Seven Lessons that made me a Saver not an Investor

As the last of our savings accounts with an interest rate over 1% matures and the cost of living in the UK keeps on rising, I have been checking out our financial position. We are all a product of our past experiences in some way and for me various life lessons put me on a purposeful and cautious journey to financial independence and early retirement [FIRE]. This journey did not involve taking risks with money; secure savings, rather than investment, was our mantra as we worked towards a goal. The FIRE community is packed with people that gainfully invest their money but my own seven life lessons led me to saving in building societies, Individual Savings Accounts and other yawningly dull and dependable accounts.

Lesson One: A broken washing machine

In my early twenties I lived on my own in a rented house, only ever one pay day away from destitution. Life improved when we got married in so many ways, including financially, but still for the first three years we muddled along with below average income and nothing in the savings pot. Then the second-hand washing machine we had inherited from a relative died. Annoying at the best of times, this felt catastrophic while we still had a child in nappies. Even in the 1980s we were environmentally conscious and we used washable and reusable cloth terry squares for our baby and dried these on the line [no tumble drier]. Washing nappies by hand was tough and it was an anxious few weeks until we managed to borrow the £250 we needed to buy a new washing machine.

Not wanting to be in that situation again the washing machine savings fund came into being. We did without and built up and kept £300 in a savings account for the next twenty years or so [long after we were washing nappies] as a security blanket.

Lesson Two: Campervans are fun!

Back in 2005 we made the life-changing purchase of our first blue campervan. Nothing was ever the same again and by the following year we knew we wanted to have a campervan gap year. Saving for this went way beyond the washing machine fund; this was big!

By 2005 we were both earning UK average salaries, our mortgage was small, our son was grown and would soon be finishing university and borrowing to buy a second-hand campervan became possible. This loan was paid off when I received redundancy pay the following year and we extended the mortgage for campervan number two. I took on multiple jobs and we became extreme savers with a clear goal to have a gap year. In the first of many spreadsheets, I began tracking our spending and savings from earnings and Ebay sales as we de-cluttered.

Lesson Three: A grown-up gap year

Having squirrelled away as much money as we thought we needed, we waved farewell to England in the spring of 2009. Our year travelling in our second blue campervan was fantastic and another huge life-changing event. We returned to Salford in 2010 having learned that early retirement was the only way we could have the freedom to travel we yearned for. We came up with a plan, secured new jobs and embarked on an even bigger saving journey with steely determination and an even more elaborate spreadsheet. Our single goal was to retire as soon as we could afford to.

Lesson Four: Banks are not always secure

We have avoided the ‘big banks’ since becoming aware of their role in debt and poverty in the global south in the 1980s. Despite the fashion for demutualisation of building societies a few remain and these are where we put our money. Although the failure of Northern Rock in 2008 only affected us lightly it did result in a ramping up of my cautiousness. Building societies are not squeaky clean but we are more comfortable with their structure and ethos. From 2010 until 2017 our ever-growing savings pots were recorded on those increasingly complex spreadsheets as we sought out the best interest rates in building societies, the government savings bank NS&I and the Co-operative Bank, spreading our cash around to limit the risk. We had a long-term plan and could tie-up money for many years and this allowed us to take advantage of reasonable interest rates.

Lesson Five: The cost of living increases

To anyone who was around in the 1970s and 80s, inflation is nothing new. With almost five years of retirement behind us the savings pots are decreasing. Now that inflation in the UK is officially over 5% and rising and our money earning little interest, we are losing value big time. I like to think savers should be able to expect their savings to ‘earn’ at least as much as inflation, staying steady rather than taking steps backwards but I have had to tweak the spreadsheet and budget to reflect these losses.

Fortunately for us this loss isn’t catastrophic as we have spent under our budget for four of the five years since we finished work. We hope that this surplus, along with my ad-hoc travel writing earnings over these years [never included in the budget] have left us with enough wiggle room to cope with an increasingly uncertain future but it does depend how bad it gets.

Lesson Six: Everyone deserves a home

Investing in housing has been popular in the UK and seen as a safe way of increasing the value of your money. Once we had sufficient funds to cover our spending for the years until our pensions paid out we could have used our savings to purchase one or two houses and become landlords, using the rent as our income. Getting our own buy-to-let might have been a wise investment decision but being a landlord is not who we are. Everyone deserves a house that feels like home and yet in my working life with homeless and vulnerable people I have learnt that many people don’t have that security. The UK’s enthusiasm for housing as an investment has inflated prices, excluded first-time buyers from the housing market and skewed the type of new properties built. I am grateful for the riches I have and count my blessings that I have a home, I am not greedy for more.

We have also never maximised the profit on our housing by pushing ourselves to have a big and bigger mortgage. We purchased our first home when we married in the mid-1980s for £13,500. The purchase was completed the day before our wedding day and with the energy of youth we married in the morning and moved across the country in the afternoon, waving to our two dozen guests from a hired Luton van full of our sticks of furniture! The small terraced house was affordable [our household income was around £6,000/year], comfortable and occasionally a headache but it was never an investment.

Moving north, we stayed in our Lancashire semi-detached house for over 20 years. To ‘maximise’ our ‘investment’ we could have taken advantage of our higher incomes and moved to a more expensive property as we reached our 40s. Our home was in the cheap-end of town but we liked where we lived and the mortgage was affordable, allowing us to enjoy a good quality of life. We still benefitted from the exorbitant rise in house prices when we sold it but by not actively playing the housing-market game and staying in a ‘cheap’ house we are now locked into the lower end of the housing market.

Lesson Seven: Sell, sell, sell

In the 1980s the Conservative government sold and privatised companies that I thought I already owned. We didn’t buy any of these get-rich-quick shares for utility companies but watching the scramble for a fast buck we added company shares into the best-avoided category.

