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micksheff

micksheff
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Member since: 26.09.2007

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      02.03.2014 19:31
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      Obe of several reservoirs on the edge of Sheffield

      I consider myself to be very fortunate living within such a short distance of so many of the Peak District's attractions, but because there are so many different places to choose from so close to me, many of them like those in the Strines Valley often get overlooked.

      Dale Dike Reservoir (also sometimes spelt dyke) is a reservoir on the north eastern fringe of the City of Sheffield on the edge of the Peak District National Park. It is one of four reservoirs in the valley, the others being Strines, Agden and Damflask. They are all owned by Yorkshire Water and provide a supply of fresh drinking water for Sheffield and the surrounding area.

      Dale Dike Reservoir is locally a very famous reservoir due to the events of that took place on the night of 11th March 1864. When I was at school (many years ago) we learned about The Great Sheffield Flood that was caused when the dam wall at this reservoir burst and sent a torrent of water hurtling downstream that claimed 270 lives. As a child I was always interested in the story of the Sheffield Flood as my father's aunt who lived to the ripe old age of 99 told me all about the role that her grandparents played in it. They lost their home but survived, although almost of all their neighbours died. The story goes that they had a new born baby and were up feeding it in the middle of the night when they heard the strange noise of the rumble of water rolling down the valley. Within just a few minutes the water had covered a distance of 9 miles and had reached the city centre, washing away everything in its path.

      If you are approaching Dale Dike from Sheffield then it is the third reservoir in the chain. An extensive plantation of coniferous trees fills the valley and surrounds all these reservoirs so there is surprisingly little of them to be seen from the minor road that runs up the valley from Bradfield to the Strines Inn and it's actually very easy to miss them all. There are several ways to access it but they all involve a walk through the woods of between 10 and 20 minutes depending on where you park. It is possible to park in several spots at the side of the road but most of the spaces only hold 2 or 3 cars so it can be difficult to find a parking space at the weekends, especially if the weather is nice.

      I've always laughed at folk who have an image of Sheffield as a dull, drab dirty place. It's true that 40 years ago there was a lot of heavy industry but all of that has now gone and even the city centre is clean and modern these days, but what Sheffield has always had is easy access to some of the finest countryside in England. Within just a few minutes I can be high on the moors above the city and I could be anywhere in England and for that I've always been grateful.

      Since I know this area quite well I always try to park in the same place and if I'm lucky to find a space then it's only a quick walk through the woods to the water. The path is good quality with a nice soft carpet of pine needles but it is quite steep and there's a few exposed tree roots so it wouldn't be suitable for the infirm.

      I love Dale Dike in all seasons, but sadly when it snows (it snows a lot in the winter up here) then the roads are usually closed. When it has rained (it rains a lot up here too) there is always the most wonderful smell of freshness from the pine needles that is almost indescribable. Of course most visitors will flock here when it's nice and sunny and when it's like this then it really is picture postcard perfect.

      I had last visited Dale Dike way back on Boxing Day 2011 so recently when we were looking for somewhere local to walk we decided to head there again. I recall the last time there was plenty of snow and the edges of the water were frozen, which was in complete contract to this recent visit, which was a very mild day with clear blue skies.

      I was lucky to find my usual parking spot empty and we headed off through the woods towards the reservoir. At the side of the footpath just before you reach the reservoir there is a simple stone memorial in memory to those that died in the flood. I've seen it every time I've passed but I still always have to stop and read those same few words again which read "In memory of those that lost their lives owing to the breaching of Dale Dyke Reservoir on March 11th 1864".

      Of the four reservoirs only Damflask is accessible completely by road so with the exception of that one there are no watersports that take place on Dale Dike or any of the others. I guess it's just too far to drag all the equipment so when you first reach the dam wall and peer over it you can be sure to be greeted with a wide, empty expanse of water. There will likely be a few ducks on the water but otherwise it will be quite empty and very quiet and peaceful.

      The whole area around Dale Dike Reservoir is very popular with hikers and there are quite a few circular routes of varying length and difficulty. It's also popular with bird watchers too and this area is noted for some of its rare birds. If you're lucky you might see a large bird of prey, which could be anything from a Hen Harrier, Merlin or Goshawk to a common Kestrel. Or especially if you're here early or late in the day (dawn or dusk) you might even see one its strangest inhabitants, the Black Grouse, which looks a bit, like a miniature Turkey.

      I wouldn't hesitate to recommend a visit to Dale Dike Reservoir or any of its sister waters. Its quite easy to visit all four locations within about 3 hours although if you wish to a do a circular walk around each one then you would need to set aside a whole day. In fact if you get up early enough you can have a quick look at them all and still make it in time for lunch at the Strines Inn at the top of the valley.

      Dale Dike Reservoir is accessed via an unclassified road that extends beyond Bradfield on the outskirts of the city of Sheffield. Bradfield can be reached by a regular bus that runs a circular route from Hillsborough, close to the Sheffield Wednesday Football Ground so if you're prepared to walk and to do a round walk of about 8 miles you could see all of these reservoirs using public transport. Beyond the Strines Inn, which sits high above the reservoirs the road drops down into the next valley where a further chain of reservoirs can be found (Broomhead, Midhope and Langsett) and further beyond that you arrive in Derwentdale with its 3 large reservoirs (Ladybower, Derwent and Howden) so it also makes for a very pleasant drive for those that are not into walking or unable to walk very far.

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      01.02.2014 10:21
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      A guide book to the birds of The Seychelles

      I wanted to buy a bird book of the birds of the Seychelles before my trip there so I looked around at what was available and discovered that there have been very few books published on the subject. This surprised me somewhat since the Seychelles is home to at least 12 endemic species of bird found nowhere else on earth. After a brief online search I found and purchased Birds of Seychelles by Adrian Skerret and Tony Fisley, which is part of The Helm Field Guides series of books.

