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Firstly, I should say that I write this review from the perspective of someone who just wanted a decent digital camera rather than a photography professional, so you'll forgive the lack of technical details which are covered in other reviews.
I've had various compact digital cameras for several years. All have been good, but they had their limitations. I don't have any intention of being a professional photographer; I just wanted a camera which would actually capture the images I wanted to take. The Nikon D3000 was my first outing into DSLR photography, and I'm pleased to say it's been an enjoyable one.
The camera arrived and was very easy to set up. The instruction manual is comprehensive, but to the point. I was able to set it up and be taking photos within the hour. One of the things which was tricky to get used to was going back to looking through a viewfinder as opposed to a back screen. I really didn't like this at first and it felt very clumsy, but actually, I get much better photos.
The camera is a good weight - not too heavy, but feels solid. As you might expect from such a camera it boasts a variety of automatic and professional settings. I thought that I'd be stuck on the auto setting for the first year, but actually, I quickly began to use the 'P' and 'A' settings to good effect. The screen on the back is a good size and very clear. It is very easy to see immediately what settings you have it on. One criticism is that the menus are rather tricky to navigate and everything isn't necessarily where you might expect it. I would also value a way of getting back to some sort of original setting, particular in the professional modes.
The photographs taken so far have, in my opinion, been excellent. The camera boasts many different settings and features, and no doubt I'll get round to using them all eventually. Overall, it seems to me to be an excellent camera if you want to dip your toes into the waters of DSLR for the first time. I would never go back to a compact camera now!
It's worth pointing out that the rechargeable battery pack lasts a long time. OK, I don't use the camera more than a few times a week, but I rarely need to recharge the battery more than once a month. I have a 4GB memory card and this holds around 400 photos on the current settings.
I have mixed feelings about this product. Samsung are one of the few manufacturers which make a wireless colour laser printer, and one which is at an affordable price. I'd previously had an HP MFP Colour Laser, but the toners had got so expensive, it was cheaper to replace the machine itself.
In a nutshell, the Samsung CLP-325W works wirelessly through your router. It's only function is either b/w or colour laser printing (i.e. no scanner etc.). I purchased it on Amazon for about £150, and as there was a cashback offer, Samsung sent me £50 which in the end made it very cheap. It comes pre-loaded with toner, though I think that these have probably been sitting about for a long time.
The machine boasts a plug-and-go setup procedure. This is far from the case. In total, it took me over a month to get it fully up and running wirelessly. The instructions which come with it are very sparse. They give instructions on the basis that everyone has the same router and wireless setup which simply isn't the case. I have to say that initially, it worked first time. Sadly, the next day, the wireless would no longer connect. I contacted Samsung who sent a list of instructions, and after much fiddling with router and internet settings, it worked again. 10 days later, the wireless connection cut out again. More instructions from Samsung, and once again, up and running. Fingers crossed, I haven't had any trouble since...
The print quality seems poor, but that may well be because I'm using a multi-purpose paper rather than laser paper which is seems to require. When first switching it on in the morning, it takes about 5 minutes to settle down and connect to the wireless, but after that, it stays on until you switch the machine off again. Once up and running, it prints quickly. It currently prints from 3 different laptops on three floors of the house (printer on the middle floor) without problem.
Overall, once up and running, it's a decent machine. The promise of a plug-and-use setup is nonsense (unless you have the same internet setup as them presumably!). I was all for sending it back, but credit to Samsung they did promtly explain how to rectify the various problems. I've knocked off two stars as the setup procedure overall was ridiculous and time-consuming!
When we visited The Yorkshireman Pub in Staffordshire, I went with high expectations. It has an impressive modern-looking website and looked like a well-run establishment. This has reminded me once again that glossy websites do not necessarily make for a good night out.
The pub is located just outside the small town of Rugeley, and is opposite Rugeley Trent Valley station on the West Coast Mainline. It is a small pub, and the car park and miniscule garden reflect this. There are in fact only around 15 tables for dining in the pub divided between a small bar area and a larger dining area at the rear. The contemporary-looking website is not reflected in the décor. It is what one might term to be a 70's revival of a Victorian parlour. The green wallpaper, red carpet and ornate light fittings feel terribly out-dated. Given the pub's size, I'd expected an intimate feel, but although there were candles on the table, the lighting elsewhere is very stark and one felt very exposed.
