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Wine is good for you. A bottle of wine shared between two people over dinner in the evening is a thing of delight.
Unfortunately, it's also quite expensive, and it can be quite a risky business because of varying quality between different vintages.
Happily, since 1963, it has been possible to cut down on the costs by making your own wine, beer and other alcoholic drinks at home (but, of course, you are not legally allowed to distil). It is perfectly possible to gather your own ingredients and make wine from these, but as Great Britain doesn't (yet) have the ideal climate for growing grapes (although there are a few very good English vineyards in production), then fruit often provides the best option, especially if combined with grape juice, or even raisins or sultanas. It's a lot of work doing it this way, though. I did once make some elderberry wine of legendary quality that somehow lasted for five years and was virtually like port by then, but the gathering and preparing of the elderberries took AGES.
Luckily, home wine kits are here to help. I have used Young's CWE fruit wine kits for many years, and found the results delicious. It comes in the following varieties:
Damson, Gooseberry, Strawberry, Blackberry,
Apple, Plum, Elderflower, Apricot, Black Cherry, Elderberry
Of these, the elderberry is the best red. It has a dark colour and a memorably rich taste. Blackberry is nice and a little more obviously fruity. the same goes for Black Cherry. Plum is OK, and I haven't tried the Damson for some time. The Strawberry is very pink and nice served cold.
Gooseberry is our favourite white. It used to be a pale straw colour, but now is almost amber in colour. It gorgeous and so is apricot, which has a hint of Viognier about it. Elderflower is very delicate, and suits plaice well. Apple is the least good - better to turn apples into cider, I reckon.
As well as fruit wines, Young's also do more traditional grape wines, some with plain descriptions of colour and style, such as Rich Red, or Dry Crisp White and others with grape descriptions, such as Chardonnay and Rioja. I've not tried any of these, as we like the fruit wines so much.
Here's a link to a website to give an idea of the range:
You need a bit of kit to make your own wine -
A fermenting vessel, which is usually a one gallon demijohn (carboy)
Food grade funnels, and siphoning equipment
Wine bottles and corks (you can get reusable ones). Screw-top wine bottles are excellent.
Gentle heating - either a good airing cupboard or a heated wine mat.
Sterilising fluid (cheap from the chemist) - THIS REALLY MATTERS!!
To make the wine you combine warm water, sugar (500g per gallon of wine for Young's kits) and the gooey mixture from the Young's tin, which is concentrated fruit and grape juice, and then add yeast when the temperature is right.
After about four weeks, your wine should be getting near ready. At that point there's a bit more to do with adding finings to clear the wine, and sometimes a stabiliser - both these are provided in the kits.
I tend to make about eight gallons at once- 48 bottles - and have found that on average it takes about 10 minutes of labour for every bottle I produce.
The cost? If you shop around (I get my kits delivered free by Brew Genie) you can find Young's fruit wine kits for £7.45 (August, 2011. Adding on the cost of sugar, water and washing up, etc. you are still paying less than £1.50 a bottle.
The white wines are ready to drink within about a month of bottling and are best consumed young, while they are at their freshest. The reds need a little longer to mature - 2 to 3 months - but improve with age: I don't know whether you can keep them for more than a year because we polish them off!
You know how it is. You've been in your house a few years and started to realize that there isn't enough storage, or it's the wrong sort. Or maybe you've just moved in and the storage is non-existent (you went there because everything else was great, of course!): in any case you know that the only answer is doing a BIG REFIT (or perhaps just sticking up a couple of shelves.
So you go off to your shelf store, having measured up, pick up shelves and brackets and get home, confident that your stock of screws and wall plugs will help you do the job in half a morning and earn you some top Brownie points.
You mark out the wall with consummate care, pencil, measuring tape and spirit level to hand, checking everything twice, and then you get your drill ready for the first hole. And here is where the problems can begin. If you're really lucky, you live in a wooden house, and the drilling and fitting are really easy. But of course you don't and your walls are made either of plasterboard or brick. And if it's the latter, chances are that you drill straight into the mortar. Here's where you discover that you don't have the right wallplugs or that they simply don't work, either with the wall, by spinning annoyingly round when you put the screw in, or by not matching the screw size anyway. And if you're fixing shelving to plasterboard, then you need specialist fixings that come with their own engineered screws and are expensive.
You wish that it was possible to get a plug and screw that matched each other every time, and that you could use in all wall surfaces.
ABRACADABRA - B and Q appear to have done that with the Multi-Purpose Plug and Screw!
These come in packs of 50, with the following dimensions and prices:
6mm drill, 35mm length - £6.35
8mm drill, 50mm length - £7.88
10mm drill, 60mm length - £9.58
You can also purchase these more economically in boxes of 200 - these come in at about twice the price for the packets of 50, so the unit price is halved.
B and Q's description of purpose is
"For use on light/medium weight items. Ideal for shelving, curtain rails and wall lights".
I now will stick to these, despite the fact that they are quite expensive, as they work beautifully. They fix in both plasterboard and brick, and the screws bed in in a really satisfying manner - you can feel the plug holding firm in the wall and the plug provides just the right amount of resistance to the turning screw to tell you that it will hold. They work in plasterboard because they are designed to expand outward in a manner a bit like a pantomime policeman's knee bend. It's nice putting the plugs in as they have good strong ends that you can gently knock flush to the wall with a soft hammer or (my preferred method) a screwdriver head. The screws, by the way are cross-head ones, and it's worth getting a screwdriver head that matches these well if you are going to use these a lot.
Cosmetics - the plugs are grey, and the screws a sort of brass colour, so although you won't see the plugs after your fab refit, the screwheads will look quite smart.