I am clearly risk averse but in the 1980s I learnt that these investments were considered a route to wealth. We have saved to secure sufficient funds to be able to walk away from the straight-jacket of nine-to-five working and travel. Although I understand that by many people’s standards we are rich, I have never aspired to be wealthy and our money is diminishing rather than growing, as we work towards leaving this world with little or nothing.

Being comfortable with your own financial decisions

I guess if you want to free yourself from the necessity of employment in your 30s and 40s, you need firstly a high income and secondly you need to invest and achieve interest rates higher than inflation. Everyone makes their own choices, based on their life experiences and my own life lessons have left me valuing my good fortune and hesitant to squander that good fortune through risky behaviour. Fairness underpins everything we do and I hope I don’t lose sight of how lucky we are to have enough money to make choices about how we spend it.

Our wedding day self-drive removal van

2021 Spending Reviewed: Despite Rising Costs we Have Stayed Below Budget

It is the start of another year and time to share how much money we have spent in the last 12 months, revealing our spending habits in all of their immoderation. I divulge our expenditure for interest and accountability, as we aim to stay within the budget we set when we retired in 2017. Our spending is peculiar to us and comparisons are not always helpful but it does show you don’t need gold-plated pensions to have a good time. Any comments and observations are gladly received.

In 2017 we aimed to live on less than £27,000 a year for the foreseeable future and despite high inflation we spent under that figure for the fifth year running. In 2017, as new retirees, it was a generous amount for us that was around the average UK household spending but was less than we had spent while we were working. Although we had been tracking our spending for years, we didn’t really know how our retirement spending would pan out and, of course, as two vegetarians with no mortgage and a campervan there is nothing average about us! In 2020 we almost spent £27,000 but then there was nothing normal about 2020. In 2021 life was still strange but I am pleased that we have spent a comfortable £4,000+ below our budget. Our annual spending has tended to be a rollercoaster, with expensive years followed by frugal years and this trend, although it makes little sense, has continued.

As in previous years, expensive home improvements that we consider one-off are kept separate and not part of the headline figure. On top of the budgeted expenditure in the usual categories [see below], in 2021 we also spent £2,780 on new garage doors and a living room carpet. Even if this was included we would still have spent under £27,000, so I feel we have done pretty well. Our home improvements spending would have been more and we would have replaced our faded bathroom by now but have you tried getting a bathroom fitter recently?

Here is how our budget breaks down into my different categories:

Essentials – total £8,730 [38% of total spending] [2020 £9,833 / 38%]

Food – £4,142 [2020 £4,703] – We all know that prices have gone up in 2021 so I have closely monitored this spending line through the year and I am surprised it is lower than 2020. We continue to use discount supermarkets for the majority of our shopping and generally cook from scratch. The figures don’t lie and our supermarket spending seems to be inversely related to how much we spend in cafes and restaurants. In 2020 we hardly ate out at all and so food prepared at home was a bigger chunk of our costs. In 2021 we have spent more eating out so I suppose we could expect to spend less in our local supermarkets.

Utilities, insurance & service charges for a 2-bed 57.2 sq mtrs [615.7 sq feet] bungalow – £3,854 [2020 £4,463] – I am also pleasantly surprised that we spent less on our bills in 2021 than 2020 but there is an explanation that isn’t totally about being frugal. We now have two full years in the bungalow to compare our spending on this essentials category. In 2020 some bills were initially more as providers got used to the amount we would use, not realising how frugal we are! For example, our water bills started off at over £30 a month and have now settled down to £18 a month, a better reflection of what we use. We also paid more in Council Tax in 2020 as we had a few months when we didn’t pay anything in 2019 after moving. The January to April lockdown meant that we were home all the time, not something we would expect to do in a normal year. As soon as we were able we were away from mid-April to the end of June and so using no water or energy at home. We did manage to trim some of our bills in 2021 finding better deals for our mobile phones and our boiler servicing contract. In addition we complained to our previous boiler servicing company [British Gas] and received compensation after some shoddy service.

Our health [including tai chi classes] – £734 [2020 £667] – In lockdown we paid for some online tai chi classes to support our teacher and keep us healthy. In person classes re-started in September and we have attended when we can. Most of this money has been spent on new prescription specs and dental check ups.

The money we spend on the essentials above are, in theory, the minimum we need to survive, if nothing goes wrong or wears out and we didn’t own a campervan and never went anywhere!

Stuff (electronics, books, newspapers and other kit) – £3,170 [14% of total spending] [2020 £7,175 / 27%]

Household spending [everything from glue, newspapers and books to bird food, gardening stuff and parts for the bikes] – £2,506 [ 2020£6,189] 2020 was the year of DIY! 2021 has been more about getting out and about. When we do buy furniture we continue to try and buy second-hand and in 2021 we have sourced some fabulous items that will last the rest of our lifetimes. It is hard to call the G-Plan large chest of drawers a bargain at just under £200 but they are beautifully made and the drawers glide in place. A second-hand wine rack and a small cupboard were other good buys from our local GB Antiques emporium. We search out second-hand books in charity shops and the warren-like Pier Bookshop in Morecambe and, even better, when we can we borrow books from our local library for free!

Clothes & accessories – £664 [2020 £986] – Again, I am pleased we haven’t spent more in this category. There have been a couple of essential purchases. My partner wore his hiking boots up lots of hills but eventually the sole lost contact with the body of the boot. Some glue kept them together during our holiday in Ireland but we did have to purchase more this summer. We both also needed new walking shoes and after mine caused massive blisters and bruising on my feet I complained to the manufacturer. They sent me replacement shoes but I am not convinced they were faulty and think it is a design issue and I haven’t dared to wear them yet. In the meantime I had purchased a pair of Vivo Barefoot walking shoes. I love their shoes but hadn’t tried their more substantial styles before and I am really pleased with them. This palaver does mean I bought two pairs of walking shoes in 2021! More frugally, while we were in Ilkley this summer I spent some time in the excellent charity shops in this well-heeled town and purchased some good quality second hand items I needed, including a soft and floaty summery frock for a few quid that is perfect for the four or five days a year it is warm enough to wear such a thing.