We had reserved a table in advance which was a good move, for the place was almost full when we arrived at 7pm. We were shown to our table and left with menus. A chap returned 10 minutes later to take orders for drinks. Whilst the place is generally rather informal, I do feel that staff should make more of an effort in their appearance. One waiter had jeans on, and the waitress, a rather dilapidated woolly cardigan. The drinks were reasonably priced and delivered as ordered, though I was a little surprised to find two miscellaneous leaves in my G&T (further inspection suggested they may have come from some flowers on the bar!).
The menu is what one might call 'confused'; not sure whether it's a restaurant, or a country pub. Starters include Mushroom Soup (£3), Smoked Fish Terrine (£4.25) and Scallops with Black Pudding and Bacon (£7). For the main, I had Rump Steak (from a local farm) with chips, mushrooms and tomato (£15.90). I asked for it to be cooked rare, and it was certainly that; in fact it was hardly cooked at all, but luckily I don't mind that. I would question whether it had been seasoned as it was rather bland in flavour, though the texture was good, and it's always nice to see some fat left on, however unpopular that might be for today's health-conscious diners! The hand-cut chips were particularly excellent and a nice change, though one was cut so thick, in fairness, it wasn't entirely cooked through. My dining companions had the Sea Bass (£12) and Gammon Steak (£7.90). The Gammon Steak looked particularly impressive, but the Sea Bass a little insipid and definitely for the appetite of a sparrow.
Having forgone a starter, we ordered a pudding, though the choice is limited. I had the Black Forest Crème Brulée with a Chocolate Biscuit (£4.50); this was actually a normal Crème Brulée with some cherries in. Sadly the chocolate biscuit was burned, and I was slightly concerned that it looked like someone had already had a bite from one side (I'm sure they hadn't!). My companions had the Poached Pear (£4.50) and Cheesecake (again, £4.50). I think the general opinion was 'nothing special'.
Overall, I was uninspired by the evening. I didn't feel that the place had the sort of intimate atmosphere it should have had. The food was good, but not wildly exciting, and in some cases, quite pricy for what it is. The menu is quite small, and I felt in particularly that there wasn't much on the main courses to choose from (just one vegetarian dish too). The food was generally cooked well, but as is so often the case, the menu is flowered up which inevitably leads to disappointment! The staff seemed very harassed and rushed, but maybe someone was off sick. The waitress tore round collecting our plates as soon as I'd put the last chip in my mouth, and I was still digesting it when she came back with the pudding menu.
The website is misleading; the photographs have been very cleverly taken as to highlight some of the more pleasing aspects of the pub. Of course, there's nothing wrong with maximising the good points, but I can't help but feel a little let down. The menu given on the website is given as a sample, and in fact, few of the dishes were available tonight (the prices have also increased in some cases). All in all, I was disappointed. Nevertheless, the place was popular and obviously has a strong following. Maybe the regulars are more forgiving of the somewhat lacklustre service? Would I visit again? Probably not...there are plenty more to try.
On Tuesday, I went armed with my shopping list to B&Q at Tamworth (boasted itself as a 'Supercentre'. The list consisted of:
1. Wallpaper paste
2. White emulsion
3. Light switch
4. Carpet grippers
5. Carpet underlay
6. Wardrobe door
This store is located some way out of Tamworth, beyond Wilnecote, which is surprising, because it's nowhere near any of the other out-of-town retail parks (i.e. Ventura Park). It is tucked away close to an industrial estate, and is very poorly signposted. The satnav took us down the wrong road too. It looks quite big from the outside, and the car park is a fair size, but inside is disappointingly compact.
I've always considered B&Q to stock just about anything one needs for a weekend's D.I.Y., and on visiting most other stores, this has usually been the case. This week, we didn't have time to visit Erdington or Cannock, so had to make do with Tamworth...what a mistake this was!
The first two items were located without much issue. The light switch proved more difficult because the display was so muddled, whilst we could see the one we wanted, we couldn't find it amongst the jumble. Eventually, we located one right at the back of the shelf. There appeared to be no price for it, but as it was the most basic of basic switches, we reckoned we could probably afford it.
After this, the trip became more difficult. We came across the carpet grippers which had been put in a special display next to the Christmas lights (why?!). Sadly though, an assistant told us that they don't stock carpet underlay because most people these days have their carpets fitted (but remember, they do sell the carpet grippers!). I thought this was a bit rude and offhand, and obviously not true. We abandoned that and went in search of a door to replace a door for a built-in wardrobe. Again nothing obvious except two interior doors. After explaining to the assistant what we wanted to look at, he directed us towards a small narrow aisle of kitchen cabinet doors.