      The Helm Field Guides have been around since the 1980's and include around a 100 different titles. They are trusted and praised by ornithologists worldwide but their simple format also ensures that they appeal also to those that have a more casual interest in birds as well. The copy I purchased features a pair of Paradise Flycatchers on its front cover (one of the archipelagos endemic species) and was first published in 2011. This particular book is an updated version of an earlier Helm Field Guide also confusingly called Birds of Seychelles but written solely by Adrian Skerret on his own. The two versions whilst similar should not be confused, the earlier version being first published in 2001 and featuring a Magpie Robin (another endemic species of it's cover).

      You might wonder if it was really necessary to publish a new version of what is essentially an earlier book just a decade later but the world of birds has changed dramatically during those few years. Advances in DNA has meant that dozens of birds have been split into different species, whilst others have been lumped together. This is especially so in the Seychelles where the isolation of these islands has allowed many birds to evolve into distinct species in their own right, or at the very least into unique sub species.

      The book follows a similar format to other Helm Guides I've seen and own and starts with a contents page, followed by a brief introduction, acknowledgements, how to use the book and a glossary listing the meanings of various technical terms used in the book, this section also includes a topography that details the naming of the various parts of a birds anatomy, which again are used throughout the book. The next part of the book covers the geography of the islands and includes maps and a list of ornithological organisation s which exist in the Seychelles.

      The main part of the book is made up of a species by species list of the birds that can be found. Starting on page 22 and finishing on page 150 it covers over 250 species, including all resident, migrant and vagrant birds, including those that have only occurred on a handful of occasions. To accompany each species there are colour plate illustrations. Most species have several different illustrations showing the bird in various different plumages. There are over 800 colour illustrations.

      The layout of the book is that the descriptive text is on the left hand pages of the book and the illustrations are on the opposite right hand page. The text for each species covers a general description, notes on voice, sub species, habitat and status. The latter being whether the bird is resident, a summer visitor, migrant etc. At the end of the book there is information on the extinct species of birds and an A-Z index.

      I find this book very informative and useful and with it's aid I managed to identify several different birds during my trip that I would have otherwise struggled with. For example I saw several huge frigate birds soaring high over the ocean and I was able to look up the subtle differences between these notoriously difficult species to separate, which enabled me to successfully identify both Great and Lesser Frigatebirds.

      When I return to the Seychelles later this year in August I'll definitely be taking this book with me again.

      Birds of Seychelles
      ISBN 978-1-4081-5151-9
      176 pages, paperback
      First published 2011, by Christopher Helm (part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

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    • Eurax cream / Allergy & Hayfever / 43 Readings / 41 Ratings
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      24.01.2014 08:16
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      An anti itching cream

      I was first introduced to Eurax Cream when I returned from holiday and discovered that a mosquito bite on my leg had swelled to the size of a small boiled sweet. My local pharmacist recommended a tube of Eurax, which was available over the counter and even though I hadn't heard of this product before I was willing to give it a try on her recommendation.

      The product is specifically designed to reduce the sensation of itchiness and it claims on the packaging to provide relief for up to 10 hours, which seemed like quite a bold claim. The Pharmacist told me that although my bite looked nasty it didn't actually look like it was infected so she suggested that I also took anti histamines too until the swelling started to go down.

      I think I paid about £6 for a 50g tube of Eurax cream, but combined with the anti-histamines there wasn't much change out of a tenner. The cream is also available in smaller 30g tubes but I didn't realise this at the time.

      The product comes in a tube packaged inside a predominantly white coloured rectangular cardboard box. The tube itself is quite small in comparison to its bulky box so once I'd noticed that the same instructions were displayed on the tube itself I quickly disposed of the packaging. The tube has a screw off cap that has a pointed end to it to enable the foil seal to be easily broken when you use it for the first time, so I was reassured to know that the cream was sterile.

      Applying the cream was very easy and only a very tiny amount is required. Since I was only using the cream on a very small area of my skin I only needed to squeeze a tiny speck onto the end of my finger, before applying it to the affected part of my leg. The cream doesn't feel cold when you squeeze it onto your finger and there also isn't any cooling sensation when it touches the skin either, which I expected there to be. I purposely didn't rub all of the cream into my spot as I wanted to leave a bit of the cream to soak in.

      According the instructions the cream shouldn't be applied to broken skin and this concerned me a bit since I'd scratched my spot repeatedly until the point where I had made it bleed. I hoped that the Pharmacist had noticed this so I decided to chance it but gritted my teeth in case the cream stung. I was surprised that it didn't but then that made we wonder just how effective this cream would be as psychologically the cooling, stinging sensation of applying similar creams usually reassures me that the product contains some useful active ingredients.

      Despite there being no immediate obvious effects I did realise quite quickly that the itchiness of the spot had disappeared so it wasn't long before I was both impressed and pleased with my purchase. The itchiness quickly disappeared and I forget about my spot for probably 3 or 4 hours before it started to itch again, so I think the claims of up to 10 hours of relief are a little bit ambitious. The cream can however be applied up to 3 times a day so it wasn't a major concern to me.

      The cream itself is white in colour and has a thicker more solid consistency to similar products like Savlon. It also only has a faint hint of a medicated whiff and in fact the cream is lightly perfumed to give it a floral smell. It also isn't greasy and absorbed into my skin very quickly.

      I'd definitely recommend Eurax cream and it will be a permanent addition to my first aid cupboard. It can be used on a wide range range of skin complaints including heat rash and nettle stings.

