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worst_trip

worst_trip
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Member since: 13.05.2009

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      03.08.2011 13:27
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      10/10 Tesco, for once!

      Of course as the current round of summer holiday, child-related accidents would have it, you might as well leave a steel-jawed, jelly-baby-baited bear-trap permanetly set up in your back garden, as put out a filled paddling pool these days. "They" seem to want kids permanently socketed into the freakin' 'WII' only PRETENDING to be playing outdoors, or otherwise plugged into a pay-as-you-go Club-blasted-Penguin subscription don't "they"- but then again maybe that's just what I think.

      Pride's probably going to be coming before a fall - probably involving, one of these days, my finding sprog #2 floating face-down in said two quid paddling pool, just like William Holden at the beginning of 'Sunset Boulevard' (only without the gunshot wounds - or Hollywood location obviously, since we live in darkest suburban Gloucestershire) - but personally I'd like to think that used with extreme caution - possiblyh involving the kind of before-and-after safety evaluations that are more usually associated with the handling of anthrax-contaminated material and / or radioactive nuclear waste - a blow-up paddling pool can still play its part in healthy, outdoor, back-garden fun.

      So you want to know what the Tesco three ring paddling pool is like. Well it's a heck of a lot smaller than it appears in the picture accoumpanying this review for starters, that's what. That kid they show you splashing about in the pool - they've obviously photoshopped him in because the scale looks all wrong to me. This paddling pool, inflated, is only 90cm across - but actually, given the hazards inherent in having a body of standing water set up in a garden that small children have access to, I'd say smaller, and shallower, is definitely the best way to go here. The water capacity from the product blurb on tescodirect says it's 81 litres - so the pool is relatively quick to fill with a garden hose too (within 10 minutes, according to that accompanying product info again). The height of the pool when inflated is said to be 22cm - which seems a wee bit shorter than ours is, but it's certainly in that ball-park. Possibly they're referring to the depth of water you can get in it, which if you filled it fully would be about right. Given the small size, this isn't one of those 'family' back-garden temporary pools that you're going to see mum or dad lounging about in (look for pictures in the Argos catalogue - it's ridiculous) but paddling pools are for younger kids really, anyway, and this is fine for fun getting their feet wet and general splashing about.

      This pool inflates via three separate rings on the side, that you can blow up by mouth easily enough. These have the usual push-in stoppers that you get on water wings, etc. and once inflated, the pool seems to stay up quite well over time. Of course the sides aren't rigid, but this is a good thing as kids tend to fall on them while running in and out of the pool and the inflated edges cushion the impact a bit.

      As the Tesco paddling pool only costs £2 it's not the most robust structure you're ever going to find, but as garden paddling pools in my experience only tend to have a life-time of about one summer at most, this is more than good enough to do the job. I wouldn't pull it through a thorny bush, for example, and expect it to come out unscathed, nor would I set it up on a hard surface like tarmac or concrete for fear of puncturing, but on grass, it's perfectly adequate.

      Did you register that when I said the paddling pool only costs £2? You could buy five of them for a tenner - get one in each colour - they come in bright yellow, blue and pink - and still have the opportunity to double up with two of the colours at the end of that. They come flat-packed in a smallish approx. A4 sized package that weighs a mere (approx) 500g - so it's easy to carry home.

      This paddling pool probably for safety reasons is only recommended for kids aged three and up. Our sprog #2, aged just under two does like to go in our one but is watched constantly like a hawk throughout, and we empty it out the minute the 'paddling pool fun' is over for the day in case he falls in it when we're not there and gets into difficulties. Again the small size makes it easy to tip the water away - and as it doesn't hold all that much, the quantity that spills out doesn't totally flood the lawn either.

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      • Tesco Play Sand / Outdoor Toy / 23 Readings / 22 Ratings
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        02.08.2011 16:16
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        Selling on good special offer at the moment too!

        It's a relatively little-known fact that it's illegal, in the UK to remove sand from beaches at the seaside, a point I wish my mother had been aware of circa 1976 when I was helping her cart a barrowload, all packed up in supermarket carrier bags, round to her back garden ostensibly for the purposes of 'soil improvement'.

        The other thing about sand off of beaches is it's well-nigh impossible to ever wash all the salt out. That sand sat in its slowly decomposing bags for about the next 15 years, till a garden clear-out finally saw it thrown away.

        So if you have a sand-pit to fill, you need to resort to actually buying sand by the bagful. Lord alone knows where this stuff comes from - I mean from which pristine, probably tropical beach - because the stuff you buy from Tesco's comes out of the bag as really and truly the holiday-catalogue-beautiful, pristine, clean white, perfectly medium-grained stuff that beach holidays are made of.

        By which I mean the colour's good and the texture's nice too. I don't tend to taste play sand too much these days myself, but I'm still reasonably confident it's salt-free as well. In addition, the blurb from the Tesco catalogue for this product says it's:

        "non-toxic and non-staining, guaranteeing lots of safe and clean outdoor fun," and that it's suitable for kids aged 18 months and up.

        I had a need for a modest amount of play sand - just enough to fill the Tesco sand and water play table, in fact, and one 10kg bag of this product was more than sufficient to do the job. It's a good idea to buy more than you think you'll need however, as when leaves and gunk fall into the sand pit, and / or next door's rancid old moggie, evading the garden hose-jets, empty cans and cast-off boots I like to chuck at it finally succeeds in taking a big crap in the bloody thing (any wonder I'm thinking of getting an air-rifle), you'll inevitably find you want to have some surplus sand in hand to 'refresh' your sand pit with. So that three 10kg bags for a tenner they're currently running is going to be quite a good deal (much cheaper than, say, Argos, where we bought the significantly more expensive and annoyingly finer-grained sand for the cat-crap-contaminated sand table that we had and had to discard before we bought this).

        As a final point, the heavy-duty plastic bags this play sand is sold turn out to be are quite robust when stored outdoors (I mean they don't readily photo-degrade) - even if they aren't quite strong-handled enough to allow you to carry your bag of sand over any significant distance.