All in all, the store is tiny, crowded, and poorly laid out. It advertises itself as a 'Supercentre', so heaven knows what anything less than that is like. When we came to pay, the checkout operator was texting on her mobile phone. She was intent on finishing her text before she served us. As she put the items through, she caught site of a friend across the other side of the store, and thus ensued a shouted conversation about house moves and renting...fantastic service! Whilst I can imagine it's not that an exciting job, I do feel that if someone's being paid for it, then they should be doing it, not chatting with their friends.
I suppose I have to give it two stars because it did have four of the things we needed. We won't be shopping there again...it's a waste of time!
The Tame Otter at Hopwas (near Tamworth) is situated alongside the canal, and is currently part of the Vintage Inn group of pubs. We visited for an evening meal towards the beginning of November.
It seemed when we visited that the Christmas party season had already got into full swing. We hadn't particularly expected it to be crowded, but in fact, on arrival at 7pm, we had what seemed to be the only remaining table in the whole pub. It was very crowded, and very noisy. If you've been to one of these places before, you'll appreciate that the staff are really there to serve the meals rather than to welcome you or show you to a table. On this occasion, they were even more conspicuous by their absence than usual.
The food menu is quite extensive; the kind of thing where there must be something for everyone. This is particularly good if you're taking people out where you don't know their likes and dislikes in the food department. They offer sharing plates and nibbles to start (e.g. Mezze Platter £9.95, Bowl of Olives £2.25 etc.) and 'proper' starters (e.g. French Onion Soup £4.95, Chicken Liver Paté £4.75, Battered Mushrooms £3.95 etc.). We thought the starters themselves to be quite pricy, so instead, opted for the Tasting Platter (£10.95) which included baked camembert, tempura chicken, chicken liver pate etc. It advertises this for two, but in fact, it was more than enough for three hungry adults. On the plus side, it was all cooked well and piping hot. On the downside, it took nearly an hour to arrive, and when it did they had to apologise that not all the items listed on the menu were available so had been replaced with others. I think this is a bit 'off' to be quite honest; I wouldn't mind if they'd actually asked us whether that was OK.
The main dishes range from traditional pub classics (e.g. Hunters Chicken £8.95, Fishcakes £7.55, Scampi and Chips £6.95 etc.) to grill items (e.g. Venison Steak £16.45, Fillet Steak £15.75, Chargrilled Chicken £7.95 etc.). I had the Rump Steak with a Peppercorn Sauce (£11.05). It was cooked to perfection, but on the basis that as usual in these places, I have to ask for it to be cooked 'rare' in order for it to come out 'medium' as I like it. The hand-cut chips were a real bonus, and a nice change from ordinary chips. One companion had the Jamaican Stew (£8.25), and another, the Homemade Beefburger (£8.95) and these dishes seemed equally well-cooked and tasty. Again, there was quite a delay between the starters being cleared away and the main courses being delivered; we were still munching our way through main courses at 9pm, which to me, having arrived at 7pm, is not such a great service.
By this time, we'd kind of lost interest in pudding. They offer a small selection of puddings (e.g. Treacle Tart £4.45, Apple Crumble £4.75, Black Forest Sundae £5.25 etc.). I thought some of the puddings were on the pricy side, and in all fairness, the service was so slow, I didn't see many tucking into their final course.
Generally the menu is unadventurous, and has moved on little from what was being served in pubs 10 or 20 years ago. On the plus side, these Vintage Inns have always been reliable in terms of the quality of the food, and this was borne out again on this occasion. The service was incredibly slow and not terribly enthusiastic. Obviously, when we visited, it was very busy, but nevertheless, I couldn't help but feel that staff had better things to be doing. For example, one waitress periodically kept going to chat and have a cuddle with a male visitor at the bar, and eventually, both disappeared out back somewhere...
The pub is probably very popular in the summer; it has a large canalside garden, and the car pack is quite big. For evening dining, I suspect that it's busy because a lot of people go in straight from work. The food is good, but like so many places these days, the service is poor and lacklustre. I suspect that the management don't set particularly high standards for their staff to live up to.
There are quite a few dieting websites out there, and I've used several (to little or no effect, but not all their fault!). I was a little sceptical about trying another, but with BootsDiets.com I have been pleasantly surprised.
