up to 1.8 metre and a loud honking call it is not surprising that I have met more than one person who is too terrified to pass when one of these large geese is blocking a narrow path by the canal; they can be very intimidating.  When Canada geese have nests and young they are very protective and they will hiss and charge anyone that they think is threatening their brood.  In some areas of the UK Canada geese are so territorial they can chase off other wildfowl, therefore putting native species at risk.

These are handsome birds that generally mate for life and in spring the goslings are very cute and yet many consider them a nuisance both here and in North America.  This intolerance is probably because of their numbers, their enjoyment of green lawns and the amount of droppings they leave behind.  Canada goose droppings do cover the paths where they hang out and there are some suggestions that these droppings might be harmful to humans.  The evidence that this is the case doesn’t appear to be there but [the same as droppings for other animals] if you ate goose faeces this would probably make you ill.

Families enjoy feeding the Canada geese, swans and black headed gulls at Salford Quays and the activity and excitement when someone turns up at the water’s edge with food is vibrant and stunning.  While the birds will eat the bread most people bring, grains would be a better option if you want to help the birds through winter when there is less grass for them to eat.

 

 

 

Joyful world nativity scenes in Evora, Portugal: these are not just for Christmas

The lovely city of Evora in inland Portugal has no shortage of places to visit; you won’t want to miss the Roman Temple, Cathedral and Aqueduct just for starters.  One of the most memorable attractions I found here during our trip last year was the Igreja de São Francisco a popular attraction for the Capela dos Ossos [chapel of bones].  We followed the crowds to see the weirdly attractive chapel that uses skulls and limb bones creatively positioned in patterns.  The chapel was fascinating but also I could not really forget that I was looking at human bones and felt slightly uncomfortable.

In need of a little light relief, we headed for the nativity display that the church also opens to the public.  All year round hundreds of Christmas nativity sets from Portugal and around the world can be seen.  Part of a private collection, the variety, colour and sheer joy of these nativity scenes is worth an hour of anyone’s time.

Made from china, wood, clay, straw and fabric these nativity scenes are intricately made and fascinating objects, each one revealing something about the country it came from.  Each nativity scene is an interpretation of the birth of Jesus, translated into a family tableau that reflects the local experience.  These nativity scenes depict this homely scene with exuberance, giving the story a vitality and showing how Russian, South Americans, Africans and Europeans relate to the nativity.  Some of these cribs are moving in their simplicity, others made me laugh out loud they were so playful and joyful.  The nativity scenes are both modern and conventional.  Plenty of the cribs have a sheep or a lamb near the crib, some have just Mary, Joseph and the baby, others have the Three Kings, angels or shepherds huddled around the happy family.  Look closely and you will also find local food, cheese, wine or grapes in wicker baskets, cartoon-like animals and even a baby Jesus with a teddy bear!

Whether you love Christmas or not this Portuguese exhibition is just another reason to visit the beautiful Alentejo city of Evora.