This, I suppose, is a bit of an oddball subject for a review, but we have had use of the product for nineteen years, since moving to our present house, and only very recently had to replace it.
Why might you need one?
The Saniflo Sanitop Macerator Pump makes it possible to install an extra loo with a wash basin virtually anywhere in the house. When we moved in to our house, there was only one loo, despite the house being of a good size, and so we looked for the best site for a second one. We found it - under the stairs, where there was room for a loo and a wash basin, as well as extra storage space. The only problem was that it was some distance from right part of the drainage system, but our friendly local plumber advised us that he could install a loo by using a Saniflo unit.
The Sanitop needs electrical power, as one of the things it does is to operate a little chopper that spins around inside. The reason for this, is that the system depends on relatively small bore pipe work for its success, as the pump propels the waste material upwards through the pipework a little way so that it can then flow gently where it needs to go, i.e. into the correct part of your drainage system.
Essentially, the Sanitop is a box, with contents. You can see the approximate size from the picture - roughly 34 cm wide, 27 cm high and 17 cm deep. You need a bit of space behind the loo to fit it in (about 20 cm) so planning is important. A large aperture connects to the back of your loo. Another takes the overflow from you cistern, so that is a good fail-safe mechanism. The wash basin outflow feeds directly into the Sanitop through another pipe, and there is one more to take everything away. With ours, all of the pipework to the Sanitop is plastic, so it's really easy to fit. I didn't fit the first one, but I put the second one in myself, and even was able to adapt some of the pipework, Saniflo having slightly changed the model after 19 years.
When you either release water from the washbasin, or flush the loo, then the water goes into the Sanitop. As soon as it reaches a certain level, the chopper spins round and the pump operates. It only runs for a few seconds for each visit, so the use of electrical power is minimal. Whirr, whoosh and everything has gone.
With the first Sanitop, just occasionally (about once every six years) it would get too congested and then there was the less than pleasant task of removing the unit outside to remove the cause of blockages. At the same time, I would give it a jolly good clean. Not nice! We have learned that it's best not to overload with paper - the same as any loo, really - so multiple flushes provide the answer here. When purchasing the replacement model (the reason for this was that something had worn out and the pump mechanism would not turn off: it looked expensive to get someone in, so I sold the old Sanitop to a plumber and bought a replacement) I also obtained some specialised cleaning fluid, and a little alarm system that would alert us if the unit was not working properly and getting too full.
Almost all of the time, the Sanitop is a "fit and forget" piece of kit. It occasionally needs servicing, which takes a couple of hours, but you feel quite good after it's all back in place! With careful searching on the Internet, you can usually get a unit for around £300.
I regret to say that I don't use the train as much as I would like to. The latest price increases have kept most train travel uncompetitive with the car, despite the steep rises in petrol and diesel, and it is sadly true for many journeys in the United Kingdom booked in advance that you can get a much better deal by flying.
Ticket prices on both rail and air are hugely variable depending on the time of day, and these days the most reliable way to find out such costs is to go online.
I travel by train a few times a year, often with the ability to book well in advance, and used to use thetrainline.com to get my tickets. This worked well, but I noticed first that there was a booking fee of £1 applied to every transaction, and then that there was a charge of £3.50 for using a credit card. Nasty!
So, back to the internet to find another supplier. Up came redspottedhanky.com: their charming name was a plus, and the discovery that they neither imposed a booking fee nor a credit card charge, I explored the site further. The range of tickets, journeys and prices was exactly the same as on thetrainline.com for any journeys I researched. Furthermore, I found there was a loyalty reward system. Now I like these on principle for any company that I would use anyway, as you can only gain, as long as you continue to shop around. On respottedhanky.com you win back a penny in the pound.
To book your train or look up times you go to the "Mixing Deck". Searching for times is straightforward and similar to thetrainline.com in that you select your departure and destination stations via a couple of boxes with auto-complete facilities. If you know the standard station abbreviation then you can enter that instead. For times, you are asked to complete a "depart after" option. Trains can be booked 12 weeks in advance, as is normal with most train operators - here it should be noted that redspotted hanky.com is operated by ATOS themselves, so you can be confident that the prices are genuine.
After you have put in all your details, including preferences for the route where this is available, and whether you wish to include 1st class fares, or avoid changing trains, you click on "Search" and pretty quickly you see the options ahead of you. Here, I like the screen better than on thetrainline.com because you can see the fares and journey times immediately, rather than having to click to further display. At this point, you can select your journey and go to pay, or go backwards a step to amend your search.
You are offered a plethora of choices regarding you seat. It's almost like ordering eggs for breakfast in America. Aisle or window, individual or table, quiet or not, with or without a view. Surprisingly, there doesn't seem to be an option for choosing between facing forwards or backwards. If going to London, you can include the purchase of a Tube Travelcard at this point.
Repottedhanky claim to fnd you the cheapest fares available for travelling in Great Britain. They do have a Price Promise, but you have to be pretty active to claim it. If you find a cheaper fare by midnight on the same day that you booked with them, then they refund the difference but only in Loyalty points. So this would mean a refund on your next journey - still, that's better than nothing!
Tickets can be sent to you through the post. There is no charge for tis service and they go first class. I have used this twice - both times, the tickets arrived on the first day possible after booking (obviously this won't be the next day if you buy your ticket after the last post has gone!). A nice thing is the presentation of these in a red spotted folder, a little like a neatly folded handkerchief. You can also get your tickets at Fast Ticket machines, located at many stations. I prefer to do this if I can, for security.