Experiences – £9,517 [31% of total spending] [2020 £8,336 / 31%]

Holidays [our favourite spending line] – £3,634 [2020 £2,834] – As well as plenty of nights on campsites, other holidays are in this category. Having had so many plans disrupted in 2020, we were determined to make the most of spending time with friends in 2021 and have had a couple of lovely weekends in hotels in the Lake District. In 2019 we paid for a self-catering cottage holiday with friends in Scotland for 2020. This was obviously postponed to 2021 and, due to another lockdown, has now been postponed to 2022. Is this a record for the longest wait for a holiday?

Restaurants & cafes – £2,225 [2020 £1,309] – After a woeful 2020, our 2021 spending in this category is nearer to our 2019 spending, although we haven’t got back to the regular meet ups and meals with friends in Manchester. We did manage a sociable night at Manchester’s Christmas Market and paying a small fortune for a mug of warming gluwein felt like a massive treat!

Running the campervan [servicing & insurance etc] – £1,280 [2020 £2,093] – It has been a cheap year for the van. No doubt the Blue Bus is saving up for some expensive new parts it wants in 2022!

Diesel for the above ‘van – £1,261 [2020 £1,227 ] – We travelled to northern Scotland and across Northern Ireland to Donegal but certainly haven’t put the miles across Europe on the campervan we would normally do.

Tickets for concerts, football & attractions – £589 [2020 £403] – By the autumn of 2021 we felt ready to attend events and gigs again. We attended a Manchester Literary Festival events and saw Chantel McGregor and Turbowolf live. I have missed live music and it was so amazing to immerse myself in it again for an evening. We have been to see Morecambe FC a couple of times too, where you win some and lose some. In the spring many venues weren’t open but by the time we travelled to Wales in September we could visit a bevy of castles.

Public transport costs – £528 [2020 £360] – Most of this is the cost of going to and from Manchester by train.

Giving – £1,352 [6% of total spending] [2020 £937 / 4%]

Gifts & donations – £1,351 [2020 £937] – Another discretionary spending line that we enjoy spending but try and keep under control. In terms of donations, we have given to some favourite local and national charities throughout the year. Our gift giving has been more extravagant in 2021 due to so many disappointments in 2020. The most expensive gift was treating our son and daughter-in-law to a weekend away in a Lake District hotel. The downside for them was that we came too! Time with them is very precious and worth every penny.

TOTAL SPENDING FOR 2021 – £22,769 – I am very pleased we have kept the spending low this year and still enjoyed ourselves and will indulge in a small pat on the back!

Over my five years of retirement we have spent an average of £24,744 a year.

We are gradually spending our savings but our expenditure doesn’t all come from the money we have squirreled away. As well as my side hustle travel writing income, in 2020 my small NHS pension began. This is based on my many years of part-time and full-time NHS work and is the equivalent to 12 years NHS service. These both help to reduce what we take from the ever-diminishing savings pot. Although retiring early was fantastic, for me, saving was never just about being able to give up work before we were in our mid-60s, it was also about us having the financial resilience to survive whatever ups and downs life threw at us. Let’s hope we continue to stay afloat and thrive.

Comfortable & Quick-Drying Women’s Underwear for a Campervanning Hiker

My search for good quality, comfortable and quick drying underwear for hiking and cycling when we are away in our campervan should have ended long ago. Over ten years ago when we set off on our twelve month tour of Europe in our ‘van I purchased six pairs of Lowe Alpine Dry Flo pants that did the job perfectly. They were comfortable to wear even in temperatures over 30C, they dried overnight when I hand washed them and they out-lasted the year we spent away and are still going strong. When we returned home these were the only underwear I wanted to wear and I got online to buy some more for everyday use. Imagine how devastated I was to find that Lowe Alpine had stopped making them. They reappeared a few years ago in the same perfect shape but different [and less sturdy] fabric and I stocked up on four more pairs but they have now once again disappeared from the shops. I should have stashed away a lifetime’s supply!

With my 13-year old Lowe Alpine underwear starting to show signs of age I once again began a search for good underwear. After hours online and at some expense, I purchased four different brands of underwear to try. I have tested these smalls in the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District fells and hand washed them and dried them overnight. Below are my reviews of these four pairs of knickers that I chose from the many available. Please note, I have not received any of this underwear as a gift from a retailer [I wish] and my reviews are honest but do relate to my shape [I am a women’s size 12] and the activities I enjoy when I wear them.

In our campervan we usually wash our underwear out each evening and maybe socks, unless we are only away for a couple of nights. On longer trips we will hand wash t-shirts too, only using a washing machine when we need to wash towels and sheets. If it is sunny this washing can hang outside but unfortunately we don’t always get fine weather and we end up with knickers dripping over the sink. This isn’t something you ever see on those Instagram images of campervan life but it is our real vanlife! Having quick drying undies is as important as comfort for me.

The underwear tested:

  • Runderwear Women’s Running Hot Pants
  • Ortovox Women’s Hot Pants
  • Athlecia Women’s Mucht Seamless Hot Pants
  • Microfibre Boxers Ladies High Waist Shorts

Lowe Alpine Dry Flo – the original and the best. These are still keeping me comfortable after thirteen years! I am gutted that Lowe Alpine have stopped making them.