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        15.01.2014 13:27
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        A museum dedicated to transport

        I visited the Coventry transport Museum when I was in Coventry last summer. It is situated very close to the main bus station so you shouldn't find it too difficult to locate. It's also sign posted from various points within the city centre but due to its very central location it doesn't have its own car park so if you are arriving by car you'll have to use one of the pay and display car parks nearby.

        Coventry has a long association with the manufacture of cars, motorbikes, motor cycles and other vehicles including coaches and buses. In fact there have been over 120 different car makers and over 300 cycle makers that have established themselves in Coventry so it's no great surprise to find a museum dedicated to this history here.

        The museum was established in 1980 when it was known as the Museum of British Road Transport. Since that time its undergone several transformations and expansions and now houses the largest collection of its kind in the world. There are over 240 motor cars, buses and other vehicles, 120 motorcycles and 25,000 models. In addition to these large items there are over one million items within its archives.

        Admission into the museum is completely free but there are signs saying that it might be necessary to queue at busy times. I visited on a Saturday afternoon and although it was relatively busy we walked straight in without the need to queue. Immediately inside the entrance there is a reception area and gift shop and toilets and directly next to this there was a collection of around 20 vehicles with a connection to the Royal Family, including cars used by the present Queen as well as former Monarchs. This was a temporary exhibition to coincide the Jubilee year.

        The main entrance into the museum is beyond the reception and once you pass this you'll start to realise just how vast this place is. There are signs pointing to each area numbered from one onwards and it's a good idea to follow this carefully laid out route as otherwise I'm sure you'll miss some parts. I was somewhat alarmed to discover a sign 2 hours into my visit that said I was now at the halfway point. This really is the sort of place that you need to allow half a day to visit.

        The museum is divided into 16 large sections spread over two floors, with each of these smaller sections sub divided into smaller areas. Some of the more well known manufacturers like Daimler, Triumph and Jaguar have their own sections but in other parts the vehicles are grouped by other criteria like racing cars, vintage cars etc.

        The oldest item on display is a Hobby Horse dating from 1818, whilst other items include one of the very first Mini's and the worlds fastest vehicle, the Thrust SSC which set a world land speed record of 763 mph in the Nevada desserts in 1997. This vehicle is huge and the exhibits feature video footage of the actual event. There is also a simulator, which I was quite looking forward to experiencing but sadly this was not in use when I visited.

        As you walk around you'll see a vast diversity of different things but you'll also spot more familiar items that you'll recognise from your younger days. Obviously the older that you are then there will be more familiar things but since the most modern items are only a few years old almost everyone will recognise at least something. I was surprised just how much everyday vehicles like police cars and ambulances had changed as I saw examples from the late 1970's and early 1980's that were like the ones that were around when I was a child, although I'd completely forgotten that they had changed at all.

        Overall I really enjoyed my visit to this museum. It has won numerous awards over the years and I can see why.

        Coventry Transport Museum,
        Millennium Place,
        Hales Street,
        Coventry
        CV1 1JD

        Telephone: 024 7623 4270

        http://www.transport-museum.com

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          05.01.2014 19:18
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          The remains of a 12th century abbey

          The remains of Sawley Abbey can be found in the small village of Sawley in Lancashire, which is between Clitheroe and Skipton. There's a brown tourist sign on the A59 and once you're in the village you really can't miss it as its clearly visible from the road. The abbey doesn't have its own car park but I parked on the edge of the road just before the Spread Eagle Pub, and from there it was just a case of crossing the road.

          My first impressions were that it was nothing spectacular. It certainly shouldn't be compared to some of the larger abbeys in the area like Bolton Abbey but it did house around 75 monks in its heyday. It was also pelting down with rain and sleet when I recently visited and that didn't help with my first impression. As I crossed over the road and entered the small gap in the wall I was however pleased to see that there was much more to this place than it first appeared from the road. At ground level the site stretches over quite a large area and almost all of the rectangular foundations are still visible giving a good picture of how the abbey was originally laid out. To help complete the picture there are also several information boards with artists impressions of how the various sections and rooms would have looked. You'll also notice that there is a large gatehouse much further up the road, almost opposite the Spread Eagle pub, which looks a bit out place but suggests that the site extended right up to there.

          I'd naively assumed that this abbey would have been connected to Bolton Abbey, since that's only a few miles further up the road towards Skipton but in fact there's no connection at all. Bolton Abbey was founded by Augustinian Monks, whilst this one at Sawley was founded by Cistercian Monks, don't ask me to explain what that means but the monks that built Sawley Abbey came from Newminster Abbey in Northumberland, which had been founded 10 years prior to Sawley in 1137.

          The abbey continued from 1147 right through to 1536 when all of the monasteries in England were ordered to be demolished by King Henry VIII. Shortly after that it fell into a state of disrepair and today only parts of the former church and refectory are still well preserved.

          There's no denying that this abbey is in a very tranquil setting and I'd imagine it's a great place to bring a picnic in the summer. The grass is nicely mown and there's a few wooden benches to sit on but when I was here everything was very wet and soggy. Like all abbeys it stands at the side of a river, on flat land that would have been just far enough away to avoid regular flooding. In this case the river is the fast flowing River Ribble and add to that the backdrop of Pendle Hill. I hope to stop by again in the summer when the sun is shining and I'm sure if I do then I could quite easily fall in love with this place.

          Sawley Abbey is now in the care of English Heritage but there's no charge to visit and its kept open at all times throughout the year. It's a Grade I listed building and a Scheduled Ancient Monument.