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        02.08.2011 13:05
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        Dr Marten's totally misses the point with these flip-flops; buy something else

        Having long been a fan of Dr Marten's orthapedic / air-cushioned sole boots and shoes, I was delighted when a few years I found that the company is making summer shoes - namely, flip-flops - of a type that I personally, would consider wearing.

        Yes I'm aware that since the 1980s there have been a range of godawful stacked-looking clumpy foot-enclosing Dr Marten sandals available - but they've never really been my cup of tea.

        So a while ago I got a pair of the Dr Marten brand 'Bella' flip-flops from amazon.co.uk - these had the traditional DM air-cusioned sole, with suede footbed and brightly coloured leather upper - and was absolutely delighted by them.

        After quite a bit of constant wear the insoles on the Bella sandals were starting to 'go' a bit and I began looking for a replacement. 'Arwen' - the name should've acted as an immediate warning to me - was what the company appeared to be selling at the time, and as the sandals looked very much like the 'Bella' flip-flops that had preceeded them, and were made out of similar materials I gave these a go. They cost me about £30 - somewhat down from the RRP of £45.

        Big mistake. Dr Marten's, with these shoes have very inadvisedly gone for a 'girly' type leather upper - by which I mean 'stupidly flimsy'; the leather that's been used to make them is thin nubuck and is pretty but surpringly insubstantial - completely not up to the job of supporting that super chunky, clunky DM's sole. The shoes are very well made as usual with this brand, but the materials they're made from isn't up to scratch. There is embroidery / decoration on the sides of the flip-flops (a weird hexagonaly / cells in a beehive kind of abbreviated design) and I wonder if the need for using thin leather so that this completely unnecessary embilishment can be added on has top-trumped the traditional Dr Marten's selling point of production of a robust and hard-wearing shoe.

        With the weight of the sole coupled with the thinness of the leather upper that holds it onto your foot, these flip-flops feel like they're going to fall apart the moment you start walking in them. I'm scared to wear mine out of the house.

        They might be OK for indoor use but who in their right mind wants to wear Dr Marten's flip-flops indoors?

        They're really, really bad.

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        • Large Metal Apex Shed / Shed / 34 Readings / 32 Ratings
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          11.04.2011 19:42
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          A home-build project best suited to those who like pain, frustration and anguish

          We needed to have some serious building work carried out on our house a couple of years ago, and having had a look at the cost of renting storage for our furniture while this was underway, decided to buy a metal shed to keep the rain off all our furniture, household item and possessions instead.

          We selected a metal shed firstly because they were slightly cheaper to buy than their equivalently-sized, timber-constructed counterparts. Secondly, the previous owner of our house had left not one, but a pair of rotting wooden sheds falling apart in the garden when she moved out. As it had taken a lot of effort to demolish and cart away the old timber sheds, I was none too keen to put an identical wooden replacement up where they had once been.

          A six-by-six apex metal shed cost about £200 from a business seller on Ebay back when I purchased one. These sheds are available in a range of sizes, from ones with the smallest dimension being about four feet, to the largest, a 10 by 13 foot behemoth. Ours is a lower / mid-range version, about six foot square. From 'proper internet sellers' - such as the folk who sell via amazon.co.uk, a metal shed will cost you substantially more than £200 these days, but there still many people on ebay who will sell you a new one for a lot less.

          There is of course a catch with these garden buildings, and it is a pretty huge one; namely, the sheds are self-build constructions that you have to piece together from a vast number of relatively tiny panels, all from scratch. And the building up of the shed is a massive undertaking in itself.

          For example, my six foot shed arrived in a surprisingly small box - very heavy, certainly, but no more than four feet high, two feet long and about 12 inches deep . From this worryingly small package, you have to construct the framework of the shed, the ridgepole, the sides of the building, the roof, the doors - and you can see there's going to be a heck of a lot of bolting short bits together to get the job done. The various panels are, of necessity, made from incredibly thin metal: it's no coincidence that like the other dooyoo reviewer of this shed, me and my partner (quite independently) made the joke that there was no point in trying to lock it because anyone who really wanted to get into it would be able to rip through the side with an ordinary tin-opener in about two seconds flat. On that issue, the 'lockable' aspect of these sheds must refer to the holes that are built into the plastic door 'handles' (these are basically naff bits of black plastic that just allow you enough hand-space to notionally "slide" the door panels open and closed - and I put the inverted commas around the word 'slide' because this shed's doors don't). Presumably you're intended to slip a padlock through the holes - but the plastic handles are so insubstantial that a I think good kick, much less a light wrench from a crowbar, would be enough to break them off).

          So, to summarize, the apex shed once built is surprisingly flimsy, and the home-construction job to put it up is all insanely complex to do and takes forever (about four days working flat out, between the two of us - me and my partner; neither of us much good at DIY, but no strangers to making up flat-pack furniture, either). If we hadn't 'had' to do it - ie. build the shed on the spot so we could clear the house out before the builders came - I would've been so dismayed by the relatively poor quality of the product and complexity of the shed building task that I'd have happily written off the £200 and just chucked it all in as a bad job.

          Still, our metal shed did the job required of it - namely, to keep our possessions safe and secure - but only after a fashion. A lot of the fabrics that were stored in it went mouldy, because in the rain, the little holes in the side of shed (that are supposed to be there) let in the damp and then it can't get out again. And the door of the shed is incredibly flimsy and doesn't shut properly; this arrangement is a real weak-point in the shed's otherwise so-so design, as the doors are sliders on runners the rails of which aren't nearly robust enough to keep them in a straight line - or even from dragging along the floor. Anyway, because of the gaps in our shed's door, mice got in and ruined much of our kitchen stuff and a lot of books had to be thrown away. So I wouldn't say that this shed in my experience is 'rodent proof' - something the manufacturers claim. But the furniture and everything that could be washed down or cleaned properly did survive.