The website operates on a subscription basis - there are plenty of special offers on the go and occasionally free trials - it currently costs me about £5.99 a month, which to me, seems quite reasonable (and much cheaper than gym membership). Essentially the website creates a diet plan for you based on how much weight you want to lose. It sets weekly calorie and exercise targets which you keep to, and as a consequence, you watch the pounds (and/or stones) drop off... I think that the word 'diet' is slightly misleading; we associate this with cutting things out, but in fact, the website offers the ability to keep track of what you eat and drink, and use this in conjunction with the calorie targets.
When I first signed up, I was very enthusiastic, and quickly input my ideal weight as the target, but after a while, I felt a bit demoralised. I think that for it to work effectively, you need to set smaller targets; it's much easier then to monitor progress. In the end, I decided to start with just a stone, which the website assures me I will lose by mid-April 2011 if I keep to the daily targets. This doesn't seem too bad, and so far, I've lost and kept off about 8 pounds (another 7-8 to go).
Each day, I input what I've eaten and what exercise I've done. The website calculates the calorie/fat included in the foods eaten, and relates this to the daily targets. I was pleasantly surprised to find that in fact, I rarely consume even half these targets each day...in principle, if I took more exercise, I'd lose the weight quicker... What I like about the exercise targets/plan, is that they are based around day-to-day things. Yes, you can enter that your ran a marathon each day for six months, but you can also add that you walked to the shop, hovered the stairs or played the piano. All these things begin to add up. If you have a pedometer (which I've recently got), you can input the steps you do each day as well. Like the food diary, it's been useful to see how much exercise you actually do doing different things. I know now that I can achieve the daily exercise target by walking the mile or so downhill and uphill to the station and back. The website also allows you to consider what you've eaten/exercised within weekly targets, so if you do less exercise one day, you can still make up for it another day. It also keeps track of the amount of water and alcohol you drink, and also what % of your 'five-a-day' you have consumed.
Obviously, the website won't lose the weight for you, but it will certainly help, and in its own funny way, support you. There are online forums available for further support and friendly advice. What the website does is to allow me to keep track of where I am. It's enabled me to stop feeling guilty when I don't eat what I should or don't exercise enough, but instead, maximise on the good days. Having seen the weight begin to drop off, the plans they come up with (which, as I say, are not really 'diets') actually work.
Over the past two years, I've tried out several survey sites - Lightspeed, Ciao, Toluna, YouGov etc. For those who haven't used these sites, the basic idea is that you complete online surveys (usually on various consumer topics) and the site rewards you with points which you can then redeem for vouchers, and in some cases, 'real' money.
My Survey have recently taken over the Lightspeed Panel brand. In my experience, it's one of the few sites which actually offers a reasonably reward for participating. I reckon that it's not too hard in a couple of weeks to accrue enough points for a £5 voucher or PayPal payment. OK, it's not much (about 36p a day), but better than other survey sites.
To give a basic overview, when a survey becomes available, you receive an e-mail. In my experience, it's best to complete the survey as soon as possible, because they all get to a point (some sooner than others) where their quota has been filled. The length of surveys last generally between 10 and 30 minutes, though the time they think you'll take to complete it is a very rough guide. Often surveys begin with some general questions (age, gender, location etc.). Sometimes, on answering these questions, you don't qualify for the survey as they are obviously looking for a different group of participants. On these occasions, you get 5 points anyway. Topics are generally consumer ones - for example, what do you think of your bank, or what do think of this new brand of crisps etc. For completed surveys, the points vary, but I reckon that 75 is about average. Once you've reached about 350 points, you can start redeeming them. The easiest thing to do is to simply accept a payment via PayPal. You can claim other vouchers instead - Amazon, John Lewis, HMV etc.
Part of the problem with the site is that there aren't the volume of surveys available (unlike somewhere like Toluna). I think I probably get about 10-15 a week, of which I might qualify to complete half. There always seem to be one or two which don't work either, and occasionally, you'll come across one where you complete a lot of it then it crashes.
Put it this way, if I didn't have the spare time, I probably wouldn't bother with them. The financial return for the time involved is below peanuts. However, My Survey is better than others. All I use them for is for a little extra money... This year, all my Christmas presents have been paid with vouchers from either DooYoo or My Survey. There are lots of these sites out there (some more reputable than others), and they all have their own strengths and weaknesses. I'd put My Survey quite near the top because you do actually get something tangible in return for your work (and in my experience, PayPal payments and e-vouchers are delivered almost instantly once redeemed).
P.S. I forgot to add that some very short surveys don't award points, but instead you've given 'x' number of entries into a prize draw...apparently people win, but I never have!
I first came across the Music Magpie a couple of years ago, but in my cynical way, felt it was too good to be true, and left it.