          Sawby Abbey
          Sawby
          Nr Clitheroe  
          Lancashire
          BB7 4NH

          Tel - 01904 601 901

          http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/sawley-abbey/

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            03.01.2014 08:57
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            Once a grand hotel but now in urgent need of an upgrade

            I wouldn't normally book a room in a hotel in Chesterfield since I live less than 15 miles away but I was attending a friend's 40th birthday party recently and after checking out the cost of a taxi I decided to book a room at The Chesterfield Hotel. I lived very near to Chesterfield for many years (much nearer than now) so it's a town I know very well and The Chesterfield Hotel is a large well known hotel less than 5 minutes walk from the town centre. It also has free parking, and parking in the town centre is often difficult and expensive.

            The hotel is a large Victorian building almost directly opposite the railway station so it's easy to find but when I arrived I was unsure where to park as the car park is a pay and display car park that appears to be belong to the adjacent leisure centre. I parked there anyway and the receptionist assured me that they owned the leisure centre so as long as I had a reservation it was fine to park there without a ticket. The hotel entrance looked clean and bright with a small bar to the right. Check in was quick and simple and both of the women behind the reception were friendly so first impressions were good.

            Unfortunately things went downhill from there so I was thankful we were only staying for one night and that we we wouldn't be spending too long here. The only lift was out of order so we headed off up three flights of stairs. We'd booked a double room without breakfast for £59 as a last minute online deal but the hotel's website implies that the standard rate for a double room is £89. I wasn't expecting much in the way of luxury but the first problem was a peculiar smell. It wasn't a nasty putrid odour but it was everywhere. It seemed to be a mixture between the faint musty smell of a static caravan that I remember as a child and strong perfume, possibly over used to try and disguise it. Without wishing to sound rude it was like the awful rose petal perfume that my nan used to wear. The next problem was that the floorboards creaked with every step and I actually now wonder with hindsight if this building has a serious problem of dry or wet rot.

            Anyway, odd smell and creaks aside we found our room and although this was of a reasonable size and clean it was ridiculously hot, not a bad thing in December you might think, but even after opening all of the windows (large bedroom window and bathroom window) it still felt like being in a sauna and we were to discover that there was no temperature gauge on the radiators and therefore no way of regulating the heat. The room itself was quite well laid out with a much larger bathroom than many hotels of a similar calibre I've stayed in and there was a bath and shower and complimentary toiletries. There was a kettle with tea and coffee and a TV but everything looked very old and dated, with a dark wood side. The view was towards the busy dual carriageway directly beneath us.

            We quickly showered and changed and went off to the birthday bash but when we returned we heard the floorboards creak every other second (people seemed to be walking up and down the corridors all night long) and it was so hot that we ended up having to sleep with the windows wide open. We also found that the TV remote control didn't work, even after I changed the batteries myself. The receptionist said she'd get a replacement but this never happened. We were leaving the next morning so we didn't kick up a big fuss.

            I didn't experience any of the facilities at this hotel but there were a few people in the bar each time I passed. Our booking didn't include breakfast but this was available at an extra cost of about £8 per person., but we didn't bother with that. On the plus side guests can enjoy free access to the leisure centre next door, but we didn't have time for that and there was a decent connectivity to wifi in our room.

            The Chesterfield Hotel has 73 rooms and a 3 star rating but I'd suggest that it's more like a 2 star and its ratings are boosted no doubt by its facilities (there are conference/meeting rooms as well as the leisure centre). I'm sure it was once one of the grandest hotels in Chesterfield, but sadly it desperately needs a refurbishment and with the exception of the lobby area it doesn't seem to have had one in the last 30 years. I'm afraid I can't recommend this hotel at all.

            The Chesterfield Hotel
            Malkin Street,
            Chesterfield,
            Derbyshire,
            S41 7UA
            Tel: 01246 271141
            Fax: 01246 220719
            Email: chesterfield@redwebonline.com
            http://thechesterfield-hotel.co.uk

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              31.12.2013 10:41
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              An aerosol air freshener with a festive twist

              As the festive period ends and a New Year beckons my house is still full of things that remind me of the Christmas that has just passed - these include the Christmas tree, cards on the wall and a can of Air Wick Mulled Wine and Cinnamon Apple Air Spray tucked away in the corner of my living room.

              Air Wick produce a wide range of different fragrances that come in all different forms from candles, plug ins etc but this particular fragrance is in a metal canister and comes in the form of a spray. It is produced specifically for the festive period and was in the shops last year but has now re-appeared and has been re-packaged in a slightly more festive looking can, which is predominantly red and green in colour with a picture of an apple and cinnamon on the front. It is part of Air Wick's Touch of Luxury range and this logo is also displayed across the front.

              The can doesn't have a removable lid but instead has a design that incorporates an open front that allows the spray to be released when the plastic top part of the can is pressed. I've found that three quick squirts are sufficient to release enough of the spray into my room and the first thing that you will notice is that the fragrance is quite powerful. I love the smell of mulled wine at Christmas time because it reminds me of the Christmas markets and this fragrance really is quite close to the real smell. The cinnamon combines with the apple to give a warm scent with a spicy kick and the aroma lingers for a surprisingly long time.

              The blurb on the can claims that it lasts for up to one hour, which seems to be a bit of an exaggeration, but it certainly lingers for at least tem minutes making it ideal to squirt just before any visitors arrive. It also contains active ingredients that eliminate odours and claims to contain a new formula that makes it longer lasting than previous Air Wick aerosol products.

              Air Wick's Mulled Wine and Cinnamon Apple spray can be picked up for around a £1 for a 240ml can. I guess it will be even cheaper soon as the shops sell off their surplus stock, although the shrewd shopkeepers will probably just store it away until later in the year. After all it will soon be another Christmas again.

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                29.12.2013 11:25
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                A decent cat litter

                I think I've tried just about every kind of cat litter that exists from the very cheap supermarket own brands to very expensive ones but the one that I now buy most often is Lightweight Non Clumping Wood Pellet Cat Litter which I buy from Pets at Home. I buy the large 30 litre bags, which are usually available on offer for £18 for two. The litter is also available in smaller 5 litre and 15 litre bags if you have limited storage space. These large 30 litre bags are normally individually priced at £9.99 each.