Runderwear Women’s Running Hot Pants, around £18. These are designed for runners and have a boxer-style fit. I find the seamless design is comfortable to wear and chafe free on long hikes. In many ways these are closest to my much-loved Lowe Alpine underwear. I haven’t tried them in extremely hot weather yet but my guess is they will perform well. The waistband is elasticated and feels substantial and I thought this might affect their quick drying properties but after handwashing they dried overnight in our ‘van.

Ortovox Women’s Hot Pants with Merino wool, an extravagant £30+ worth of knicker. These are a good generous pair of pants, they feel soft and are like wearing what I imagine gossamer to feel like. I like to wear and buy natural fibres and the breathability of merino wool is refreshing to wear. They claim to be durable for years of use but only time will tell how robust they will be, they feel so delicate. I have had merino wool t-shirts that have lasted decades and others that haven’t done so well. They are a tad loose around the legs and I don’t think they would be great under lycra cycling shorts. They wash well and dry overnight too.

Athlecia Women’s Mucht Seamless Hot Pants. At £25 for a pack of two, these are good value. The lightweight synthetic fibre fabric feels cool to wear and they are seam-free but the cut isn’t generous. These would suit you if you want more discrete underwear that isn’t high waisted and might be better on someone with a flatter stomach. I find I am constantly having to readjust this underwear around the crotch, not an attractive look! They wash easily and dry quickly but are not comfortable enough for hiking.

Microfibre Boxers Ladies High Waist Shorts. For everyday use at home, when quick drying isn’t the most important thing, I find these are comfortable pants. They are seamless and at just £3.75 a pair extremely good value and last for years. They are fine for short walks. The big downside is that they don’t dry quickly enough for hand washing and drying in our campervan. I wear these when we are at home and would suit you if you use the laundry facilities when you are away or take all your washing home.

What are your experiences of good hiking underwear and quick drying smalls? Maybe there is a pair of amazing pants out there that I have missed. If so, do let me know in the comments below.

2020 Spending Reviewed & The Covid-19 Factor Means Nothing is Normal

It is that time of the year again when I share how much money we have spent in the last 12 months, revealing our spending habits in all their profligacy. I divulge our expenditure for interest and accountability, as we aim to stay within a budget. Our spending is peculiar to us but any comments are gladly received.

Our budget remains at £27,000 a year for the fourth year running. This is now below the average UK household spending. The headline is that despite the strange year we have had our outgoings for 2020 came within budget [hurrah], although the headline doesn’t tell the whole story. As I said last year, our annual spending seems to go up and down like a rollercoaster, with alternating frugal years and expensive years. Sometimes it is our campervan that costs us a lot of money but 2020 was a year of home-making and healthcare.

It is just over twelve months since we moved to our Morecambe bungalow. The home improvements that are included in our 2020 spending are all things we would expect to carry out more than once in our [expected] remaining lifetime. These purchases include a new bedroom carpet to replace the grotty brown carpet from the 1980s that came with the bungalow and could tell a tale or two; new furniture to replace some that was second-hand 36 years ago, a new sofa bed [as we thought we would have visitors!] as well as smaller items like paint, varnish and brushes. More expensive home improvements which we consider one-off items are kept separate. So, on top of the budgeted expenditure in the usual categories, in 2020 we spent £13,300 on new windows and doors, resurfacing the drive and a new kitchen.

Not unsurprisingly our 2020 spending reflects the Covid-19 factor. The breakdown shows that we had less opportunities for experiences and spent more of our money on food in supermarkets and local shops.

Essentials – total £9,833 [38% of total spending] [2019 £7,721 / 35%]

Food – £4,703 [2019 £3,491] – In my experience food prices have increased in 2020 as we haven’t eaten anything different or developed an expensive taste in anything. We will have spent more as we have eaten mostly at home [sitting eating around a friend’s dining table is a distant memory]. We continue to use discount supermarkets for the majority of our shopping and generally cook from scratch.

Utilities, insurance & service charges for a 2-bed 57.2 sq mtrs [615.7 sq feet] bungalow – £4,463 [2019 £3,974] – The various lock downs and restrictive tiers mean who have been home more than ever and so using more gas and electric. Council tax and heating for the bungalow are both more expensive than the flat, but we no longer have service charges to pay. The improvements we have made to bring our bungalow into the 21st century will help save money on utilities.

Our health [including tai chi classes] – £667 [2019 £256] – There has been very little spending on tai chi classes in 2020 and this is mostly some expensive dental work and new specs.

In theory this is the minimum we need to survive a year, although it would be a strange year when we didn’t need / buy some stuff.

Stuff (electronics, newspapers and other kit) – £7,175 [27% of total spending] [2019 £3,151 / 14%]

Household spending [everything from glue, newspapers and books to hiring a sander, plants for the garden and parts for the bikes] – £6,189 [ 2019 £2,300] – Wow! We have clearly had too much time for DIY and nest building this year! In 2019 we were moving house and the only DIY we did was freshening up the paint for the sale of our flat. This is a big category, with furniture, carpet, cushions and pictures on the walls all thrown into it. I am uncomfortable buying stuff and we try and source antiques / junk / second-hand items when this is practical. Bargain purchases this year included an Edwardian What Not [yes really] for a kitchen wall to contrast with the shiny white units for £30, second-hand lined curtains for the large living room window for £25 and some second-hand cushion covers for £5.

Clothes & accessories – £986 [2019 £851] – I have never gone down the route of a clothes buying ban, preferring to stick to buying what I need, as something wears out. Pretty much all the clothes we bought in 2020 were hard-wearing hill walking kit and probably not most people’s idea of clothes shopping. I needed new boots, we bought new waterproof trousers, a fleece, wellies and some comfy walking shoes; these were all replacement items. Where we could we bought second-hand items, for example a men’s winter coat on Ebay was just £24. Even when you buy quality items they don’t last forever but our walking gear gets plenty of wear; my previous boots had walked a lot of miles over six years.