          What you get for your £200 (or whatever) if you spend it on an apex metal shed is a garden building that's difficult to access, not much good for storing anything that isn't made of solid wood or metal in (because of the mildew and damp), and is surprisingly flimsy once you've managed to put it up. With their green and white paint jobs and faintly shipping-container-like appearance, these sheds don't look fantastic to me, but if you've got somewhere you can 'hide' yours away - behind another building; in a hollow of the landscape or something - that certainly helps. They also need to be properly moored (ie. screwed or bolted down or however you secure things to concrete) on proper hard-standing with a flat base to stand on if you've any intention of getting in and out of the door on a regular basis; we put ours on an area of concrete that LOOKED flat enough, but the slight variation in profile / aspect was enough to ensure we can't open the door properly, so now we're using it as a 'traditional' garden shed, it's a real headache trying to get at anything that's still in there.

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            11.04.2011 12:49
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            Easy to put up, robust and weather-proof - just a pity they don't come with screws included

            We are surrounded by neighbours on two sides who have a terrible penchant for enormous, imposing, towering great pressure-treated wood fences.

            I have done what I can to camouflage these monstrous garden features, by nailing up trellis, and by planting a huge variety of sometimes highly objectionably rampant 'self-climbing' vines hard up against them; this has the added advantage - through excessive plant growth - of potentially annoying my plant-hating neighbours almost as much as the empty expanses of ship-lap fencing they've erected dismays me.

            The last section went up at the beginning of winter when the previous poorly-constructed and elderley fence blew down after the autumn gales. In this part of the garden there is no soil; only a badly concreted-over area that could probably be called a 'patio' - had the eejit who lived in our house previously had it put down properly, or bothered not to lay it on a significant down-slope. So, there's nothing to grow climbing plants in.

            So, I have four new panels of heavy-duty fence, plus square-cut pillars to disguise, and there's nothing I can think of doing but hanging hanging baskets off them - although granted, that gives the back yard a distinct 'pub beer-garden' ambience.

            The hanging baskets need brackets, which is where the Tenax brackets come in.

            The first one I got cost £3.99 from the local independent outdoor shop; I thought that was a bit steep for one hanging bracket, so went to the chain garden centre for the others, where they cost £4.50 each - so heigh-ho, chalk that up to experience. I wanted a particularly robust type of bracket though - and this is apparently a heavy-duty version - as we have small kids about and hanging baskets can be surprisingly weighty things. Tenax supply a range of differently-sized brackets designed for use with differently-sized hanging baskets; the smallest being the version for 10 to 12 inch diameter baskets that we've acutally got (but they all look, and are effectively, exactly the same - only in ever increasing / decreasing size). Then there's a medium 14" size, and then a whopper for baskets at 16 inches which I suppose is best suited for hanging up municipal plantings, and for use in pub gardens proper, etc.

            The brackets have a sort of double-ended hook for baskets at the business end that to my mind confuses the hanging-basket issue somewhat: which way up are you supposed to hang them? It appears to be with the bracket forming a right-angled triangle with the square angle uppermost, if we take our cues from the way the product is packaged; but I've definitely seen them hanging up the other way round too (so that the sloping arm runs downward from left to right). I suppose you have make your own decision, and I don't suppose it really matters, but still, this issue does sort of bother me. Have to chalk it up as one of life's eternal questions, I suppose, in the absence of any other more authorative information.

            So, the brackets go up by means of two screw-fixings (not supplied), and are fairly easy to put up in place. They are made of wrought iron-looking stuff; it may actually be wrought iron, I don't know my ferrous metals well enough to differentiate between them, and in any case the brackets have a thick sort of plasticized paint / shrink-wrap coating (made of PVC) all over them to retard rusting.

            The thing that would've improved this product from my point of view would be if it'd included two multi-purpose screws to fit it in with. Since my other half 'streamlined' the DIY shoebox the other day, I haven't been able to find a single thing - not even 'big tools' (fnarr, fnarr) and have had to resort to eg. using a rock to hammer nails in. I'll never be able to lay my hands on enough all-weather screws to be able to put the rest of the brackets I've bought up with.

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            11.04.2011 10:33
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            For people who want to edge their lawns with a border, this a good product to try

            At this time of year, before the leaves on the trees come out, our back garden gets quite a bit of sun.
            From about 2002-2008, most years - though not every year, as there was a break when we were living away from home in an inner-city slum - we've gotten to this stage of the growing season, thought 'hey, look at all that sun this part of the garden gets! That bit of ground looks good for growing veg on doesn't it?' and then been horribly disappointed come mid-June when the tree canopy closes completely and the spuds or whatever we've put into the plot goes all yellow and spindly and / or comes down with the dreaded potato blight.

            2008 marked the turning point where we rolled over the shady "veg plot" and sowed it over with grass seed to make a bit more lawn. To compensate, we designated a small, sunnier plot of used-to-be lawn as a new bed for growing home produce and dug that over instead.

            When you make a veg bed there are lots of ways to go. Every garden centre in the country wants to sell you miniscule little 'raised bed' kits for £79.99 each, or if money is no object and you have your own flat-bed truck, you could always buy used railway sleepers and make a super-sturdy raised bed out of those, the only problem being that these, old railway sleepers days cost approximately their own (immense) weight in gold.
            As I was vaguely planning to emigrate to New Zealand in the foreseeable future, and was saving up for airline tickets, I didn't want the added financial outlay, quite frankly.

            So, we somewhat bodged the job and created a very-slightly-raised veg bed by enclosing the designated area with Log Roll Wooden Lawn Edging, which we purchased from 'Focus' DIY shop. Log Roll Wooden Lawn Edging is a product intended for providing a neat edge to the turf around lawns, flowerbeds, and garden paths etc. It comes (from Focus, at least) as lengths of 15, 23 or 30cm high split, rounded pine logs, all strung next to each other (in a standing up position) on sections of thickish, galvanized wire (to resist rust). To secure the product in the ground, at intervals are included longer poles with sharpened ends; the 'regular', between-section logs are cut off with a square bottom, the idea being that they will rest flat on the soil surface when the longer poles are hammered into the ground.