                I have two cats but they both go outdoors so they only tend to use the litter at night or when they are lazy and refuse to go out (usually because it's raining). Two of these large bags therefore usually last me about 5 months but the recommendation on the packaging says that a bag of this size should be sufficient for one cat for 35 days.

                This cat litter comes in a large plastic bag which thankfully is quite strong as each 30 litre bags weighs about 18 kgs . There's no fancy packaging so it's just a white plastic bag with green writing on it. Unfortunately there is no carrying handle so these bags aren't very easy to lift so you do need to be careful when lifting them. This is not only because you could do yourself an injury but also because the plastic is quite flexible and if you try and lift it from the top corners when it's stood upright it will stretch and risk splitting. Storing these bags could also be a problem for some people but I have a large walk in storage cupboard just off my kitchen so they don't cause a problem for me. Once I've opened the bag I use a plastic scoop to transfer the litter into the trays rather than trying to move the heavy bags to the litter.

                The litter itself is in the form of small wooden pellets, each a couple of centimetres long and light beige/brown in colour. They are more or less odourless but do have a faint smell of wood shavings. When they become wet they break down into a soft powder but this is easy to remove from the tray unlike most of the clumping types I've tried, some of which take on the consistency of mud. They also seem to absorb the smell of the cat mess quite well and still give out a fresh pine wood smell. One tip I would give is to only put a couple of scoops in the bottom of the tray because when the pellets break down they take up a lot more space. I remember when I first used these I half filled the litter tray only to find that it was overflowing the following morning.

                The cat litter is fully biodegrable and even the packaging can be readily recycled. It is exclusive to Pets at Home Pet Stores but not exclusively for cats as it is also suitable for other pets like Guinea Pigs, Rabbits and Gerbils.

                As a final note the Pets at Home website seems to suggest that this product has now been repackaged in cardboard bags which appear to be easier to carry although my local store is still only stocking the type I am familiar with in a plastic bag.

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                06.12.2013 15:40
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                A festive album from Tracey Thorn

                As Christmas approaches I thought it would be an ideal time to review a festive album that was actually released in time for last Christmas, but one that is back in the shops for this Christmas too.

                Tracey Thorn has been making music since the early 1980's but despite reasonable commercial successful as half of the band Everything but the Girl she has never really established herself as a household name. Instead she has enjoyed a loyal following from a dedicated group of fans, throughout her long career.

                Tinsel and Lights is Tracey's first attempt at a festive album, but anyone who is familiar with her bittersweet lyrics and unique vocal compositions, which were described as being like Sade in the eighties, like Dido in the nineties, etc. when in fact she's been around much longer than both of these artists and most of the other female vocalists she's been described as being similar too. Her own influences cover a wide range of well known and lesser known artists from the last five decades so whilst I was initially surprised to discover Tracey Thorn had jumped on the Xmas album bandwagon I was less surprised to hear that it would feature a selection of her favourite covers along with a few new songs of her own, including the song from which the album takes its name "Tinsel and Lights".

                The album opens with "Joy" one of her own songs that is both melancholic and uplifting. As always it in the lyrics where her strengths lie. How many other artists could pull off a Christmas song about a loved ones battle with cancer? In Joy we hear that they've been given the all clear just before Christmas, hence the joy.

                Elsewhere on the album there are covers of the White Stripes "In the cold cold night". Joni Mitchell's "River" and Ron Sexsmiths "Maybe this Christmas". Despite such an odd collection of very different tracks they have each been given the magic of Tracey's vocals and sit together perfectly. On "Taking down the tree" Tracey Thorn is joined by the vocals of Green Gartside from the eighties band Scritti Politti who's own song "Snow in Sun" she has also covered on this album.

                The purists out there might argue that some of the tracks are not true Christmas songs. This is true but also something that Tracey was quick to justify, explaining that they are all songs with the very least a winter theme. There are songs about snow and frozen rivers sitting among more traditional Xmas lyrics.

                The full tracklist of Tinsel of Lights is as follows:

                Joy
                Hard Candy Christmas
                Like a Snowman
                Maybe this Christmas
                In the cold, cold night
                Snow
                Snow in sun
                Have yourself a merry little Christmas
                Tinsel and lights
                River
                Taking down the tree
                Sister Winter

                Tracey Thorn is quoted recently as saying that she always wanted to make a Christmas record but always forgot until she started to hear other festive songs and by then it was too late. This time to make sure she didn't forget she recorded most of the tracks at the beginning of the year and the album was more or less complete by the end of February 2012.

                I wasn't sure if a Christmas album from Tracey Thorn would work, but even after its very first play I wasn't disappointed. I'm sure I'll be listening to it again and again each and every other Christmas.

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              • Stabilo Boss Highlighter / Homeware / 45 Readings / 44 Ratings
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                16.11.2013 14:06
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                A range of brightly coloured highlighting pens

                Stabilo Boss highlighter pens are an item that I have used at my workplace on an almost daily basis for the last 20 years and there is always a regular supply of these to be found in the stationary cupboard. We have tried other cheaper brands, some of which are available at a fraction of the cost but we always seem to quickly return to this brand.
                Part of my job involves checking and approving architect plans so I use these highlighter pens to highlight specific areas on drawings and also to mark off an item once it has been counted and I've double checked that it appears on our tender. Some of our projects can have over a hundred different layout plans and without the ability to identify things in this way it would be impossible to know what I had checked and what I hadn't.
                These pens are available in a range of different colours and our stationary cupboard is usually stocked with yellow, green, blue and orange ones but it is the yellow ones that I use most frequently. The yellow markers don't only produce a bright mark on the paper that stands out clearly against an otherwise black and white background, but unlike the other colours they do not leave any trace when the drawing has been photocopied or scanned in black and white.