Experiences – £8,226 [31% of total spending] [2019 £10,952 / 48%]

Holidays [our favourite spending line] – £2,834 [2019 £3,601] – The reason for this reduction in our holiday spending in 2020 is obvious and it isn’t because I have lost my wanderlust! In the north-west of England we have had travel restrictions for over six months of the year. We did get away a few times in the first three months of the year before the three months of lock down. We spent July taking trips to the Lake District, got to France in August and [after quarantine] thankfully managed to travel to Scotland in October. We have also paid for a holiday in a self-catering house in Scotland that has been moved to 2021 [fingers crossed].

Restaurants & cafes – £1,309 [2019 £2,418] – Despite using local cafes and restaurants when we can this year and having more takeaways than we would normally do to support local businesses this is much lower than normal. It is not particularly the food I miss, what I have really miss is seeing friends. In a normal year there are two old friends we would meet about eight times a year for drinks and a meal at a cost of about £500. Chatting over Zoom, although cheaper, hasn’t been the same. Interestingly, the reduction in our eating out spending is more or less off-set by the increase in our food spending.

Running the campervan [servicing & insurance etc] – £2,093 [2019 £1,931] – Last year I wondered if our six year old Renault Master was saving up some expensive repairs for 2020. It hasn’t done too badly but needed some essentials like tyres and brakes replacing as well as the usual servicing, insurance and road tax.

Diesel for the above ‘van – £1,227 [2019 £1,500 ] – We certainly haven’t put the miles across Europe on the campervan we would normally do.

Tickets for concerts, football & attractions – £403 [2019 £941] – Well what do you expect as for much of the year nothing was open. Live music is just a distant memory and the last football match we went to was a Morecambe FC match last Christmas. We have supported some arts events by buying tickets for online events and visited some RSPB reserves when we could.

Public transport costs – £360 [2019 £561] – Again, the pandemic effect has kept us at home much of the time.

Giving – £937 [4% of total spending] [2019 £654 / 3%]

Gifts & donations – £937 [2019 £654] – Another discretionary spending line that we try and keep under control but in 2020 we felt a need to be more generous. Many charities needed additional funding as events and places were closed and during the first lock down we sent cheering-up parcels to friends, as well as the usual birthday and Christmas gifts.

TOTAL SPENDING FOR 2020 – £26,171 – Despite all the home-making we have done in 2020, we have stayed within our £27,000 budget. Hurrah!

Over my four years of retirement we have spent an average of £25,351 a year.

Our expenditure doesn’t all come from our savings. As well as my side hustle travel writing income [reduced in 2020 due to Covid-19], in 2020 my small NHS pension began. This is based on my many years of part-time and full-time NHS work and is the equivalent to 12 years NHS service. These both help to reduce what we take from the ever-diminishing savings pot. For me, saving for early retirement was never just about giving up work, it was also about us having the financial resilience to survive whatever ups and downs life threw at us.

A Year Without Gluhwein

For over a decade, visiting the incredible Manchester Christmas Market has been an autumnal household tradition. Before we lived in Greater Manchester we would take the train into Manchester for a special day out. Once we lived in Salford, we would walk across the Irwell and potter around the market a number of times, usually starting with the opening day. The Christmas Market was always my number one choice to meet friends and soak up some festive atmosphere.

A mug of gluhwein isn’t cheap, so we will save some money this year but I will miss standing in the cold, people milling around me, my gloved hands wrapped around a mug of steaming hot gluhwein. The warming spicy wine is something that tastes best drunk outside surrounded by Christmas, it just doesn’t taste the same drunk at home. Part of the fun of drinking my gluhwein is having Rudolph, the festive singing reindeer, belting out Christmas songs above my head and Manchester’s Gothic town hall looking magnificent across the square.

On a weekday morning I would be one of the first visitors to the Christmas Market, taking the chance to browse the stalls and maybe even buy something. But mostly Manchester’s Christmas Market is about the food and drink. For a mid-morning snack I might buy a bag of warm, spicy nuts to nibble before finding a seat and treating myself to an alcoholic hot chocolate from the French stall on charming King Street. It is the next best thing to being in Paris.

In the afternoons, before the after-work rush, we will arrange to meet friends for gluhwein. After years of research I have found that the gluhwein varies across the many stalls and our favourite has become the drink from what we call the Rudolph stall. This stall always has prime position in Albert Square, provides malted milk biscuits to soak up your gluhwein and has the singing reindeer head above the counter. Their gluhwein isn’t too sweet and sickly, it tastes of alcohol and provides the much-anticipated inner glow. While I am happy with straight gluhwein, my partner likes to add rum to his gluhwein for that extra kick!

Before all the building work began we would often meet friends in the Alpine hut complex on Brazennose Street, for some reason always a quiet corner of the market even in the evenings. The crowds flock to Albert Square for the lights and conviviality and by contrast, Brazennose Street always had seats and even shelter, useful if rain was threatening. It was also quiet enough to facilitate talking without shouting. Unfortunately, this cosy spot served gluhwein so sweet it was like sipping hot Vimto, rather than anything alcoholic. This always fooled my brain into thinking it was harmless and I would find myself getting up for more refills than I should!

As the evening progressed all that gluhwein would make me hungry and I would head for the Bavarian käsespätzle stall in Albert Square. The glum owner was never happy to be in Manchester; while we waited for a new batch of käsespätzle to be cooked he would often complain about the high cost of his stall, the poor facilities and how much he missed home. He returned year after year so the trip must have made financial sense and eating a plateful of his delicious German version of macaroni cheese transported me right back to Germany where this dish is often the only vegetarian option on a menu.