            Because the log-roll is sold - well, in rolled up sections, it tends to have 'kinks' and tries to curl up again when you come to lay it out in the garden. Bearing in mind that personally, I'm totally kack-handed at all DIY-related tasks, I found it quite difficult to install the log roll in a really straight line as it was difficult to maintain the tension in the wire enough to stretch the roll out properly. Similarly, even once hammered into the ground, the stakes still had a tendency to pull sideways and 'creep' loose - though this was nothing disastrous from my point of view as I was only using it to contain the slightly-raised veg bed, which is not exactly a character feature. If, however I'd wanted the garden to look all neat as and end point -with, say, straight lines of evenly-installed log roll, that swept in great arching Classical curves round the lawn and in and out of the flower borders, I'd have been a bit sick at the wonky results I would've got hammering this stuff in with its little stakes. If you want a really neat result with log roll, I'd say you either need to properly know how to what you're trying to be doing, or perhaps better yet - just go the whole hog and employ a professional to do it for you instead.

            Log Roll is available from garden centres and DIY shops everywhere. From Focus, the economy version of 15cm high lawn edging costs £4.99 for a 1.5m length; a slightly longer (1.8m), non-economy portion would currently be £7.65 - so to edge or enclose any significant area is going to be quite expensive. The product is, however built to last (or-so-it-is-said, by Focus, at any rate).

            The logs are made from pressure treated softwood (ie some variety of pine), which comes from FSC-certified timber. The product according to Focus' product blurb is "Guaranteed against rot for 15 years*" - and while I've no doubt the log roll is going to last a fair few years at least, good luck getting your money back on it after all that time, and if you want to take them up on that offer, I suppose you'd better hold onto your till receipt.

            * There is a little asterisk included next to that 15 year guarantee point, which I assume refers to some terms or conditons / exculsions to the guarantee - though unfortunately I couldn't find out what these were from the Focus internet site.

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            10.04.2011 09:55
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            essential wear for various gardening tasks

            When we moved into our house, amongst the very many kack-handed 'improvements' the person who had previously been living in it had made to the property was a complete gravelling-over, to the depth in some places of several feet, of the front garden.

            This only counted as a relatively minor point for about the first five years, for there were much more serious problems with the interior of the house to be dealt with. Once we'd replaced the floorboards and windows throughout and had the sagging front wall stabilized - and all my life savings, incidentally, were gone - it was time to turn our attention to the blot on the landscape that was the great desert area of Church Street - namely, the sea of gravel at the front of the property.

            This being a derivative of Cotswold stone, it had over the years developed hardened strata in many places. I don't suppose the heavy-duty scaffolding the builders were using - due to the effects of weighty compaction - had helped; nor the fact that the plasterers who had been working on the house (or whoever) had apparently been pouring any bits of left-over liquid concrete they had at the end of the day onto the surface of the gravel too. And the funny thing about this gravel was that although it was laid on a thick, thick 'weed-proof membrane', noxious weeds such as spiny thistles, great big ropes of bramble (and purple toadflax, although that's easy to pull up) were able to live in the pulverized rock-dust fraction quite happily.
            The long and the short of it was that removing all this stony and unwanted vegetable nonsense was murder on my hands. The first pairs of suede-palmed / stripy fabric-backed 'builders' gloves' were not much use against the spiny thistles and bramble thorns; nor could I pick up the little bits of gravel very easily because the builders' gloves were so poorly-fitted about the finger part.

            Next I tried heavy-duty ladies' gardening gloves. The particular pair I had were the "TGL200 -Professional -The Master Gardener". These are green fabric gloves with a thick, ridged plastic coating on the palm and all round the fingers that is described as being 'thorn resistant'. For the purposes I was using it - against thistles and bramble stems - I found it almost totally thorn-proof however (although I can see that you wouldn't for example want to take the thorniest part of a mature rose-stem while wearing the glove, and squeeze it as hard as you can, or you'd no doubt hurt yourself). The gloves have a snug-fitting knitted cotton wrist band - but it's not too tight-fitting, and are 'moulded' to the shape of a human hand very well. The gloves aren't particularly cheap - with an RRP of £5.99 but often they turn up with a less-heavy-duty fabric pair (like the yellow and green model shown in the product photo that accompanies these dooyoo reviews) added as a free gift or some such special offer. They are available at all good garden centres, and are well worth-while for heavy duty gardening.

            These Town & County gloves, were a brilliant purchase, comfy to wear, and they made the horrible job of de-gravelling the front garden just that bit easier to bear. I effectively wore out a couple of pairs of these gloves during the de-gravelling job, but I'd say for 'ordinary' gardening, they should last at least a year (or more).

            The product spec for the gloves is copied from the Town & County website: "The Master Gardener is the UK's best selling glove. It offers protection against thorns and other sharp objects and has an excellent grip in both wet and dry conditions. The outstanding fit, snug knit wrist included, means there is no loss of dexterity."

            I would agree with all of that. They're telling the truth about an excellent product.

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          • Panasonic TX-L32X10B / LCD TV / 19 Readings / 18 Ratings
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            06.04.2011 12:33
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            Is it me or is the picture quality on all digital / LCD tellys just rubbish?

            I was, frankly staggered to see that the Panasonic TX L32 X10B, 42 inch screen, LCD television set has garnered two five star reviews from previous dooyoo reviewers.

            My parents bought this TV set in early 2010, and I've been unfortunate enough to have a lot of experience watching / using it when I've been visiting them. My dad's eyesight isn't as great as it used to be, and they like a big-screen telly these days - though they've have always had a bit of a penchant for extremely large, room-dominating televisions if the ones we had during my childhood were anything to go by. So this is just another in a long line of gigantic telly sets they've owned, really - but with the added advantage that, when they come replace it with an even bigger telly in a year or so - because it's flat-screen, they won't have the almighty headache of being elderley and trying to dispose of a gigantic, blocky cathode-ray-old-style telly that weighs ten-tonnes and they're not nearly able to lift, any more.

            The Panasonic set has built-in Freeview, so there's no need for a separate Freeview receiver - although my folks have one of those very useful hard-disc recorders for Freeview, so they tend to watch it through that.