If you are a Tesco shopper, there is an added bonus in that Clubcard Rewards can be used on redpottedhanky.com at a ratio of 3:1 - i.e. £10 of Clubcard points can be converted to £30 worth or train tickets. You have to process this first via Tesco's Clubcard site, but that's a marvellous saving. There are also commercal links with SeatWave, BAO and RailEurope, which can work to your advantage.
Other features of the site are good, too. There is a comprehensive and clear range of FAQs about how it all works. On the front page, there are some impressive headline offers. These are typically between major cities and have to be taken on a specified day, but that could be useful if you knew, for example, that you had to get something from Manchester, Edinburgh or Birmingham, and could adjust your plans to include this day. There's also some friendly advice about how to shop around for the best ticket prices.
Oooh Mr. Dyson is a clever chap! You would think by now he had gone as far as he could go with the vacuum cleaner, but this man keeps on inventing new twists.
The Dyson Ball (DC15) first came out in 2005. This year, it has been superceded by the DC25, similar but lighter, and the DC24, built altogether on a smaller scale.
The idea of the ball is great. Instead of having to keep of the wheels of the machine on the ground, which makes for quite a bit of resistance when turning corners, the Dyson 24 (and the other Ball machines) runs on the ball. It's connected to the pick-up head by a rotating joint, which means that the head stays flat to the floor while the rest of the machine dances round corners. This works superbly well: it's brilliantly manoeuvrable.
The point of the DC24 is to provide a lighter version of the DC25. We bought it for bungalow use: it's worth noting that if you live in a house with stairs that unless you have short flights then you will find yourself cleaning from top and bottom, so I wouldn't recommend this machine there so much - there could be a danger of it being pulled down from a top step. On the other hand, it's dead easy to carry and to move around as it weighs just 5.4kg, as opposed to 7, 8 or more for most upright vacuum cleaners.
When the DC24 arrives, you have to put it together to some extent, and you have to accept the guidebook's instructions, which are all in pictures. I like pictures, but I like words as well, and I feel that the instructions were short. OK, most people know what a hoover does, but there are first-time users all over the world, and I don't feel that picture instructions do the job properly.
That being said, I enjoy working out how things fit together without consulting the instruction manual until desperate, and I didn't find any problems with the DC24.
It stores really well, as the vertical handle is telescopic. In the picture, if you imagine the two handles being in position next to each other, then that is how it can be stored, so it doesn't take up much cupboard space.
Basic operation is simple. There's a big red button to make it go (and stop). This automatically turns on the brush mechanism, but this can be switched off by pressing a button next to the Big Red. We have found that the brush mechanism is brilliant for getting up dog hairs - you wouldn't believe that a labrador could moult so much in a week! As it's a Dyson, the head keeps very close to the floor and the suction is excellent.
The only attachment provided is a small suction brush. This stores neatly on the machine - a much better system than some previous Dysons, where the attachments live rather precariously and messily on a ring around the hose. To use the suction brush, you take off the handle, and then connect the brush to a spring-wound tube that can be drawn out from the rear of the DC24. This is another neat storage idea. The tube extends quite a bit - certainly enough to get under tricky items of furniture, and you can make it longer by clipping the handle (inverted) to the spring-wound tube, thus enabling some serious cobweb busting to take place.
Because this is a small machine, the dust container is small. I would estimate that we have to empty this one twice as often as with our DC08. On the plus side, emptying is easy, and cleaning is very easy - again a bit of a problem with some previous Dysons. Regular maintenance otherwise consists of washing the two filters. One is easy to access - the other, actually in the ball, is rather harder to get to. Once wahsed, you leave them to air-dry for 24 hours.
There's also a possible issue with the length of the flex, which is only 20 feet. If you have plenty of electrical sockets, then this should not be too much of a problem, although it's quite irksome having to replug a machine several times. The best solution is probably to attach an extension lead that is long enough. Cable storage is on the budget side - you wind it round two plastic hooks at the read of the machine. I'm not too keen on this, as in the end it puts strain on the cable and the hooks: it's best if you remember to wind it up different ways each time. I prefer the cable storage on the DC08, which zips into the machine on a spool when you press a button.
It's fine for sound. You don't expect a vacuum cleaner to be silent, especially when it's produced to be light in weight, and the sound this one makes at least tell you that the motor is working fast. The handle makes it easy to carry - Dyson have obviously thought about this carefully and found the best balance point. It looks good, with a nice gold element in the colour scheme. Mechanically, it's clever, although I have to say that it doesn't feel wholly robust. We've not had it long, so this is not to say that it won't last for ages, but, like my golf swing, there seem to be a lot of moving parts!
Safety - if you mistakenly run the head over something that the DC24 is not deisgned to pick up, or it gest clogged, e.g. with threads, then there is an automatic cut-off for the brush mechanism, thus protecting it. Once you have removed the obstruction, this can be reset with a pop-in button.
Price......well you will know that Dysons are not cheap. I've seen this on the Net at over £300, but we got ours on Amazon for £194 and it took just four days to arrive with free delivery.
OK, these days many people won't look at a mobile unless it has a big colour screen, full-blown internet access, will take photos and videos and a whole bunch of other things that have been added on.
The Nokia 3410 is a bit more than just a phone, but not much by modern comparisons. We got ours about nine or ten years ago, and they are both still going strong. At the time, they were all the rage and very popular. We got ours for emergency use, and haven't really found the need for "upgrading".
So - what can it do and how well does it do it?