It has been decided to cancel the Christmas Market in Manchester this year due to coronavirus. Certainly social distancing is all but impossible on a busy evening on the market. It is just another part of my life and year that has been taken away and I will really miss it. I will just have to keep watching and re-watching the beautiful Lego version in the video below.

Vegan Apple & Blueberry Cake

This is a perfect cake for damp autumn afternoons. I have been experimenting with this recipe for a few weeks now, trying to make a cake that isn’t too sweet but is tasty. This means we have munched our way through some delicious but slightly fragile versions of this cake until I managed to get the ratios right so that we had something with enough robustness to be picked up. Here is the recipe I am sticking with …

Recipe

  • 90 g of brown sugar
  • 100 g of margarine melted & cooled
  • 1 teaspoon of vanilla essence
  • 50 ml of milk [I use soya milk]
  • Half of a 270 g jar of apple sauce [I use Lidl]
  • 150 – 200 g of blueberries
  • 190 g of plain flour
  • 2 teaspoons of baking powder
  • 2 teaspoons of cinnamon or mixed spice

Optional topping – 1 teaspoon of brown sugar with a tablespoon of lemon juice or apple juice and 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon or mixed spice

Method – Put the blueberries in a small bowl and mix with 20 g of the brown sugar. In a large bowl beat the cooled melted margarine with the remaining 70 g of the sugar.

Add the vanilla essence, milk and apple sauce to the bowl and mix well.

Sift the flour with the baking powder and cinnamon or mixed spice and fold into the wet ingredients.

Carefully mix the sugar-coated blueberries into the cake mixture.

Grease your baking tin. I use a 6″ square tin but have tried muffin tins and loaf tins too.

I bake in the Remoska for about 40 – 45 minutes. Otherwise, bake at 180C [gas mark 4] for about 45 minutes or longer, depending on your oven and the tin you have used. A skewer should come out clean when the cake is cooked and your kitchen will smell warm and inviting!

Cool in the tin and while it is still warm you can coat the top with a mixture of sugar, cinnamon / mixed spice and juice for a slightly crunchy sweet topping.

Fashionable Mask Wearing in Beautiful Brittany

We weren’t sure whether we would make it to France and, if we did, what we would find here. It turns out it is both normal and abnormal.

After landing in St Malo, we spent the first few days on the Côte de Granite Rose on Brittany’s north coast. Camping Tourony came highly recommended and was a great site to relax on. Good bread was available every morning and we could walk to a lovely beach in the evenings and practice tai chi among the large boulders. So far, so normal.

The area was busy with visitors and masks were required on le sentier des douaniers that follows the beautiful coast among the boulders and trees. This seemed reasonable given the number of people but wearing a mask while outside is a strange experience that takes something away from the joy of being in the great outdoors; no smelling the surf on the breeze or the scent of pine trees when you are behind a mask. Elsewhere walking and hiking have felt pretty much normal and provided relief from coronavirus. On this walk you couldn’t forget this was DC (during coronavirus).

Mask wearing in fashionable France is interesting to observe. On le sentier des douaniers about 80% of walkers complied. The masks varied from the colourful homemade to disposable, but plain re-usable masks were most common. We walked back through the streets as these were quieter and masks were not compulsory here and around the shops.

The French have different ways of carrying their mask when they are not wearing it. Some tuck it below their mouth so that it covers their chin, like a sort of beard mask. Some go lower and put the mask around their necks. Quite common is leaving the mask dangling off one ear when not required, this is a relaxed and jolly fashion statement. Others attach their mask to the straps on their bag or camera or wear it around their wrist. Losing my mask has become a new anxiety for me. I keep mine in my pocket and am constantly checking it is still there.

Our masks are always handy!

Île-Grande, further west, was quieter and consequently more relaxed for a day out walking. The island’s circuit is easy and there is plenty that is interesting along the way. We walked around pretty bays, to craggy points and by marinas packed with boats. We climbed to the centre of the island for the view from the rocky outcrop and found the burial cairn, covered in two huge slabs of rock. My favourite time was walking through the warm and shallow blue water along the edge of the beach back to the mainland, splashing gently and not a thought for a virus.

Of course, much is still normal. The wine is good and cheap and you’ll be pleased to hear that France is as welcoming as ever to motorhomers. There are plenty of vans and their owners on holiday in Brittany and they are making full use of the campsites and aires and enjoying this beautiful country. There are campers from Germany, the Netherlands and Italy but the vast majority we have seen are French. Of course in these DC days everything is seen differently and French supermarkets that used to be such fun to explore now feel crowded. Numbers are not restricted and social distancing seems to mean nothing in the rush to shop. We’re doing as big a shop as we can fit in or small van in one go!

We’re being cautious while enjoying France and not dwelling on our quarantine time when we return too much.

Campsites: Same pandemic, different ways of keeping campers safe

06.26.2018 Veurne Belgium (6)
These Belgian park benches were installed before social distancing was a thing

We were on the starting blocks on the 4th July, booked into the Caravan and Motorhome Club (CAMC) Site in Borrowdale with an arrival time of 10.00!  Since that heady first night back in our much-loved campervan we have slept happily at seven different campsites.  We made the decision to stay local in the north-west of England for the first month and luckily for us this includes the beautiful Lake District where we could catch up on some much-needed fell walking.

I noticed each campsite has adopted a different way of making their site’s facilities safe for visitors.  Here’s a roundup:

No facilities, no problem!