            The TV is very thin in profile - only about three inches, and this, combined with its immense size as a fairly flat object means that if it didn't have some weight to it, it would probably end up being knocked off the telly table you've put it on (assuming it's not wall-mounted; you can of course buy a support so you can wall-mount it) whenever anyone went past it. The TV does however weigh 13kg, much of which I suspect is probably artificially heavy ballast. The stand it comes with is easily wide enough to support it (although it looks slightly too small, aesthetically, to me) . The telly comes with its own remote control of course, but is unusually slow to switch on - after you press the 'on' button (and you seem to have to hold this down for it to switch on) there's a noticeable, several second delay before anything happens to the set - a surprisingly long wait that inevitably makes you wonder if you've really turned the TV on or not. This is admittedly a small point, just one of those minor annoyances that would make everyday life just that little bit better for everyone if it could be dispensed with.

            The speakers for the telly are one on each side of the main screen and seem to work quite adequately.
            As with other digital TVs I've seen - and I spent some time shopping for one of my own not long ago - these sets have an annoying idiosyncrasy that reveals itself especially when the TV picture they're displaying shows any large areas of unchanging darkness (such as the background in a night scene). When this happens, something happens to the screen that makes you see little 'flocks' of squarish pixels flickering on and off in various shades of dark colours in front of the dark areas. If the isn't any movement or change in the picture in the darkened area, this can go on for several seconds at a time, and I find the effect quite distracting. The screen resolution doesn't seem to be great in that the flickering, squarish pixels you see appearing over the large dark / blank areas seem relatively large - maybe half a cm or more square, and the picture in general isn't what I'd call especially 'sharp' during everyday TV viewing. The exception to this is when you're watching one of the terrestrial TV channels that's being broadcast in high-definition through the built-in Freeview. In that case the picture is as sharp and clear as anything, but of course my folks don't usually use the built-in Freeview that came with the set, as they watch Freeview through their Freeview recorder. In any case at the moment, it's only a couple of the BBC stations and I think the main version of ITV that're being sent out like this.

            While I thought this TV was adequate - but certainly nothing special - I should probably mention that if you look eg. at amazon.co.uk, the people reviewing it there for some reason all think very highly of it. I can only explain this apparent contradiction to myself by concluding that if you've spent well over £500 on a telly, you probably end up in an 'Emperor's New Clothes' sort of mindset wherein you somehow manage to delude yourself that it's the best thing ever, even if, in actuality, it's a bit of a lemon.

            A big set like this will currently cost you about the £500 to £600 mark from eg. amazon.co.uk, where the product spec for it is as follows:

            Wide viewing angle with IPS alpha panel
            50,000:1 contrast with intelligent scene controller
            Smart networking with VIERA link
            VIERA image viewer (AVCHD/JPEG)
            V-Audio surround

            It's compatible with DVD players, Freeview boxes, and you can connect you games console / computer into the back of it etc. etc. etc. via the following connection ports it has in the back of it:

            x2 SCART connectors
            x3 HDMI slots (two at the back, one at the side)
            x1 PC slot

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          • More +
            06.04.2011 12:19
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            Hammock chairs. Brilliant idea, and can work out in theory but not this type so - caveat emptor

            On holiday in one of the crappier Greek resorts a couple of years ago - this was just at the peak of the European credit crunch, and the summer after the price-of-goods-motivated street riots in Athens - one thing I was quite taken by was an array of hammock-swings, that some enterprising cafe owner (presumably prior to the economic downturn, this would have been) had rigged up on his premises, in addition to a variety of standard conservatory sofa-seats.

            It was a shame for this bloke, I thought because hammock swing seats don't come cheap, and in addition to the price of the units, he'd also had to erect - basically a scaffold built of concrete-set iron girders, to hand them off - this being a Cretan street-side cafe with no usefully-positioned nearby trees to do the job instead. He ended up with a rather nice set-up but by the time it was built, there were no tourists coming to frequent it. And hammock swings, even no doubt in the sunny Greek climate have what you'd certainly class as being a finite lifespan also, which means that now, by the time people are starting to take more package holidays again, that first lot he bought will likely have started to wear out. Still, I stole his idea and when we got home, bought a swing-seat of my own off the internet and hung it of one of the trees in the garden.

            So, these swinging seats are basically miniature hammocks, designed for people to sit in outdoors in a more-or-less upright position. A quick look on amazon.co.uk told me that they are also known as 'Brazillian hanging chairs' - which presumably gives some idea of their provenance - and they are generally sold by a company called Amazonas for around the £50 to £60 mark. These chairs tend to be available in either plain white or brightly-coloured versions (usually striped, in some vaguely hand-woven ethnic-looking print) and there are various slightly differing construction methods used in making them. Basically the chairs are all made of strong cotton canvas with large metal eyelet holes incorporated round the edges, through which a number of sturdy cotton cords are strung. These cords come together, usually via a horizontal wooden pole that is suspended a foot or so above the seat, to form a thick rope with a metal loop secured to it which enables the hammock to be hung vertically down from some suspension point. Bespoke metal frames just for hanging your chair off are also available via the internet, or you could just string your hanging chair from a convenient tree.

            If you look at the customer reviews on amazon.co.uk for these hammocks, you'll soon run across various comments bemoaning how horribly uncomfortable they are to sit in. The ones we tried on holiday were very comfortable however, so we weren't dissuaded - although, of course, I thought £60 was far too much to pay for something like this, and bought a cheaper model for around the £25 mark. This looked very like the other alternatives, but it had a pair of wooden arm-rests incorporated in the design (not shown in the product picture accompanying this review; but I'd say that that type doesn't look much cop either as the style it's just like mine, only, sans armrests).

            This, I would say from my limited experience with these seats is a key point to look out for: the hammock seats that have solid arm-rests in them - like what we've got - seem to be the ones that are hideously uncomfortable to sit in. The seat we bought consists of two flat pieces of cloth with padding incorporated into it sewn into a basic, right-angled 'seat' shape. It's brightly coloured, in white, pink, yellow and green stripes and very pretty to look at, but unfortunately the way it's been strung is all wrong; when you sit in it the horizontal 'seat' part tips down so inevitably, you slide forwards out of it. It's not nice to sit in at all, and I haven't been able to fix the problem, because the arm-rests are in the way (the suspensory strings are all very firmly knotted into this part).