Firstly, it's a mobile phone. Making and receiving calls is straightforward, but the volume on the receiver is only moderately loud, so that it is hard to make a successful call if you are somewhere noisy, like a busy street. I think it can store about 200 names and numbers, and it's easy to edit these. the Call Register stores the most recent numbers you have dialled or received and also lets you know costs.
Texting is easy, and this is one of my main uses, as I have a good value PAYG deal (ASDA) so it doesn't cost much to keep in touch. You can switch easily between standard message composition and predictive texting - I prefer the latter, although I wish the phone could learn more of the words I sometimes use! You can add rudimentary pictures and select from a few smileys supplied on the phone. Messages can be saved before sending. There's a character counter which shows you whether your text will be sent as one, two or three units. I find this very useful to help me edit down my texts to save money.
The battery lasts for about five days if the phone is left on all the time and not used, and of course for less than this if you make calls or texts. There's the usual four-bar battery level indicator, and you get a series of loud beeps when the power is low, which means that your phone is almost dead (temporarily) as once those beeps come you don't have much time left. It takes about three hours to charge up on the mains, so that's not too bad.
The display is easy to read. Apparently it's green, but I hadn't noticed. It's easy on the eye.
Security is straightforward. You can set the phone up to lock the keyboard - useful if you keep your phone in your pocket as it's surprisingly easy to make a call inadvertently. I've done this a couple of times, and count myself lucky that nothing embarrassing resulted! You can also set up the phone with a PIN in case some clown nicks it.
Other features include a few games - Snake II, Bumper, Bantumi, Space Impact and Link 5. I've occasionally resorted to these when very bored and there's absolutely nothing else to do. This doesn't happen at all often, but the games all come with instructions and all work although sometimes the small screen makes bits of them quite hard to see.
You can set up the phone to ring in different ways, including vibrating without noise. My favourite feature hear is the Composer, where you can painstakingly piece together your own unique monophonic ringtone. Mine is rhythmically odd and very chromatic, and nobody else in the world has it!
You can download ringtones, games and pictures, but I have not wanted to spend money doing that. There's no indication of how much this might cost, so I keep away from things like that!
It's got a clock of course, so you can set alarms and reminders, but the clock needs checking every week or so as it can quite quickly get a minute or two out.
Over time, the screen can lose a little bit of its clarity. I bought a leather case to protect the phone, which has lasted well, and gave it a smart new blue case quite recently (magenta one for the Mrs) which looks nice!
Nokia have moved on since making this model, but you can easily pick one up on Ebay for very little (typically about £5) - that's a good source too for replacement batteries. We've changed networks on our phones, and that was straightforward too. It's also easy to use abroad, as it automatically locks on to the local signal for you, but also gives you the option to override this facility.
Particularly if you've never had or used a mobile phone before, getting a Nokia 3410 would be a great way to try one out, especially if you don't wnat all the whizzo extras other phones provide - at a cost!
In case you think all I buy is kettles, I should explain that my other recent review of a kettle is for one bought for my department at work, which I chose, and use every day.
We needed a new one at home, too, as the old one was getting dangerous and so we went out to have a look at what was there, first thinking we would get another jug kettle with the blue light (Russell Hobbs). Then we saw the Pyramid.
The picture above doesn't really do this kettle justice - it's nice enough in stainless steel, but the great thing about the Pyramid is the colour range. Cream. blue, green, black and red. The finish on the paintwork is as good as on a car, and you feel protective in the same way. I felt particularly so after we got home with our red beauty, as I had read a few reviews which suggested that they kettles could scratch easily. I've not tested it, but do take extra care when filling.
Also, the handle on the lid is not the same as in this picture: it's circular, and lined with insulating material so that your fingers need not come into contact with a hot surface. The kettle body does remain hot after boiling, as it's a metal kettle, and if you take the lid off for immediate refilling, then you run the risk of getting scalded. That's not a criticism of the kettle as that's what you would expect. Filling through the spout is the best option and easy to do. The kettle pours well, predictably and accurately.
Here are the features of the Pyramid kettle with brief comments
Water level indicator - this is at the back of the ketlte and is clear to read. Anything from 500 ml upwards
Safety locking lid - this fits on very firmly; well engineered
3kW element - it's fast.
1.5 litre capacity - what it says on the tin
360 degree cordless base - fairly standard these days but it's true. The kettle is bigger than the base, so you have to be good at centring it
Removable limescale filter - easy to clean, expecially if you do it regularly, and fill via the spout rather than the lid. This is pretty easy to do, but you need to take care of that delicate painted surface
Concealed element - so you can boil small amounts safely
Illuminated on/off control - this is a little red light at the back
Automatic Switch off - this works efficiently
Fail safe Cut Out - I haven't wanted to test this, as I don't like boiling empty kettles, but it's obviously a good idea
So this is a kettle that works well. Just as importantly, it looks great in your kitchen. We felt very cheered up every day for several weeks and still are sometimes, when first seeing our happy blue kettle in the morning. I know that's a bit on the sad side, but it's better than being grumpy!
RRP is a steep £51, but shopping around should get you one for about £30.
It's not the quietest of kettles about, but I find that reassuring - I like to know that the kettle is on and working.
It's true! The Tesco Value toothbrush is yours for 5p! To be fair, you have to buy two of them, so you're shelling out 10p, but if you have a spouse or a partner or like to keep a spare, then that's just fine.
Dentists and oral hygiene experts recomend that you change your toothbrush at least four times a year, and more often if you suffer from gum disease. Toothbrush manufacturers seem to capitalise on this by charging high prices - you can easily pay more than £2 for a toothbrush in many supermarkets. If you change one of these every three months, that's £8 - £32 for a family of four.