                The pens are made of light plastic and have an elongated rectangular shape that makes them easy to grip. The body of the pen is the same vivid colour as the highlighter nib so unless you are colour blind it's very unlikely that you would chose the wrong colour by mistake. The name Stabilo Boss is stamped in black text vertically along the length of the pen and in a smaller font there is the word original and the company logo, which is a red swan in a circle. At the end of the pen there is tightly fitting black plastic cap, which when removed to use the marker can be stored safely on the opposite end of the pen whilst you are using it.

                Once the cap has been removed the nib of the pen is revealed which has a tapered rectangular profile. The clever shape of this end enables you to achieve a different thickness of highlighter on your paper. For example if you hold the pen flat then you will get a broad line and be able to cover a large area quickly, by tilting the pen you can achieve thin lines and with a little care and practice you can apply just a tiny speck of highlighter.

                After using the pen it is important to replace the cap or it will dry out but providing that I do remember to replace the cap firmly then they will never dry out and a pen will generally last me about a month.

                As I mentioned my company has purchased alternative brands to Stabilo which usually look similar in appearance and do the same job but their shelf life has always been much shorter and they've tended to start drying out after just a few days of use, even when the cap has been correctly replaced.

                I know that most people could live their lives quite easily without ever using a Stabilo highlighter pen, but I couldn't do my job without mine.

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                • Brillo Pads / Household Cleaning / 46 Readings / 46 Ratings
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                  14.11.2013 17:47
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                  Cleaning pads that are ideal for ovens

                  When it comes to household cleaning products there are so many different ones available these days that it's often difficult to know what to choose but Brillo Pads are a product my mother always used (and still does) and keeping with tradition I have always used them to.

                  Brillo Pads are small rectangular pads that are made of fine metal mesh and they contain a pink coloured cleaning product, which when mixed with water produces a pink coloured lather. As a kid I remember scrubbing the oven racks as part of my chores and I never really like the feel of these, but I have to admit they seemed to make the blackened metal racks gleam silver again. I think part of my dislike for these things was probably a combination of having to do chores I didn't want to do and the fact that they are very messy to use. So whilst my mother's oven racks might have been left sparkling my hands were a sludgy brownish, pinky mess. Having said that the mess always washed off quickly, but they left my hands feeling dry.

                  I recently decided to give my own oven a thorough clean and I never considered using anything other than Brillo pads for this task. I know that there are so called miracle sprays that you supposedly just spray, leave and wipe but I get the impression these must contain pretty harsh chemicals to be so effective. Brillo pads are not miracle pads so you do you need to be prepared to use a good deal of physical effort. The advantages of these pads are however that they are much cheaper than the so-called miracle products out there. You can pick up a box of 10 pads for about £1.50 so that's just 15p each and a couple of pads is always enough to entirely clean my oven.

                  I'd recommend that you consider wearing gloves when using these pads, but I'm afraid that I don't practice what I preach (it's probably a man thing). I also suggest that you only quickly dip the end of the pad into water to begin with rather than submerging it entirely, as the latter will simply leave you with a big squishy mess. It's deceptive how much froth and lather just a tiny amount of water produces. I always keep dipping my pad into a bowl of hot water that contains plenty of washing up liquid as this helps to disperse the grease.

                  I'd recommend Brillo pads for many tasks but because the wire wool is quite abrasive you have to take care not to scratch pans and I'd never use them on my best stainless steel pans. They are however ideal for cleaning the rack and sides of my oven (my oven has removable sides) and also cleaning my barbecue.

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                    03.11.2013 17:37
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                    An old Saxon Church with plenty of notable features

                    I was on my way to spend a few days exploring the Hadrian's Wall area when I stopped off at Escomb Saxon Church. I'd read about this place previously and knew that I'd one day pay it a visit, when I was nearby. Escomb is a small village in County Durham near Bishop Aukland and the church is well sign posted from most of the major roads that pass close by.

                    When you arrive in Escomb you'll find a quiet, sleepy village with a pub, a few houses and apart from the church very little else. It's possible to park on the road just outside the church , which stands on a green called Saxon Green. Surrounding this green there's a few wooden benches to sit on, which enjoy an elevated position above the church.

                    The first thing I noticed even before I went through the gates into the churchyard was a large information board that provided some information on the history of the church. The second thing I noticed was a note on the gate that said that if the church was locked then the key was available from one of the houses at the back of the church.

                    The information on the board outside refreshed my memory of what I'd already read. Built around the year 670AD this claims to be one of the oldest churches in England. The majority of the stones that were used in its construction are however believed to be much older than this as they were thought to have come from the nearby Roman fort at Binchester.

                    Since the church door was looked I headed off to the house in hope of obtaining the key (No. 26 Saxon Green) but even before I got there I was confronted by a very friendly lady heading towards me, waving the key in her end. "Just hang it back on the hook at the side of my front door, when you're done" She said. It felt a little bit odd being left alone with the key to one of the most important Anglo Saxon churches in England, but I was extremely grateful for the opportunity.

                    Inside the church my eyes were immediately drawn upwards towards the roof rather than towards the altar at the front. Part of the roof was replaced during its renovation between 1875 and 1880 but the main cross beams are believed to be at least 12th century. Looking upwards I noticed that the stones were all uneven in shape with their size becoming smaller the higher I looked. Many of these stones were criss-crossed with deep, diamond shaped gouges, which was common practice in Roman stonework to allow the plaster to adhere to it. The next thing I noticed was that the church seemed to be very high in relation to its relatively short length and width. This is typical of many Irish/Celtic churches and further evidence of this influence can be found in the shape of a cross painted onto one of the walls. In addition to this cross there is also a stone cross behind the altar. This is believed to be as old as the church itself and some historians believe that it might even pre date the first construction as it is known that many Anglo Saxon churches were built on the site of a Preaching Cross or Preaching Stone.