            The seat we've got is indeed hideously uncomfortable to sit in, but I know from experience on holiday that it is possible to obtain seats of this design that are nice to use. I would advise anyone considering a purchase of one of these seats to 'try before you buy' if at all possible. If not, I think the more expensive 'pocket-like seats you can get - that look like they contain more cloth, and which seem to enfold you a bit more, around your sides - are probably a better bet.

            As to durability of the hanging chair - we connected the hammock seat in our garden to a carabima-type clip, that was fixed to a rope tied to a tree branch. We incorporated the clip so that the seat could be disconnected easily from the tree, so it could be taken indoors and protected from the rain. Predictably of course, we didn't get round to bringing it in one showery day last summer and it got wet and after that it never stopped raining - so that was the end of that. This said, it's been outdoors hanging from the tree all winter and though greatly faded and a bit mildew-spotted, is still structurally sound as ever it was. One advantage of it containing less material, I suppose, is that it does seem to dry out relatively quickly once it's gotten wet.

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          • Strawberries / Plant / 15 Readings / 14 Ratings
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            06.04.2011 12:12
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            Fun soft fruit to have in the garden

            Strawberry plants are quite fun to have as a novelty in the garden, but they take up relatively much space and grown outdoors, have a fairly short fruiting season, so although they might grow enough strawberries to have several helpings through the summer, it's unlikely that a person would end up being 'self-sufficient' in home-grown fruit.

            Strawberry plants are low-growing and leafy, each plant standing less than a foot high. The foliage is quite dark green, with toothed leaves bearing deep grooves on the surface that are surprisingly rough to the touch. While strawberries aren't the type of plant that produces irritant hairs that stick to your skin, although there are people who are allergic to eating strawberries, and I suspect that if such sensitized people came into contact with the leaves they would also suffer an adverse reaction. The plants stop growing in winter, and there is some die-back of the leaves, but in general they seem to be frost-tolerant. The plants readily self-propagating by means of long, arching runners that grow out from the parent plants, which means that once established, a single strawberry will set about establishing itself at the centre of a ever-spreading-outwards strawberry bed, for at the end of each runner is a miniature strawberry plant complete with embryonic root system, just waiting to come into contact with moist soil to begin rooting as a new plant that will, eventually detach from the original and grow alongside.

            Strawberries, being members of the rose family produce distinctive five-petalled 'rose-family' type flowers, white petalled with a yellow cone-shaped centre shaped like a miniature strawberry. In cultivated strawberries the flowers are fairly abundant and though attractive, especially against the green of the foliage, they are short-lived and the plant doesn't tend to be grow as an ornamental. From the centre of the flower arises the so-called berry - actually what's known as a 'drupe' in botanical terms, as the fleshy strawberry part everyone likes to eat isn't, technically a fruit. Cultivated strawberries at least are slightly unusual in that flowers continue to be produced while earlier fruits grow larger and ripen, which means that on any given plant in summer, there will flowers, green fruit and red ripe strawberries all at the same time.
            The plants can be grown directly in fertile ground or, notionally, in upright ceramic 'strawberry planters' - although it has to be said that these planters tend to be more useful aesthetically than in terms of the fruit they produce. Strawberries need to be grown in moist, heavy soil for the fruit to develop well (it it's too dry, the leaves will grow happily but there will be little return of fruit) and in these terracotta 'strawberry towers' it's difficult to water the plants properly.

            While the foliage part of the plant tends to be generally trouble-free, slugs, snails, garden birds and other wildlife, including hedgehogs, badgers and even foxes all like to eat the fruit. And of course, if they come into contact with bare soil, the extremely juicy, soft fruit are in danger of beginning to decay: in large strawberry-growing operations it's usually to spread dry straw round the base of the plants to prevent this (hence the plant's common name). Commercial strawberry growers are increasingly moving towards cultivating the fruit in grow-bag type arrangements, often elevated up to human waist-height and with drip-feed irrigation pipes, to make harvesting more easy; picking strawberries grown in the ground requires a lot of hunkering down to soil-level which can do peoples' backs in....

            The earliest outdoor-grown strawberries in Britain tend to be ready around midsummer in a good year; if the weather's been too wet or there hasn't been enough sun, the berries often don't ripen till after the end of June. July and August are good strawberry-picking months, though by mid to the end of August the fruit supply is generally in decline. (Of course, at pick-your-own places, the management have all sorts of techniques for artificially extending the fruiting season).

            Strawberries are easy to grow, individual potted plants are inexpensive (perhaps one or two quid from a garden centre) and it's fun to have some in the garden. You might even get a few ripe strawberries to eat as an added bonus, too!

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            • Candytuft / Plant / 4 Readings / 3 Ratings
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              06.04.2011 12:08
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              Easy to grow garden / rockery plant

              Candytuft, of the genus Iberis, is a low-growing garden plant, often seen in flowerbeds and rockeries, that can also colonize rocky areas such as stone garden walls. It's a member of the cabbage or Crucifer family, a relationship that can be recognized most easily when the bright white flowers have dried and the plant sets seed; the shape of the seed-head, with its short spikes and flat, semitransparent seed-pods is quite characteristic for the seed-pods of this group.

              The cultivated plant also has a wild counterpart, which grows in chalky areas in the south of England; I saw some walking in the Chiltern Hills several years ago, where it was growing in open, chalk grassland in some abundance. Wild candytuft looks exactly like a smaller version of the garden plant; the short, flat leaves are dark, glossy green and grow out from tough-looking, ropy stems that have a generally horizontal and slightly twisting growth habit. The plant produces abundant flower-heads, each comprised of dozens of pure white flowers that cover the plant from early spring through to the beginning of summer.

              While candytuft tends to hug the ground, rarely growing more than about a foot high, the plant readily roots itself by means of aerial roots that grow from the horizontal, somewhat brittle stems, which means that not only is it extremely easy to propagate, but that planted candytuft soon establishes itself as an outward-expanding clump. While quick to colonize new areas, the plant seems to be quite sensitive to adverse conditions: part of the large candytuft clump I have in my garden, which I've encouraged to trail down to the ground over the garden wall, has died back this winter, leaving the edges of the patch still quite healthy-looking. In this way - through die-back of parts of the plant - a single clump can easily separate into several, apparently unconnected colonies, which is probably part of candytuft's survival strategy in the wild - and explains the brittleness of the stems also, I suppose.