For those who haven't used this website, it offers a simple mechanism by where you upload details of CD's you want to sell, they offer you a price which you either accept or decline, and if the former is the case, you send them the CD (free of charge) and they send you the money in return. It seems simple, and it is...
There are some rules, but basically they accept most things. Anything you send has to be in good playable condition, and it is expected that the case and booklet will be unmarked (so no ex-library stickers etc.). You simply fill in the barcode and the website offers you a price - generally, in my experience, these range between 30p and £4 depending on the CD. Classical CD's are generally better paid, while popular albums and singles usually hit just the 30p mark. Once you've uploaded the items you want to sell, you can print the necessary labels, package them up, and send them free of charge.
It usually takes a couple of weeks for them to check through the CD's to ensure they are good enough quality for the price. They can reject them if not up to scratch, and if this is the case, they don't return them...luckily this hasn't happened to me. After this process is complete, they send you a cheque. In the past couple of months, I've turned out about 120 CD's, and they've sent cheques totalling around £150.
You can of course sell CD's on Amazon and eBay, but to be honest, they don't sell very well these days unless they're mint condition; also, by the time you've paid seller fees, PayPal fees and postage fees, you'll potentially make less than you'd be offered through the Music Magpie.
It would be easy to say that The Tea Palace is just an online shop for buying tea; we might possibly add that it's a shop for 'tea lovers'. What it is though is much more than that: it is an experience!
The Tea Palace began as a small shop in Notting Hill, but is now based in London's Covent Garden. It's worth remembering that it was a shop long before it was an online shop! They are quite right in asserting that the kind of tea we drink is pretty poor quality in general. The Tea Palace aims to bring quality teas from around the world to the British Public, first in the shop, and now over the internet.
So, what does The Tea Palace sell? Well, if it's related to tea and tea-drinking, they probably stock it, along with a whole host of things you'd never have thought of. Primarily they sell loose-leaf tea including well known types such as Darjeeling, Earl Grey and Assam. They also stock their own blends such as Palace Earl Grey, Afternoon at the Palace, and Palace Breakfast. They also stock a wide selection of green teas and herbal infusions for something a bit different.
Most of their teas are available in a variety of different sized containers, from a small sample caddy at around £3.25 (enough for 4-6 pots) right up to a 200g caddy (around £11-£12). They also offer a selection of gift sets, and amazingly, they can even create and package a bespoke blend! In addition to the teas themselves, they do stock all the paraphernalia that goes with it; tea pots, infusers, cups, mugs and even sugar sticks.
You might be forgiven for thinking that it's a bit pricy, and in some ways, you're not wrong, but you are buying tea of the highest quality, blended, packaged and sold by experts. The advice offered about blending, buying and brewing tea is invaluable, and their 'Tea Masters' are on hand to answer any queries by e-mail. The staff are knowledgeable and helpful; they possess a rare quality these days: the ability to actually recommend something!
The teas are packaged according to the quantities you buy. I ordered a selection of sample caddys which come in small metal containers. You can get bigger caddys, and then buy refills for them at a slightly reduced price. The taste of the tea is absolutely amazing; it's nothing like the rubbish you get in tea bags and it's not much like the leaf tea you get in the supermarket at all. You are paying for a quality product and a quality experience. I'd rather have one quality cup of tea a day, than 10 mugs of rubbish (and believe me, when you've tried these teas, you'll realise how awful the stuff is you usually drink!).
The website is superb, and very well designed. It is user-friendly and easy to navigate. Ordering is simple and quick and it's made very clear what it is you're buying. They also produce an informative e-newsletter, and when I signed up for this, I got 10% of my first order. There are often other special offers, and it's worth keeping a check on these; for example, when I ordered, it was free postage and packing for the week.
I'm pretty sure that the things I carry round in my bag are useful to me, but would be pretty useless to everyone else, so here goes:
1) Letter from the DVLA revoking my driving licence on medical grounds (deteriorating eyesight) - needed to wave at people (mostly family) who think that at 26 years old, I'm lazy for not driving.
2) Magnifying glass - in case I'm out and about (particularly at the bank) and I'm presented with any documents which are designed only for mice to read.
3) Bus Pass - given to me by the local council in recognition of item 1 above. When I went to collect it, they spoke in very plain English and at a painfully slow speed - I did point out that it was my eyesight, not my intelligence or my hearing which was not working properly.
4) Readers Ticket for the National Archives - the only piece of photo identification I have. Nobody cares what it is really - the just see the photo and nod. It's so difficult when what people really want is a driving licence and you don't have one (again, see 1 above!)