If you go for the Tesco Value Toothbrush, then a year's supply costs 20p per person.
Of course, being cheap is no earthly good unless the product works, so that's the acid test of this one.
A quick description first:
The TVT is 7.3 inches long, of which 4.6 inches constitutes the handle. The head is just over an inch long, with the brush area occupying 1 inch by 0.35 inches. The bristles are arranged in four columns of seven ranks, with an additional three-rank at either end. This means that its big enough to work effectively, but also small enough to reach the more difficult parts of the mouth. The bristles are available only in medium gauge, but I think that's the best - I used to go for hard toothbrushes, but they can more easily damage your gums if used too vigorously.
To help operation, there are small raised ridges to grip to the toothbrush by, when held by thumb and forefinger of either hand. These are comfortable to use and help prevent slipping, which could otherwise hurt your mouth. However, if you have to work at the very back of your mouth, these ridges can just ride over your lip, which is a tiny bit uncomfortable.
The plastic feels strong, but slightly flexible, and it feels like the TVT will last well. The surface is perfectly smooth, and easy to keep clean. The head has lasted well so far, and the performance on my teeth is good.
Of course, you can use toothbrushes for a variety of other cleaning purposes as well. We have cats at home, and so there are occasional little accidents to clear up - we always keep old toothbrushes to use with carpet cleaner, and the TVTs will see out their retirement phase in this way. You could buy a pack or two just for that purpose - at 10p a pack, why not?
The design is simple. After all, this is only a toothbrushand you don't want the whole world to see you in operation! Colour is white only. That could be a problem in a large family, but you could easily fix a label on by drilling through the handle, or simply rationalise storage.
This one's fast. After all, if you want a cup of tea, you don't want to be hanging around, so that matters. It takes just under two minutes to boil 3 pints (1.7 litres) of water from cold. There's a 3kw heater powering all that.
It's stylish, in dark blue, with a cool blue light that comes on when the kettle is working.
Like all modern kettles, it sits on a round base, on which it can rotate without restriction. It's easy to put the kettle on it, and feels safe to use. It balances well in the hand, so you don't feel that there's any danger of spilling hot water accidentally. The water pours well, without any difficulty.
It's quite big, in the style known as a jug kettle, but I think it looks smart, and it has received quite a few compliments from friends.
There's a lever that opens the top for quick filling, or you can fill through the spout, which is quite a good idea from time to time, just to give the (removable) limescale filter a bit of a clean. You should take it out to clean every so often, especially if you live in a hard water area: this is quite easy to do, and a toothbrush does the job well. The kettle is on the tall side, though, so needs to be filled at the kitchen sink, with reasonable care.
There's an easily visible water gauge, so you can avoid wasting money and just boil what you need from half a litre upwards, enough for a single cup of tea or coffee.
Prices vary - we got ours for just under £30 from Tesco, and, depending on what colour you would like (blue, black, red or green) you can get one for as little as £25, including delivery elsewhere.
10000 steps a day sounds an awful lot to do, especially when you work out that it takes a good six miles to achieve this, and that's if you have a pace of nearly a yard in length. At work at the start of the year, we had a talk from a wellbeing guru, who recommended taking up regular exercise and starting something new. I've always enjoyed walking quite fast, but thought that I would now try to do a good brisk walk every day, and so far have managed to keep it up.
I've had a few pedometers over the years, all of which were cheap and cheerful until I heard about the Omron Walking Style Pedometer (not the snappiest of names!). Instead of the usual £5 or so, this set me back more than £22 from Amazon, and this apparently represented a discount from £30.
The trouble with the other pedometers was that they were mechanical. For a start, they clicked out loud as you walked. Secondly, none of them was particularly reliable in operation. Quite often, you could walk 500 steps and they would only count half of them. Furthermore, I would find myself listening for the click inside the machine in the hope of reassuring myself that they were working, instead of jsut enjoying the walk. At the same time, though, I started to keep a daily record of my walking.
In the end, I gave up on the cheap pedometers, and, for a while, worked out my paces and distances by calculating from how fast I walked, the length of walk and my pace length, but when I read about the Omron, with some favourable reviews on Amazon, I had to try it.
The big difference is that it works by using a sensor rather than a moving part - so there's much less wear, making it stay accurate for longer. You can input your weight to the nearest kg and your pace to the nearest cm, so the calculations it makes for you can be pretty accurate. Also, you can clip it to your belt, put it in your pocket or even somewhere like your golf bag and it still counts well.
It is certainly much better at recording my steps than the cheap mechanical pedometers I have had before. I've tested it now for three weeks, and am very impressed by the accuracy of the figures. I know that I walk at about 140 paces a minute when walking for exercise, and check the readings frequently on the Omron. It agrees!
It's a gadget, so it will also tell you how many calories you have used and how many grams of fat you've burned up. Another cool thing is that it records you aerobic exercise time, by waiting until you have walked continuously for 10 minutes (at 60 or more paces per minute, so not fast) and then keeping a separate count of this. It even allows you resting periods of up to a minute within this continuous count.
It keeps records on a daily basis, resetting every 24 hours, so I set the time for this at a time of day when I know I'll not be out walking. You can access the daily records in detail over a weekly period by clicking buttons on the Omron, but it gets better! The Omron comes with a CD and USB connection, so that you can download up to 41 days' worth of data to your PC. There's a neat little programme which allows you to set targets and to measure your own performance.
Once the data is there, you can do all sorts of geeky things with it, as the programme will then chew over your data so that you can view your performance retrospectively on a hourly basis. This can appear as an Excel file or on a pdf. I suppose if you were worried about being a sleepwalker, then you could pop it into a pyjama pocket (assuming certain things here!) and check up in the morning whether you had been anywhere......