              As native candytuft is a chalk downland specialist, it's no surprise that in the garden candytuft does best in open, sunny conditions where it isn't over-shaded by other plants. While it's a perennial and clumps will regrow every year, it is also sometimes treated as a bedding plant for inclusion in summer planting schemes and baskets. It's also grown from seed (possibly it's an annual version of the plant you're growing, from this format), and a number of varieties with flowers in shades of pink, purple and lilac instead of white are available.  

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              • Sundew / Plant / 5 Readings / 4 Ratings
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                06.04.2011 12:03
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                Interesting but not an 'architectural' or 'specimen' pot plant, exactly....

                Sundews, of the genus Drosera, are Britain's only native carnivorous plant - although it has to be said that apparently a number of smaller Sarracenias, or pitcher plants, have become naturalized in some of the peat bogs in Southern Ireland.

                Growing in nutrient-poor substrates, such as sphagnum bogs, carnivorous plants in general cope with the lack of fertile growing conditions by catching, digesting and absorbing the nutrients from (mainly) flying insects. A number of insect-capturing mechanisms have evolved in the various families of carnivorous plant - many of these as 'passive' traps, as for example in the pitcher plants, where insects fall into water-filled 'vases' made out of modified leaves, and drown there. The other extreme being, of course the Venus Fly-trap, where modified leaflets are triggered to snap shut, closing around and imprisoning their insect prey. Sundews fall somewhere between these two extremes; while insects are ensnared by being stuck in highly sticky 'glue' secreted by the plant, once a prey item is caught, the leaves slowly close around their victim's body (over a period of hours), and then secrete digestive enzymes that begin to break down their catch.
                While quite lovely viewed in close-up, it has to admitted that Sundews are not especially spectacular plants, as a specimen with a leaf-span reaching a three-inch diameter would be considered to be something of a giant. The pale green, spoon-shaped leaves grow in the form of a rosette, with dark red bristles all over the surface, each one secreting a bead of clear, glistening 'dew' - the sticky material with which the sundew traps its insect prey. Grown in the home, it's not generally necessary to 'feed' Sundews with insects; they tend to manage quite well without.

                As these plants grow in bogs where they are rarely shaded by overhanging vegetation, sundews need a period in full sun each day. As bog plants, they also need to be kept moist - ideally with lime-free water, because these plants are adapted to grow in acidic conditions - at all times (this is easy enough to achieve by placing the sundew's pot in a saucer of e.g. distilled water). When purchased as indoor plants from e.g. garden centres, potted specimens generally cost between £3 to £5. Carnivorous plants in general tend to require specialist (and acidic) mixtures as regards their growing medium - recipes are easy to make up and can be found online - but sadly, I think it's fair to say that most commercially-purchased Sundews have such a short life-span that they never get to the stage where they need to be repotted.

                These are interesting little plants, very attractive if you take the time to notice them properly, and being carnivorous are always popular with kids.

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              • Prayer Plant (Calathea) / Plant / 4 Readings / 3 Ratings
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                06.04.2011 12:00
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                Gorgeous, if slightly finicky, group of houseplants

                Calatheas or so-called 'prayer plants' are a group of plants from the tropics, which are grown as indoor pot plants mainly for their striking and attractively-marked foliage, which often bears spot and / or stripes, usually in some shade of dark purple or chocolate brown. There are two main families seen as pot plants - the Marantas, that tend to spread by means of horizontal stems and have a shorter growth habit, versus the tall Calatheas proper which grow upright, with some of the larger varieties being 'specimen' type plants that can reach three or four feet tall. In Calatheas, the leaves appear to grow up directly from the soil, as the stems from which they develop grow just under, or directly resting on, the ground surface. The leaves of Marantas also tend to be thinner and more delicate than the slightly leatherier leaves that Calatheas have in general, and some Calathea varieties also have a slightly velvety 'nap' to them, that gives a gorgeous bloom to the leaf surfaces. The Calatheas also tend to have differently coloured upper versus lower leaf surfaces, a feature that becomes obvious when the plants demonstrate the reason for the 'prayer' part of their name: in ideal conditions of light and humidity, the leaves fold in two along the midribs at night, closing shut in a way that to some people, seems reminiscent of a pair of hands clasped together in prayer.

                These plants have the reputation of being tricky to maintain as houseplants, because as a group, they require higher humidity levels than are found in the average house. They are also unusually sensitive to the cold - including draughts indoors - which can cause damage to the foliage and, while they need to be kept in moist soil at all times, they also are easily damaged by over-watering, which again causes the leaves to begin to rot. In addition to all this, too much light - for example, direct sunlight - will easily scorch the leaves leading to the development of dead, brown areas, which are unsightly and may eventually cause the affected leaf to dry up and wither on the plant.

                I found that it's true that it can be difficult to encourage Calatheas to grow larger, but in 'barely adequate' conditions, they will persist - though gradually declining in size - for many years. A Calathea we left at my mother-in-law's, back in 1998 while we were moving house and never got round to re-homing is still alive though it's decreased in size from the spectacular, three foot high plant it once was. It still produces leaves but the largest of these is probably no more than about 10 inches long.

                Large potted Calatheas occasionally turn up for sale in supermarkets, though I've seen them more regularly on sale at 'Focus' DIY shop, where you can expect to pay around the £8 to £10 mark for a two to three foot high specimen. Marantas sometimes turn up for sale in garden centres - often potted up in plastic hanging-basket style pots, since (presumably) the horizontally spreading stems will cause new growth to hang down attractively. A better bet for getting one is from someone you know who already grows these plants: Marantas are very easy to propagate as the spreading stem-sections also bear tiny 'buds' that readily will develop into roots if a cutting is taken and potted up in compost.

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                • Philips DVP5960 / DVD Player / 23 Readings / 21 Ratings
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                  05.04.2011 12:09
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                  Why does the handset have no 'eject' button? So you'll buy a replacement, or what?