5) Umbrella - since we moved house (further north), I now carry this with me all the time...just in case... Previously, I only carried it if it looked like rain. Up here, you just never know!
6) Spare pair of glasses in case one breaks - I'd be lost without them! (Not that they've ever broken, but if I didn't take them, you know it would be the one day.........)
7) Whistle - I have, for many years had a whistle attached to my bunch of keys - it stemmed from the days of running music/drama rehearsals and needing to get everyone's attention without shouting. I don't use it now...I don't know why I still carry it! I suppose it might be useful one day...
So...a lot of useless rubbish really!
This recipe book with its lovely writing and deliciously appetising photographs caught my eye in the library a couple of weeks back.
The author, Laura Washburn is in fact American, though she went to university in Paris, and now lives in London. As usual, the book is divided into eight sections:
4. Poultry and Game
5. Fish and Seafood
6. Simple Dishes
7. Salads and Sides
8. Sweet Things
The book asserts that 'Traditional bistro fare is the essence of French country cooking...it's not expensive or complicated and it never goes out of style'. One might expect that these philosophies are borne out in the book, but I beg to differ.
The first recipe in the book is for 'Rustic pate with green peppercorns'. It requires no less than 16 different ingredients including veal, calves' liver, green peppercorns in brine and cognac. Now remember, the book claims that the dishes are 'not expensive'. Sadly, whilst all these things might be found as peasant food in France, this is not the case in the UK. Many of the recipes include items which you're not going to find in the average supermarket or high street shop.
Further on, we find a recipe for 'Cabbage soup' but this is no ordinary cabbage soup. It contains pork belly which has to be steeped in pickling salt for three days. Remember, the book claims that the recipes are 'not complicated.
This is all a little unfair though, and there are some delicious recipes - 'Steak and frites', 'Rabbit with prunes', and 'Poached pears in honey wine'. But overall, this isn't the most exciting cookery book I've come across. Virtually all the recipes appear in other books I've already got, and some of the pictures are so alike, I'd say they were identical. I couldn't help but feel that the book was a reflection on how we saw French cooking in the 1970s - French apple tart, Tarte tatin, Rhubarb clafoutis etc.
If I'd bought this book, I think I'd feel a little short-changed, but as it is, I shall just take it back to the library next week!
I consider myself a loyal customer of NatWest for nearly 15 years, but as of late, all has not been well. I currently have three current accounts, a credit card, an eSavings account, and an eISA.
Now, in such a small review, one cannot cover everything, so I'll choose a few things to tell you about which I think give a pretty fair representation of the service provided.
1. INTEREST RATES - The interest rate I get on my eISA is currently 3.1% and this is higher than any other similar account offered by other banks. When earlier in the year I attempted to look at other banks to see whether there were any better deals around, all admitted that they couldn't beat that interest rate on a comparable product.
2. ONLINE BANKING - The online banking site is really very good. I use this for nearly all my banking transactions and hardly ever visit the branch. It is easy to transfer money between accounts and make payments to outside accounts. The statements and transactions are clearly displayed and it's so easy to navigate through the site. This is a real bonus, and I wouldn't be able to manage my finances so effectively without it.
1. FRAUD TEAM - Over the past year, I've been getting an increasing number of calls from the NatWest Fraud Team. I can assure that these calls, which come at any time of the day or night, are spine-chilling. The last one I had was automated and it wasn't at all clear whether it was genuine or not. I had to make a lot of other phone calls to establish this (at my expense of course). Whilst I'm pleased that the NatWest has taken measures to keep abreast of the latest criminal activity, I think it's gone a bit far. The last call I had was because a transaction had been flagged up as being a payment made online to someone where a payment hadn't been made before...it turned out in the end, to be a charity donation to the Red Cross! As someone who checks their bank account on a daily basis (I'm self-employed so this is a 'must'), whilst I appreciate their concert, it's all a bit intrusive!
2. PAYING IN - Over the past few years, the NatWest have introduced a number of machines in their branches which now accept cash to be paid in. In principle, I'd rather pay my money to a human cashier, but in these times of rapid change, sometimes, there isn't much option! I'm finding that an increasing number of coins are being rejected as counterfeit. Now, whilst in principle it's very good of them to tell me, it plays havoc with my accounting! As the coins would be accepted if I paid them in to the cashier, I see no reason why the same shouldn't be the case for the machine!