Batteries are those flat metal ones you get in watches - easily obtainable for less than a pound a time, and they are supposed to last for about six months. I'll update this review when the first battery gives up.
All in all, the Omron looks smart, is inconspicuous to wear, makes no noise and works accurately. It's also fun and satisfying to use. And it encourages the healthy pursuit or walking. It has helped me to get to know the district where I live so much better - in a car, you miss almost everything, especially the fascination of interconnecting footpaths. And on top of this, if you like gadgets, then it gives you a double whammy!
If you love the canals, then I can thoroughly recommend the Canal Shop company. Here's why.
If you visit a canal, either by boat, by bicycle or on foot, then it's nice to have a souvenir of your visit. The Canal Shop will sell you what is generally known as a Bridge Plaque. These are satisfyingly heavy items made out of brass, painted on one side, with the name of a canal, an aqueduct, a bridge a junction, a lock flight or another iconic part of the canal system in raised lettering, together with a characteristic picture. The Canal Shop has a splendid selection of these, together with a special page to tell you about others that can only be bought on location, as it were. These sell at £5.95 each and look great either on your boat, or on display at home. The shop is run by a friendly chap called Neil, who always sends an e-mail back when you order from the site, as a security measure, and who is very fair about postage charges, always giving you a refund if the actual cost of sending you the items is less than the site's estimate. He posts pretty quickly, too.
If you wish, you can get on the mailing list, which simply means that you get an e-mail from Neil every month or so telling you what's new for sale. I found this really useful quite recently when we had been on the Union Canal in Scotland, and were delighted to get an e-mail to say that a plaque had just been made available. Result!
There's lots of other stuff as well, thought so far I have only bought plaques. Neil stocks all of the well-known canal guides, such as Pearson's and Nicholson's, with a good offer on the latter, where he is selling off copies of the 2007 edition at £10 as opposed to the 2009 edition at £14.50 (RRP £14.95). He sells Imray's maps and Ordnance Survey maps at quite reasonable prices, though can't compete with Amazon here.
There are boating magazines, pictures, ornamental model boats (really nice, some of these: we picked up a comparable 8 inch model of narrowboat "FERRET" elsewhere before discovering the Canal Shop. It's only £7.50 and very well made, with quite a lot of details. A larger model (17.5 inches) of "VULCAN" costs £15.95 and would grace an enthusiast's mantelpiece.
Dig further on the site and you find chinaware - canal themed teapots, decorative picture plates and traditional Measham mugs. Traditionalists can keep themselves busy with needlework kits and crochet books. There are warm woolly hats with words on, and also examples of traditional boating clothing, such as stripey collarless shirts (cotton) for £25, sold in support of the wonderful steam narrowboat "PRESIDENT".
You can buy canal illustrated greetings cards, jigsaws, badges, bookmarks, keyrings, magnets and spoons. If you want to get stuck into rainy day indoor canalling, there is even a board game (£24.95) on which you try to out-construct your opponents in a simulation of 18th century canal mania.
It's a nice friendy site to browse, and we have always received excellent service there.
Every so often there's a big thump on the doormat. Wayhay! - it's the Screwfix catalogue! That's great bathtime reading for about a fortnight while I fantasise about other ways in which I can turn little bits of our house into dust for the vacuum cleaner. (No, I haven't lost it: but in the middle of a recent shelving project, which necessitated the drilling of 72 holes in the wall, resulting in lots of little piles of red dust, it struck me that our house is gradually being taken to landfill in dustbin bags.)
If you haven't come across Screwfix, let me explain that it is a serious building supplies company that started life selling screws, but got big in the 1990s running a catalogue mail order service. The internet was perfect for a company like this, and Screwfix is the UK's biggest online supplier in its field.
So you can still buy screws, but now can add to this virtually any tool to make a house with. For stuff like bricks, timber, concrete and roof tiles you'll need to go elsewhere, but this is the place for hand tools, fixings, abrasives, safety equipment, doors and windows, flooring, kitchens, security items, power tools, bulk paint, cleaning supplies (especially on an industrial scale), heaters, dehumidifiers.........go and take a look at the site!
The website, like the catalogue, is jam-packed with goodies. As I started off with Screwfix as a catalogue customer, I have only more recently used the website. It's fabulous, particularly the search facility, which is intelligently designed to help you think of things that you might need. Type in "TILES", for example, and 106 relevant items pop up, including a selection of tiles for various applications, as well as adhesives, grouts, grout reviver, tile cutters and a tile removing chisel. Type in "DRILL"and you are presented with a range of power drills, bits, chuck keys, self-drilling screws, drill spares and accessories including virtually everything that can be run from a drill.
Prices are generally very good, although you sometimes have to buy in bulk to get the real benefit. Shelf brackets come in boxes of twenty, for example. Now that suits me, because I like putting shelves up, (yes, really!) but you have to weigh up the delayed benefit of keeping things on stock at home sometimes against buying just the right number at twice the unit price from somewhere else. If you are in the building trade, then buying in bulk is smart, and here it's easy. Prices on electrical goods are not stunning and you might get cheaper elsewhere online.
Delivery is fast. If you order by 6:00 then you should expect to get the goods next day by 6:30 p.m. In practice, I have found that it often comes by lunchtime. This is standard delivery and costs £5, but is free if you spend at least £50. I have found myself trying to make up the £50 to qualify for free delivery. If you want your good earlier in the day then for £10 they will get it to you by noon, and for £15, it will arrive before 10:30. Expensive, but impressive. Their delivery range for the 24-hour service goes up to the line joining Glasgow and East Fife, with the rest of Scotland and all of Northern Ireland served within 48 hours.