Our Devon Tempest campervan can be self-sufficient, it has a toilet, sink and shower in its modest bathroom.  This means we can stay on sites with no facilities at all.  Borrowdale and Dockray Meadow in Lamplugh in West Cumbria are two sites in the CAMC stable that never have a facilities block.  Of course, you don’t have to use the facilities when they are there, but if we’ve paid for them it seems a waste not to!  At Borrowdale and Dockray Meadow we did find that with no system to negotiate to get into the toilets and showers, staying on both of these sites was a calm and relaxing experience.  They are both always peaceful sites and the walking options from Borrowdale in particular are hard to beat.  They are ideal places to stay for anyone cautious about being away in their ‘van as social distancing is easy when everyone is staying on their pitch.

We also had a couple of nights at a site that is part of the other club’s network, Ravenglass Camping and Caravanning Club Site.  This site normally has a facilities block but has chosen to keep it closed and only open the washing up sinks this season, however, it is charging it’s usual fees, making it much more expensive than the former two sites.  Nevertheless, this small site among the trees and on the edge of the pretty coastal village of Ravenglass is a lovely place to stay.

Using your common sense

Delamere Camping and Caravanning Club Site did have its facilities block open.  They asked campers to use common sense to ensure it never got too crowded and this informal way of managing people worked really well.  There were never more than three people in the toilets and showers and the wash-up area was always quiet, even though the site was full.  Hand sanitiser was available outside the toilets and showers too.  We like this site as you walk through the perimeter fence straight into the extensive network of walking and cycling paths that Delamere Forest offers.

CAMC Wristbands

The Caravan and Motorhome Club’s wristband system had reached me via Twitter before we got to Troutbeck Head CAMC Site.  Not surprisingly, there were lovers and haters on social media.  Wearing our colourful wristbands we felt like we were at the swimming pool and found it a bit of a nuisance to remember to take a wristband to the sanitary block.  Once there it seemed there were always more wristbands hanging up on the three hooks than there were people in the facilities as people forgot to take their wristband away.   I found the tension of wondering if someone else would pick up my particular wristband while I was showering somewhat incompatible with a relaxing holiday.

A simple approach is often best

Our first independent site was Sykeside at Brother’s Water near Ullswater.  This is a long-standing favourite site, surrounded by high fells.  Not surprising for a great campsite, they had taken a sensible approach to social distancing and had installed a board outside the male and female toilet doors with four occupied / vacant signs and a sliding mechanism.  There was no need to remember to take anything with you, you slid one row to occupied as you went in and slid it back to vacant when you came out.  There was sanitising gel available too and paper towels in the washrooms.  Sykeside got lots of ticks from me.

occupied images

Clocking off

Hillcroft Park near Pooley Bridge is a large campsite with a mixture of tents, motorhomes, caravans and static caravans.  Their sanitary facilities are modern and airy with good roomy hot showers that are kept sparkling clean.  They introduced a sort of clocking in system, giving campers a card with their pitch number on.  You were expected to put this card into one of the ten slots by the door.  As a well-behaved camper, I took my card the first few times I used the facilities and popped it in one of the slots.  It soon became clear that no one else was bothering with this system and so I gradually went native.  It turned out this wasn’t a problem, common sense prevailed and the facilities never felt too crowded.

What works best?

This is no exhaustive research study, although if anyone wants to give me a grant to visit a more comprehensive sample of the UK’s campsites I am your woman.

From the sites we have visited, it seems to me that the systems that worked best don’t involve anyone having to take anything with them to the sanitary blocks as these are generally forgotten or left behind.  The common sense approach at Delamere was the simplest way to manage numbers and it seems that campers have common sense in spades.  The occupied / vacant boards at Sykeside were another good option, giving nervous or cautious campers the information they needed to help them feel confident about entering the facilities.

Has anyone found a different system that works better?

 

 

The ups and downs of inheriting a garden

17.06.2016 Hotton (5)

When we moved to Morecambe last November we inherited a garden, having been without one for many years.  Although it is lovely to have some outdoor space, unfortunately, the garden that came with our house isn’t a perfect mature garden that requires little input from us.  In November, the garden was mostly sleeping and what we seemed to have was lots of empty beds waiting to be filled, a rough selection of uneven paving slabs and pitted and cracked concrete paths and a few over-grown shrubs fighting each other for space alongside self-seeded buddleia bushes and brambles.  We tried to remember what it was like in the summer when we had viewed the house but the detail escaped us, we would have to wait and see.

The garden had missed the tender loving care of an owner.  Before our occupation our bungalow has been tenanted for eight years by different families.  Tenants often know their time in a property might be short and don’t always invest in the garden and in the case of our bungalow neither they nor the landlords were gardeners and they both neglected the outdoor space.

We played a waiting game over the winter, just getting out on fine days and keeping the garden tidy but avoiding disturbing anything that might be interesting as every plant is precious.  Some of the over-grown bushes benefited from being pruned in those dormant months.  As we worked in the garden we began to spot signs that this was once a loved garden; someone had carefully chosen these shrubs and designed the flower beds and digging we would sometimes find an old label for plants that had once been purchased and planted here.

As spring began to appear we started gently dividing some of the tangled shrubs and we noticed green shoots appearing.  Working in the front garden, neighbours would stop and introduce themselves and many of them would tell us stories about the garden.  ‘I helped the couple who lived here until eight years ago, we planted over a thousand bulbs in this garden,’ the chap who lives a couple of door away told us one sunny afternoon as we tidied up the beds.  That explained the profusion of spring flowering bulbs that had begun to emerge as the days lengthened, we enjoyed bluebells and tulips for months.  I like the earthy link with a couple we will never know and it is fantastic that their love of gardening still peeps through.  As the year progressed we looked forward to seeing what else would pop up [the middle picture shows some of the plants we have inherited].

Working in the garden reminded me that every house I have ever lived in has had a garden that needed considerable amounts of work and care.  Is the country full of neglected gardens or have I been unlucky?