3. QUEUES - The queues just seem to get longer and longer. No matter how many self-service machines they introduce, the queues never decrease. People's finances have become more and more complicated it seems, and instead of making an appointment to see someone about it, they take up everyone else's time by trying to do it at the counter (and the cashiers are rarely equipped to deal with such issues).
4. FINANCIAL REVIEWS - The bank offers a free financial review periodically, and I feel cross that I've been taken in by this on two separate occasions. What these reviews really are, is a chance to try and sign you up to premium products such as their Advantage Gold accounts (fee-paying current account). Whilst I'm sure the bank would staunchly defend this, the reviewers even have a form to fill out now to see whether you qualify. In the end, they have no idea about financial planning, and cannot make any sensible suggestions, especially if your finances are even a millimetre outside 'the box'.
So, it's all rather a mixed bag. If I could get comparable or better rates elsewhere, I'd probably change, but sadly, that's not the case so I'll stick with it for the time being!
Normally, I make all my own cakes, and only rarely when time is very short am I reduced to buying shop-bought cakes. I like Marmalade Cake, and Yorkshire Tea do make half-decent teabags, so the combination of both seemed a winner. This particular cake caught my eye as it boasted a new and improved recipe; I'm always slightly sceptical of these because one wonders what was wrong with it before?
The first thing to say is that the cake inside the packaging is significantly smaller. It comes in a cardboard case too. I couldn't get the cake to turn out of its cardboard shell, so was reduced to cutting this open.
The cake itself is not technically a Marmalade Cake at all (these are really fruit cakes with marmalade in). It is a sponge cake with a small addition of yellow colouring and a few pieces of candied peal.
Perhaps naively, I was hoping for a cake, albeit a sponge one, which actually tasted of marmalade; sadly, this wasn't the case. The cake had a faint hint of lemon, and actually, if you didn't know, you might mistake it for a lemon cake. Despite this, the texture was good, but really, it had no flavour at all. I felt short-changed, because I certainly couldn't find any evidence of any marmalade anywhere near it unless they forgot to put it in!
As with so many shop-bought cakes, it has that slightly chemical aftertaste which I find unpleasant. It's the sort of taste you get from cakes with too much raising agent (usually baking powder) in them.
Overall, it was disappointing. There was no evidence or taste of marmalade, and given the size of the actual cake inside, not great value either - you'd be lucky to get six slices out of it. The annoying cardboard packaging which had to be dissected before you got to the cake itself was unnecessary.
As an aside, another reviewer mentioned that cake baking is no longer a cheap option because of the electricity. Whilst this might be the case, if you're baking cakes at home from scratch, then the cost of ingredients is significantly lower than the bought version (and much tastier). Any increase in electricity costs are surely outweighed by the reduction in the cost of materials?
When I visited The Hollybush at Priors Marston in Warwickshire last week, I went with high expectations. The pub had a good and modern looking website; and appetising menu; and another website listed it as a 'canalside' pub.
The first thing to say is that this is not in any shape or form a canalside pub; in fact, the canal is several miles away. I was disappointed by this, though in fairness, this information was given on another website (albeit one I consider a reputable one) and not on their own.
The pub is located in the small village of Priors Marston in Warwickshire. It's not far from Banbury and Daventry, and not that great a distance from the M40. Mind you, it takes some finding down many narrow country lanes...it is definitely well-hidden. We went by SatNav...this was a mistake because when the machine announced that we had arrived at our destination, there was no pub in sight...in fact, it turned out to be quite some distance down a different road! There is a reasonable sized car park and a small outdoor seating area.
In general, this is a traditional-looking pub both from the outside and inside. The toilets are particularly impressive...probably some of the best I've ever been in! The floor inside is very uneven, and you do have to be very careful. My eyesight is not good and there wasn't much to hold onto...I can manage it, but it just takes a while!
In all honesty, there wasn't really any welcome at all. It wasn't clear whether one ordered at the bar or at the table, and there appeared to be only one member of staff visible. We hung about a bit, and no one did or said anything, so in the end, we just went and sat down. We waited a while, and still no response, so we ended up going back to the bar where we were able to locate some menus. I felt this was really a very poor show on the part of the staff. I gather that the new management has been in place for a year, so I don't think the excuse of 'finding their feet' is particularly relevant here.