                    Walking around the church I was fearful of missing anything of importance but then I spotted a guide book, with a note asking for it to be returned back to where it was. This booklet contained a plan of the church and highlighted all of its key features. There is no doubt that without this book I'd have missed many things including a faded carving on one of the door jambs that is believed to represent Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. There is also an inscribed Roman stone. Apparently it was only discovered in the 1960's by a schoolboy on a school trip. The inscription is difficult to make out but reads ""Bono rei publicae nato", which means "to the man born for the good of the state". Historians believe this might have originally been at the foot of a statue of a Roman Emperor.This stone also bears the inscription "LEG VI" (Sixth Legion) and although the origins on the stone are not known it pre-dates the church by about 600 years. Curiously this stone has been erected upside down, or rather on its side, which was probably because most people at the time this church was built were illiterate.

                    I'd already noted the crude stone font and I knew from its shape and size that it was Saxon in origin, but my guide book confirmed this. Saxon fonts were large enough to allow the baby to be fully immersed in water and unlike those erected after the 13th century there is no cover. The guide book also made me pay particular note to the archway and the windows.

                    The arch is thought to be a Roman archway and its quality is so good that no mortar is required to support it. Originally this would have been plain but it was plastered at some time around the 12th century and painted white. With regard to the windows, there are 5 small windows, 2 on the south wall and 3 on the north wall. The book suggested that I looked carefully at these to see if there is anything odd about them and indeed those on the south wall have rounded lintels and those on the north wall have square lintels. It is not known why this should be but there are other examples of rounded lintels on south facing walls and straight lintels on north facing walls at other early Saxon churches in north east England (at Corrbridge, Jarrow, Monkwearmouth and Bywell). The use of a single stone lintel above each window is also similar to those found at Hexham Abbey, a place I would visit a couple of days later.

                    I have no idea how long I spent inside this church but I did suddenly realise that I ought to return the key before the lady thought I'd done a runner with it. Just before I left, I left a donation in a box by the door and then I locked it back up, to wait for its next visitor. I hope they enjoyed it as much as I did.

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                      27.10.2013 11:05
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                      A natural remedy for relaxing from Radox

                      In a world full of modern remedies, it is still sometimes the case that the old remedies that Granny recommended are still the best and Radox Bath Salts are a product that for me falls into this category. Yes my Granny did swear by 'em but so did my parents too and as kid from a sports mad family there was always a packet of these in the bathroom cabinet for those uncomfortable aches and pains.

                      Radox have been making herbal products to soothe aches and pains since 1908 but it is the original bath salts I still frequently buy and swear by. These days Radox is part of the Unilever group of companies, but like many of the companies under the Unilever umbrella it has managed to maintain its unique Radox brand.

                      I'm fortunate in that I don't suffer from too many aches and pains and touchwood I've never really had back problems but I do a lot of walking and sometimes my calf muscles ache and this is when I like to run a nice hot bath and pour in these salts.

                      These salts are small powder like crystals which are blue and white in colour and as soon as they hit the hot water they dissolve rapidly. They don't create much of a froth or any bubbles and you just need a couple of shakes to do the job (about two handfuls). The blue crystals do give the water an initial light blue tinge but they also provide a nice fresh aroma of lavender and other floral undertones, but these are quite subtle and by no means overpowering.

                      I find the smell of these salts really help you relax and when I get out the bath they do leave my skin feeling soft and fresh and relaxed. I'm sure that the majority of these benefits are in my mind but the salts are rich in various minerals that are known for there relaxing properties, these include sodium sesquicarbonate as well as common table salt (sodium chloride).

                      The product I buy comes packaged in a small blue cardboard box, which has a flap on the side that you pour the salts through. You do need to make sure that you don't get the cardboard box wet as this will make the remaining salts solidify into a big clump.

                      The box carries a warning to avoid getting the product into your eyes and if you do you should wash it out immediately with cool clean water. It also advises that the salts might make the bottom of the bath slippery so care should be taken when getting in and out. The product is suitable for both men and women.

                      I usually by these salts from the Poundshop if they have them in stock, otherwise my local Wilkinsons sell them for £1.29. A 400g box usually lasts me four times.

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                        13.10.2013 12:31
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                        A low cost vacuum cleaner

                        I have no idea why I have managed to accumulate so many vacuum cleaners but I've just done a head count in my utilities room and found no less than seven different models, all in good working order. Amongst these is a Genie Cyclonic GUV-01 1400W Express, which is the current everyday machine I've been using for quite a long time now. Faced with much more expensive models to choose from you might well wonder why I'm favouring this one, which I picked up from Asda for under £40 a couple of years ago.

                        I have two cats, which include a short haired Pedigree that moults constantly and as a result she leaves clumps of white fur on my living room carpet, sofa and chairs. I end up whipping round with the vacuum cleaner at least twice a day and sometimes more. For this purpose the Genie Cyclonic is perfect as its much lighter than any of the other upright models that I have to chose from. It is very easy to push and glides easily across the carpet with very little effort.

                        The base and upper parts of the Genie are a rather bright purple colour and whilst its inevitably made from rather cheap looking plastic I feel that this bright colour helps to make it more visually appealing. The rest of the appliance is grey in colour, including the expandable hose part and plug wire. The front of the machine is of clear plastic allowing you see the dirt that you've vacuumed up, which is either a good thing or not, depending on your point of view, but personally I like the idea of being able to see the dirt inside. Not only does this allow me to easily know when it needs emptying it also mentally makes me believe that I've successfully eradicated all of this filth from my upholstery.