                  The Philips DVP 5960 player was an 'emergency' DVD-player purchase I made in 2007. My parents, with whom I was due to be spending a fortnight's stay that summer, didn't use their old DVD player which had broken down, and at the time I was in the habit of parking my young daughter in front of the telly to gain a few moments respite - as a result of which she had become somewhat addicted to her various DVDs.
                  So I bought this for them as a thinly disguised 'present' for about £40 from amazon.co.uk, basically for the sole reason that I'd be able to use it myself when I visited. They were happy enough to give it houseroom however, and my folks, who, over the years have accumulated a three-foot high stack of those free DVDs in cardboard sleeves that get delivered with the newspapers, keep making noises about 'how we must get round to watching all those documentaries about World War 2 and the Margaret Thatcher Years that we got with the papers, someday soon.'

                  The only criteria I had for selecting the player, which was posted to my folks' house sight unseen, was that it should be (1) relatively inexpensive and (2) be a multi-region player, as a number of my daughter's favourite DVDs were Region 1 ones (ie. formatted for the US). This model satisfied both those criteria.
                  The Philips DVD player is pretty basic looking: it's got a silver plastic 'chassis' and is about 10 by 18 inches in 'footprint' and less than two inches deep - so pretty slimline all round. There are only the very basic 'play,' 'stop,' 'forward,' 'rewind,' and 'eject' buttons on it, but that's no disaster as for example the DVD player we have at home, despite being over seven years old, now, still has the ground-control-to-Major-Tom type remote, with loads of buttons that I've no idea what purples they serve. In fact, there's even one button on our, complex remote-control that literally, makes your DVD player appear to have stopped working - the screen goes black and the buttons don't work but some sound keeps coming through. ( I spent ages fiddling with the scart leads the other day trying to work out what had gotten wrong before I remembered about the existence of the 'kill DVD' control).

                  So, back to the Philips DVD player. It's got a port for a USB drive to plug into in the back, and 'HDMI' and 'HD Upscale' functions - I don't know what those are for however. It's a remote-controlled DVD of course, and comes with a grey plastic x2AA battery handset which is unusually rubbish; it's small (about six inches long and half an inch deep) unexpectedly cheap and clunky looking - but the main problem is that the remote DOESN'T HAVE A BUTTON TO LET YOU EJECT THE DISC, ON IT! (Actually, we wasted quite a bit of time searching for one as we simply couldn't believe it wasn't there).

                  Weird, or what?

                  I'm aware that if you eject a DVD, you do have to generally get up from your seat to remove it from the player in any case, but for example at our house, there's almost always a sprog rolling toy cars etc. about on the mat in front of the TV, or one or other of us parents mopping fromage frais slicks (dried or recent) up off the carpet, so if you eject a disc using a remote control, you can always say to whoever's on their feet -

                  "Will you get mummy's disc out of the DVD player, please, before the baby slobbers all over it..."

                  So I don't understand why this handset, unlike any other DVD handset I've ever seen just sees fit to not have any eject button.

                  Other than that, it's an easy to use, basic DVD player. It probably won't show images to as sharp a resolution as other, more expensive machines, but as these tend to work to specifications smaller than the human eye can normally detect / with LCD TVs these days, the image resolution's rubbish BECAUSE OF THE TV in any case I don't think that's anything to worry about.

                  While this particular DVD doesn't appear to be on sale from amazon.co.uk any more, I'm sure you'll be able to pick one up on Ebay with trouble if you really want one. It's no surprise for me to see that what amazon.co.uk DO sell for this DVD is a range of three, different, improved remote controls (all costing between £10 and £13) - which would sort out the one thing this player doesn't have going for it already.

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                • Passion Flower / Plant / 10 Readings / 9 Ratings
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                  05.04.2011 11:59
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                  Gorgeous but vulnerable to slugs (and fussy?)

                  Passion flowers are exotic-looking vines grown mainly for their remarkable and intricate-looking flowers, which bear cross-shaped stamens above a flattish disc of purplish-white petals. The flowers also have a third layer of purple-green filaments; the three-layered flowers, together with the cross-shaped centrepiece appear to recall to people - who think of things in that way - some kind of overtly Christian religious significance, hence the 'Passion' part of the plant's name.

                  Passion flowers have three-lobed glossy green leaves growing from extremely thin, woody vines. The plants produce abundant pale green spiralling tendrils which they use to climb up any nearby supports. Well-established passion flowers can grow in excess of six feet high, and will grow to cover e.g. trellises / fences against which they're trained with thick, abundant growth. The unusual, many-layered flowers appear in summer and are usually produced in great profusion, covering the plant. Following this, some of the blooms go on to produce the plant's odd, ovoid fruit, which look like small green-brown eggs hanging from the stems. Even in southern Britain some of these will ripen to an attractive bright orange colour. These fruit are reputedly edible - passion flower is a variety or relative of (if not actually the same plant) as produces the unprepossessing-looking, wrinkly green passion fruit you can buy in supermarkets, but I'm not sure enough of the source of this information on edibility to have ever tried this out myself.

                  Passion flower plants when grown outdoors appear to be deciduous, in that they lose their leaves in autumn, leaving a frankly unsightly sprawl of thin, naked vines. While they are frost-tolerant to some extent, extremely hard winters will knock them back, and prolonged exposure to freezing temperature will kill younger, not-yet-fully-established plants. The plants grow best in a Mediterranean-type climate, free from frost, and can also be established in conservatories where they will grow well.

                  The young vines are frequently found for sale in garden centres where are two to three foot high plant will cost in the region of £5 to £6. Smaller, foot-high specimens turn up in Morrisons supermarket plants section quite reliably every spring for around the £3 mark. Over the years I have bought a number of both larger and smaller plants, and have tried to establish them in various sheltered sites in the garden as well as in pots, but have never had any success with passion flowers. The leaves as well as the stems seem particularly vulnerable to slug and snail attacks, and the plants I've tried to grow generally get munched by garden wildlife, and then killed outright when the frosts come. This is a shame as passion flowers are plants I'd very much like to have in my garden.

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