The pub offers quite an extensive menu of starters, sharing plates, country pub classics, main courses and desserts. The food on offer is a curious mix of traditional pub fare, and what one might term to be 'gastropub' food; this is reflected in the prices. At the more traditional end can be found Sausages and Mash (£9.50), Ham, Egg and Chips (£8.50), Sirloin Steak (£16.00); while a little more unusual was Leek and Gruyere Stuffed Chicken with Mushroom Risotto and Veal Jus (£11.50), Parsnip, Pine Nut and Parmesan Roulade with Sweet Potato and Coriander Rosti and Leek Veloute (£10.00), and Pork Belly with Apricot Stuffing, Creamy Mash and Thyme Jus (£11.50).
I could help but feel that some of this menu is little more than showing off. I'd love to know how you make a 'thyme jus' and the idea of a 'veal jus' with chicken seems a bit whacky. I stuck to Ham, Egg and Chips and it was delicious, though as is the case so often these days, it wasn't that hot, and the plate was cold. The ham was first rate though and I'd go again just for that!
We didn't opt for dessert, but these included Apple, Honey and Walnut Crumble (£4.00), Sticky Toffee Pudding (£4.50) and Ice Cream served in a Meringue Nest (£4.00).
I gather that they also offer Sunday Lunch, Curry and a Pint (Mondays, £6.50), Steak and Dessert (Tuesdays, £12.00) and Take-away Fish and Chips (Fridays, £5.00)
On the day we visited, they also seemed to prove a hot buffet which included a choice of pork casserole, lamb casserole or beef casserole with the usual bowls of mixed vegetables. There weren't many people in the pub anyway, and I only saw one other person go up for the hot buffet. They also provide a selection of sandwiches, I assume at lunchtimes only.
I felt that in general, the service was poor. Maybe it was because it was only a Friday lunchtime, it was raining, and there weren't many customers, but the quality of customer service was sorely lacking. As previously mentioned, there was no welcome, and we sat for some time before anyone appeared to take orders for drinks and then for food. It was all done in a rather disinterested way. One member of staff kept wandering off the answer the phone which kept ringing, and another was dispatched to set up the aforementioned hot buffet. It was all very lacklustre, and I didn't feel in any way that I was a valued customer.
Firstly, it was freezing cold. There didn't appear to be any heating on at all, and this wasn't really very pleasant (as I said, the food wasn't that hot either). In all fairness, the atmosphere could be described as frosty (in more ways than one). The staff didn't really show any interest, and there weren't that many other customers. It needed the blazing log fire to warm it up!
The quality of food was good, though not that hot. There's an enormous choice available, and I couldn't help but feel they'd have done better to stick to doing a few dishes well rather than add more and more peculiar combinations. The atmosphere was rather dull and dreary and the staff disinterested. I'm sure that in summer and probably at the weekends, it's very popular; however, this wasn't the case when we visited.
Would I visit again? Probably not because I didn't feel that my custom had been valued on that visit. I've given it two stars because I did think that the cleanliness of the toilets and the delicious ham were exceptional!
I must say, I was very surprised when I looked up this category, to find that the NUS Extra card has so many good reviews. It makes me think, that my experience is unusual!
The NUS Extra card is available to 6th formers and students of all ages, and it offers discounts at many high street and online retailers such as BHS, Staples and Amazon.co.uk. The card costs £11 and runs for 12 months. It can be purchased online, though you do have to upload a photo of yourself for inclusion on the card. For an extra £1 you can also have the card ISIC endorsed. Personally, I only have the card because it offers an Amazon discount (5% off), and as an OU student, this is essential!
I've had a card for three years now, and every year, there's been a problem with it.
The first problem is that when you sign up for the card, it lasts for 12 months. The problem is that in August, there's a crossover between the old cards being valid and the new ones being purchased. It means that some of the previous year's discounts cease and you need to purchase a new card. On this basis, although you're paying for 12 months, you're effectively only getting 11 in some cases. I flagged this up two years running with NUS who said they'd look into it. The first year, I got my money back as they agreed this was a problem. No such luck last year when the same happened.
Secondly, the Amazon discount code doesn't always work. During the first year, you had to enter the code every time you made a purchase. The second year, you entered it once at the beginning of the year, and then the code kept being applied throughout the year. This year, you enter the code once, but it doesn't keep being applied, and you can't enter it again.
It's virtually impossible to contact anyone at NUS Extra to get these problems resolved. E-mails are simply ignored. I had to write and complain formally the first year, and even in that instance, I had to write three times. This is a most dreadful level of customer service. So far as I'm concerned, I've paid for a service, and if that service is not being delivered at the standard advertised, then I expect some form of remuneration in that respect.
I would say that the card does offer good discounts, but I wonder how many people really realise what they're getting out of it?