                        My Genie stands just over a metre tall and weights under 5 kilos (4.9 kgs to be precise). The plug cord is 6 metres long making it long enough to vacuum all of the areas I need to on a regular basis, without having to change plug sockets. Another handy feature is the length of the hose which at around 2 metres long, is more than adequate for reaching the corners of my room and doing the chairs and sofa cushions. Unlike many more expensive models its accessories are rather minimal and it just has a brush attachment and a tapered tool for reaching narrow crevices like down the back of the sofa, both of which fit onto the end of the hose.

                        From experience many cheap vacuum cleaners can be quite noisy but for an appliance with 1400 watts of power this is reasonably quiet. According to the instruction booklet that came with it the suction power is 210 watts, which I can only convert into layman terms by saying that it easily picks up everything I need it to with minimal effort. The bagless design saves the expense of having to buy re-usable bags and to empty it you simply press the top of the container and it lifts straight off and then after its been emptied it easily clips back into place. The dust container holds up to 1.5 litres of dust so I only need to empty it about once a week and even then it is seldom more than half full. That said I do use this almost exclusively for vacuuming up my pet's hair and my whole house is cleaned weekly with a much more robust Dyson. I guess if you was using this as your sole vacuum cleaner then it would need emptying quite regularly.

                        Overall this model is perfect for my quick regular bursts of cleaning and its still going strong despite such heavy, albeit brief, daily use. Therefore I have to say to day that it is excellent value for money and I'm struggling to find any real notable faults with it as I feel it is unfair to compare it with larger, much more expensive models. I can't say I have ever come across other electric goods from Genie or even seen this model on sale other than when I bought it from my local Asda but a quick search online has proved it is still available from Asda and currently priced at £44.95.

                        As a final point it is easy to clean and has a removable filter that can be easily cleaned. Replacement belts and other components are available, but I as yet I haven't had the need to replace anything.

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                        • More +
                          03.10.2013 09:12
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                          A National Marine Park in the Seychelles

                          The Sainte Anne Marine National Park comprises of six separate islands that are located about 5 kilometres off the island of Mahe, the largest of the Seychelles islands. These six islands are Sainte Anne, Cerf Island, Île Cachée, Round Island, Long Island and Moyenne Island. This was the first Marine Park to be established in the Indian Ocean.

                          In June 2013 during my visit to the Seychelles we took a trip on a glass bottom boat to these islands, which we could see from our Villa in Anse Etoile. I already knew a fair bit of Moyenne, but knew virtually nothing about the other islands or the Marine Park itself.
                          Our glass bottomed boat took us firstly to Sainte Anne, the largest of the islands which covers an area of just over 2 kilometres. It has several small beautiful beaches and it is very green with a sub tropical landscape, it's highest peak is 246 metres above sea level (800 feet). We were allowed to get out of the boat and spent around an hour on the beach. Since 2002 the island has been a private luxury resort and features about 50 villas scattered across the island, but because no beaches in the Seychelles are private we were allowed to visit as long as we didn't venture more than 30 meters beyond the shoreline.

                          A coral reef surrounds all of the islands which means that the sea is very shallow and you can walk right out over 100 metres and still stand up. After leaving Saint Anne our boat anchored in the middle of the water where the water was much deeper and here we had the opportunity to snorkel or scuba dive.
                          The Marine Park was created in 1973 to protect this unique shallow sea grass environment, which is home to thousands of brightly coloured fish, reef sharks (harmless), octopus and other strange creatures. From the comfort of our boat we had amazing views of this marine life.

                          Our boat skirted around Cerf Island but we didn't anchor here. At 1.27 km² Cerf Island is the second largest island in the group and has a resident population of around 100 people and also features 3 luxury hotel complexes (Cerf Island Marine Park Resort, Fairy Tern Chalets und L'Habitation), there is also a restaurant called the Kapok Tree.
                          Île Cachée, Round Island and Long Island are also quite small in size and we also didn't stop off at these either but had good views from the boat. Île Cachée is noted for its large seabird colonies and thousands of pairs of fairy terns nest here. Round Island was formerly a leper colony but now houses a luxury 5 star hotel called Round Island Resort and Long Island was the site of the Seychelles original prison.

                          The highlight of our boat trip was a visit to Moyenne Island, where we spent around 3 hours and had a barbecue on the beach. Moyenne hit the news when it was purchased by a Yorkshire man called Brendan Grimshaw in the 1960's for £8,000. He lived a Robinson Crusoe type existence here until his death last year (July 2012). He turned down numerous offers to buy the island from hotel developers including a £300 million offer in 2010. Upon his death the island was left partly to the Rotary Club and partly to the Seychelles Government on the promise that no insect or animal is killed and no trees are cut down. A warden was also appointed to live on the island welcoming visitors and looking after his numerous animals, which inclusive several dogs and hundreds of Giant Tortoises.
                          Brendan Grimshaw brought his father over to the island in his latter years and both men are buried on the island. There are also two 19th century pirate graves of unknown men and all four graves are located next to a small chapel that Brendan built.

                          Visiting Moyenne Island was a sobering, thought provoking experience. There is a circular footpath that runs right around the perimeter of the island which you can walk round in about 45 minutes and from here there are good views of the other islands and the main island of Mahe. The crude shack that Brendan lived in has been left as it was with no running water or electricity although another nearby building has been converted into the wardens house, which does have such luxuries.
                          After leaving Moyenne our boat stopped again in the middle of the water, where we had another chance to scuba dive. We saw both Green and Hawksbill Turtles in the crystal blue water and lots of fish of the most vivid colours. Overall we had a very memorable time in the Saint Anne Marine Park.

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