Over the last three months the garden hasn’t just revealed spring and summer bulbs.  We have a honeysuckle that has climbed over the roof of the garage, apparently the only gardening the previous tenants did was to try and keep this honeysuckle in check.  In the front garden a rose bush I pruned in the winter has been producing glorious yellow sweet-smelling blooms since April, working down-wind of this rose bush is pure joy.  Those previous gardeners clearly loved roses and we have three or four bushes in the front garden.  I imagine the elderly couple planning the garden and picking their favourites for scent and colour.

Along with the valued plants, a healthy crop of horsetails have pushed their soft feathery fir-tree like shoots up in every inch of the back garden.  We knew we were buying a horsetail-crowded garden, this was the one thing we could remember from our viewings!  We thought we had the energy to tackle them but they are robust and vigorous plants and as I pull them out and dig them up I both admire their strength and hate them.  Getting them under control may take the rest of our lives!

We are following a long line of retirees to Morecambe and there is plenty of evidence that the previous owners had some mobility problems, with handrails and additional steps.  As we were moving the additional flagstone that someone had added to the steps into our sunken back garden, to give our feet more room, our next-door neighbour leaned over the fence and reminisced about helping the guy put that in place.  Apparently, he was already very elderly when he decided that he needed some extra help on these steps and he was spotted struggling from his car with this long flagstone.

On the garage wall are two colourful metal butterflies which our neighbour said once decorated the front of the house.  Someone adorned the back wall with three squirrel figures that are forever climbing upwards.  Clearing some of the brambles I found a stone tortoise and a stone hedgehog, remnants of when the garden was a different place.  Garden ornaments are not generally our thing but these fragments feel part of the space and they have stayed.

We have a rear wall that has clearly grown almost organically, the brickwork a mixture of styles and brick-laying competence.  In front of this are a couple of sprawling privet bushes.  ‘Ray would trim that privet to symmetrical perfection,’ we were told.  I don’t go in for much symmetry in the garden and after years of neglect the privet bushes needed more hacking then trimming.  I would emerge from among them, twigs and spiders stuck in my hair!

‘This garden has had more attention during this lock down than it has over the last eight years,’ our immediate neighbour remarked the other day.  My laugh is despondency-tinged when he says this.  He knows that we didn’t plan to spend this spring working on the garden and that we had months of campervan trips planned.  But there is no doubt I have been glad to have something physical and tiring to do when we couldn’t go far and I haven’t had the mind-set to write or edit photographs.  I don’t turn to gardening willingly but having our own outdoors has helped me get through lock down.

The most useful thing the previous gardeners left us was a system of water butts.  This survived the tenants and landlord and were just ignored behind the garage.  With such a dry spring we have been so glad to be able to capture what water there is.

We have planted a tree, a couple of bushes of our own, some herbs and patched up the paths but we are trying to avoid letting the garden suck up all our money and disrupt the finances.  I have a forlorn dream that all the work we have done this spring will mean we can just potter doing a bit of light pruning in future years.  We’ll see!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2017 Campsites through France, Italy to Greece

Greece (98)

We spent a month driving through France and then touring Greece.  Here are the campsites we stayed at until our dream trip was cut tragically short.

 

Campsite name Comments
Pont a Mousson Aire, France Busy aire by river Moselle and pleasant town, full even in April, shops nearby, toilets and shower until 20.00
Les Cent Vignes Municipal Site, Beaune, France Tidy site with hard-standing near the town centre, facilities clean, showers warm, hot water for wash-up, water on pitch and 6 amps.
Le Bourget du Lac aire near Chambery, France Marked pitches, next to campsite, no EHU, can use campsite facilities, open views
Camping Du Bourg, Digne les Bains, France Good views, chalets, friendly welcome, showers have very hot water but shower head hopeless!  Facilities clean but basic, 10 mins walk to town
Camping Val Fleuri, Cagnes sur Mer, France Marked good-sized pitches, pool, 4 km from sea, facilities clean & modern & showers hot, although push button.  Bread brought to pitch in the morning.
Campeggio dei Fiori, Pietra Ligure, Italy 800 m from the sea but peaceful.  Marked pitches, hot water, showers small, 15 mins walk to shops
Le Fonti, Cervarezza Terme, Italy Large site with lots of bungalows, pitch had spectacular views over the valley, sanitary blocks modern with doors, friendly welcome, roomy hot showers & hot water in sinks
Camper Club Mutina, Modena, Italy Well laid out sosta with some grass & trees, clean facilities & good hot showers, 30 mins cycle ride to centre & given a map at reception
Camping Village Mar Y Sierra, Stacciola near Mondolfo, Italy Terraced site & shaded pitches, lovely views across a valley to a pretty Italian town, peaceful.  Facilities clean & modern, showers cramped but hot, adjustable & continuous
Camping Acrogiai, Riza, Greece Had a pitch facing the sea, lots of statics, right on beach, pitch sloped, facilities clean & spacious, water lukewarm, 2 small yapping dogs run around freely!
Camping Apollon, Delphi, Greece Terraced site with stunning views across the bay.  English spoken at reception, bread, marked pitches with some trees, hot water for wash-up & showers, clean facilities, good
Afrodites Waters, Ancient Corinth Very friendly welcome and given fruit & honey.  Small gravel site with marked pitches but little space, 2 toilets & shower & wash-up, water lukewarm, 10 mins walk to Ancient Corinth
Nicholas II, Epidavros On the seafront and under trees, facilities shabby but clean, water only lukewarm for wash up but very hot for showers
Camping Apollon, Delphi As good as the first time!
Camping Sikia, Kato Gatzea, Pelion Peninsular Simply the best campsite.  Friendly owners, beautiful facilities, peaceful coastal location with lovely views from pitches, great walking from the site, lovely bistro.