Very excitingly, Screwfix have now opened a number of retail outlets, which function just like Argos shops: you browse a catalogue, fill in an order slip, pay, and wait a few minutes for your package to be brought to you. There's one near us in Shropshire, and it is excellent. If they don't have what you ask for in stock, they will guarantee to get it in the next day or give you a £10 voucher. I don't suppose that happens very often. The smart thing to do therefore is to telephone them before you travel and make the order over the phone, in case you have to wait a day before picking it up.
The only thing you don't get at Screwfix Online is the chance to look at and handle the goods before purchase. I love good independent DIY shops, and use our local ones whenever I can. It's still possible there to buy an exact number of screws out of cardboard boxes, rather then prepacked in a plastic bag, and the advice you get is usually well-informed, but on all other counts, Screwfix comes up trumps.
Unless your surname is Lucky, then if you drive a car anywhere away from home then you need breakdown cover. Like all worthwhile insurance, then it is really worth it for peace of mind. That's good for your health for a start.
Which provider to choose? I've been a member of the AA for nearly three decades, and have been very happy with their service. I joined the AA rather than the RAC as my father was an AA member, and I trusted his judgement.
What you pay for AA membership in 2010 depends on what you want to cover. Breakdown cover means if the AA can fix it at the roadside, they will. If they can't, they will arrange a local repair for you, but you would have to pay for this. However, from 2004, the AA AA launched a breakdown promise - 'to fix a member's car by the roadside or get them another one' - that gives personal members a courtesy car for 24 hours if their broken-down vehicle cannot be fixed there and then.
If you have a car under 10 years old, you can cover it for breakdowns for just £28 a year. Alternatively, you can cover the driver for £39.20, two people sharing the same address for £59.15, or up to four people living together for £100.87.
If you are on a budget, then this option at least gets a reassuring AA patrolman to you, which could be very reassuring in difficult circumstances such as darkness, remoteness or bad weather. On that point, the AA do operate a sensitive priority system for attending breakdowns, so that lone ladies are reached first.
If you want a bit more, the there is the famous Relay service, which takes you and the car to a destination of your choice on the United Kingdom mainland. This could be perfect if you were going on holiday - the car could be taken to a garage near to where you were staying, and mended while you hired a substitute vehicle. Prices for this , when added to basic breakdown cover, run between £69 and £122.03 for one to four people.
Rolls-Roycing this option is called Stay Mobile. If the AA can't fix your car, then they provide you with alternative transport. You choose between a replacement car for up to 72 hours, public transport costs or overnight accommodation. Prices go between £62.65 and £132.37 when added to basic breakdown cover.
The final bit you can add in is Home Start. The AA's standard breakdown cover doesn't apply if you are at or very near home. I'm not quite sure why, but this has always been the case. Perhaps it's to stop people cheating on the system and buying a heap of junk, towing it home, and then hoping that the AA will fix it. However, it can be desperate if your bona fide jalopy won't play ball in the morning and you have to get in to work, or away on holiday. With Home Start, you're covered at home as well as away from it. This costs £70.35 to £159 when added to the basic breakdown cover.
£138.60 - to £218.62 is what it costs for having all the options.
My own experience of calling the AA with a car not going has always been positive. When you telephone, the call is answered promptly. You describe where you are, which car you are in, and tell them the problem. The AA used to say that you would be attended within the hour, and I have never known them come later than that. More recently, they have said that they will be with me in 45 minutes, and still managed that. Most problems have been fixed there and then: the only one that wasn't was a clutch on a VW Beetle that died in Gloucester on the way to a B and B holiday in Wales. Luckily we had AA Relay and they took us to Cheshire by request, where we stayed for a few days with family while the Beetle was fixed, before heading for Wales.
About five years ago, we had a very nice letter from the AA which thanked us for our loyalty to them, rewarding us with Complimentary Home Start, which is worth about £33 for the two of us.
There are other breakdown services. The RAC is the historical competitor and offers very similar products at very similar prices. The RAC claims to have more patrol cars per member than the AA, so is probably an equally good bet. Green Flag have arrived on the scene more recently. They claim an average arrival time of 30 minutes, and to fix 86% of breakdowns at the roadside. Their website takes a bit longer to get prices, some of which are lower than the AA and the RAC. Unusually, they give you £10 back if they don't get to you within the hour. I wonder whether this would still apply in remote areas of Scotland! ASDA does a breakdown service too.
The AA have had to move with the times quite a bit. Before the days of mobile phones, they supplemented the number of call boxes in the country by adding special ones of their own, which could only be opened with a special AA key. Sadly, these are now redundant, as is the AA patrolman on his motorcycle, as is also the original ornate AA members' badge, examples of which can still be found on Ebay. AA shops have closed down. Fascinatingly, they all used to called Fanum House - fanum being the Latin for temple. The HQ in Basingstoke still bears the name.
The AA is itself a good organization, which has supported the needs of the motorist for over a century. The website is excellent, and the route planners, which date back to the days when these could be ordered through the post by members, are helpful and accurate, especially regarding journey time.
And that concludes my 100th Dooyoo review!
One of the troubles with either writing or reading a review about something like Optrex is that it makes you think that you need it. What I mean is that once you start thinking about matters such as whether your eyes feel a bit dry or dusty or sore, then you will start to think that they are at least one of these things. You will then need to try some eye lotion just to feel fresh again.
The Company and the product
Optrex is made under the umbrella of Crookes Healthcare, and based in Nottingham. The declared ingredients in the lotion are purifed water, alcohol, boric acid, glycerin, witch hazel (that's an evocative name from childhood!), sodium borate and benzalkomium chloride.
Optex state that the ingredients are balanced at the natural pH level lf tears, which is why it feels so comfortable in the eyes.
Optrex has been around for decades. The Eye Lotion comes in a reassuring coloured glass bottle - clear, brown or blue - and there is a handy and comofortingly shaped eye bath.
To apply, you fill the eyebath about a third full with the lotion, having first made sure that it is entirely clean. Optrex recommend washing it out with some of their lotion, but you could probably do just as well with boiled water - taking all necessary precautions, of course.
You fit the eye bath over en eye, making a seal so that none can leak out, and lean your head back just enough so that the lotion can gently wash over the surface of your eye. As long as you can keep your eye open - which is a thing I find hard to do, as I always shut my eyes when swimming underwater - then the feeling of the cool liquid bathing your eye is really nice. Once you have done both eyes, they feel lovely and clean and very often the soreness goes.
It's important to pour away the lotion and wash the eye bath with fresh solution between each application, i.e. between eyes, as it were. If you don't then you could pass infection from one eye to another.
Another good tip is to keep the lotion in a cool but not cold part of the house, so that your eyes are refreshed and not shocked.
When to use it
Optrex point out what you already know but maybe don't recognize sufficiently: driving, computer use, air conditioning, smoke and central heating can all put strain on the eyes and cause discomfort. So Dooyoo members are at risk on at least one cound, of not three or four! I certainly notice my eyes getting a bit sore if I have a lot of driving to do in a day, and wish I had some eye lotion with me then.
It's quite cheap - about £3.50 for 300 ml. Optrex tell you not to keep the lotion for more than three months. I'm not sure about this, but could not possibly comment!
One thing Optrex won't do is to cure your eyes of infections - so if the lotion doesn't alleviate pain, you need to consult a doctor. But it is good for giving them a nice refreshed feeling.
You don't really know until you try. Fresh pasta is so much nicer than the dehydrated version from the packets. OK, you can still make nice dishes from a box, especially if you pay a bit more and buy egg pasta, but fresh pasta knocks spots off it. The bad news is that it's not that easy to get hold of, and it costs quite a lot more than dried.
But the REALLY good news is that it's easy to make your own, and it doesn't cost a great deal. To make a lasagne for two, for example, you can create the pasta with four ounces of flour and a large egg. Double that if you're both hungry and want a little left over.
So where does a pasta machine come in? What is one?
You start by mixing the dough. Just flour and eggs, in the ratio of 3 2/3 ounces to one large egg. You can use a food processor with a dough hook, or a big bowl, or just a clean flat, floured surface. The flour should be type 00, which is extra fine. You might need to shop around a little bit to get this. Whizz up the eggs, and mix them thoroughly with the flour, then knead vigorously (I really enjoy this bit!) until the dough is nice and springy. Then cover the dough and let it rest in the fridge for an hour
Clamp your pasta machine to a table, have a little flour ready to dust the dough in case it sticks (I don't find mine does) and start rolling.
The Imperia is the real deal used by top places. The picture tells you exactly what it looks like, a beautifully engineered miniature mangle made from chrome-plated steel, operated with a wooden handle You take a ball of pasta dough, about the size of a small egg, and feed it through the machine on its widest setting (No. 1 - there are six width settings). Out it comes, quite thick and roughly flat. Fold it in half, and set the machine a little narrower to No 2. Out it comes, a bit thinner and either longer or wider, depending on which way you folded it in half. You repeat this process all the way to number 6 setting, the narrowest. If you are a purist, you then roll it up into a ball again and start again.
What is happening here is that you are not just thinning out the dough but continuing to work and knead it. It comes out astonishingly strong and flexible at the same time. On the second progression down from setting 1 to 6 you aim to finish with a beautifully smooth and thin pasta sheet a few inches wide, as if you were going to make lasagne.
The Imperia is really easy to work through this process: you just crank the handle with one hand, using the other firstly to feed the dough in and secondly to support the sheet when it comes out. It's enormously satisfying to be producing this having begun with the raw ingredients of just flour and eggs, and to do it all by hand.
The finished sheets can be hung over the banisters or something like a towel rail until they are all done. They are then ready to cook, but they can also be frozen until needed. You might spend twenty minutes making up your pasta sheets, but you save a bit on cooking time, so this is ecologically good as well as giving you a bit of pleasant exercise and getting close and personal with your food.
The Imperia SP150 comes with an extra attachment with two settings that will shred your pasta sheets into tagliatelli or fettucine. You simply remove the crank from the main body of the machine and put it into the attachment, then feed the sheets through. Easy.
Pasta is really clean to make, so the only cleaning you have to do is to wipe the machine with a dry cloth. Using water is a bad plan because the Imperia might get rusty. The only fiddly bit to clean comes if you use the tagliatelli or fettucine attachments, so you might prefer to do some skilful knife work instead.
You will find yourself paying the best part of £40 for an Imperia. It's well engineered and feels like it will last for ever, so you need to think of it as a long-term investment. You save a little bit of money each time you use it, if the alternative would be to buy fresh pasta. You probably don't save any against buying dried. So you need to weigh up how much you will enjoy the process of creating your own food from scratch, as well as the factors like improved taste, the potential for variety and individuality that lies in adding extra ingredients for colour and taste.
Mine was a present and I'm delighted with it, but it would have felt like a brave and extravagant purchase otherwise. However, I love using it, and expect to continue doing so.