Reducing our use of plastic progress report

2014-06-24 2014 June Villeneuve sur Lot and Brantome 005
French markets are the loveliest places to shop

Shopping has always been a minefield.  We have tried to use our buying power [small though it is] as a force for good for a long time, balancing our desire to do as little as possible to damage the environment and workers rights alongside our need for quality and to save money for retirement.  Recently we have been constantly reviewing how we can avoid plastic packaging as much as possible and I have blogged before on how we manage all our shopping by bicycle [even through the winter].  The cycling is easy, avoiding plastic packaging is the tougher call.  For years we were part of a vegetable box scheme that supported a local organic grower and every week was a ‘Ready Steady Cook’ week as we ate whatever vegetable arrived.  This is no longer an option and we have joined the masses trying to find supermarket vegetables that are not wrapped tightly in plastic.

The need to save money had taken me to Lidl and Aldi for all our shopping but these supermarkets lovingly wrap most of their fruit and vegetables in heaps of plastic; even the spring onions come in a plastic bag!  Fortunately, I now have time to move around the supermarkets for different items.  Our four local supermarkets sell lots of vegetables such as broccoli, carrots, potatoes, peppers and onions loose but only our local Tesco sells large bunches of coriander and parsley that are not in sealed plastic, whereas Booths [a wonderful northern supermarket institution] is where I can fulfil my desire for cherry tomatoes and gorgeous tasty large flat mushrooms.  I take a cloth bag on my shopping trips to help carry these items home.

We have now not only given up shop-bought hummus we have also given up all those plastic wrapped meat-free slices for sandwiches and we do withouturt.  The only convenience food we buy is Linda McCartney sausages that come in cardboard boxes [no plastic and they taste the best, hurrah!]   But there are plenty of things there are no alternative for; Mr BOTRA isn’t able to give up his need for packets of crisps, although he has reduced his consumption and, although we make most of our own bread, so no plastic there, we’re not prepared to do without hot buttered crumpets for occasional breakfasts.  We are certainly not perfect; sometimes we splash out on expensive butter wrapped in paper, but sometimes we save the money and throw in to the bin the combination of foil and plastic the budget butter comes in.  We don’t have the space or a supplier for bulk pasta and rice [and even in bulk these items come in a plastic bag].  For non-food items we try and keep the cleaning ‘stuff’ to a minimum; it is easy to buy washing powder in a box but washing up liquid still comes in a plastic bottle.

Looking at the spreadsheet, it seems that although we’ve moved away from the cheaper supermarkets for our vegetables, by giving up the [often expensive] convenience foods our food bill hasn’t increased over the last twelve months and so we can stay within budget.



Staffordshire oatcakes & The Roaches: an almost perfect combination weekend

2017 Feb Rudyard and Three Shires Head (5).JPG
Looking over the Mermaid Pool to the Roaches and Cloud in the distance

Almost anyone living near Leek on the edge of the Peak District in North Staffordshire will have been bought up to enjoy Staffordshire Oatcakes for lunch and breakfast.  Leek oatcakes are not the paper-thin oaty imposters you can buy in the supermarket, these phonies give only a hint of the deliciousness of the oatcake.  The ones to buy and savour are the thick and fluffy oatcakes that you must travel to Leek to find at the simply named ‘Oatcake Shop‘ on the edge of the town.  We generally return from this area with a dozen for the freezer to satisfy our cravings until our next visit.  Oatcakes are a local delicacy that existed before the UK had ever discovered the wrap and they are perfect hot or cold and rolled or folded with all sorts of fillings, although our favourite remains grilled cheese.

Leek is a small market town surrounded by hills and the Roaches, an outcrop of gritstone crags that rise from the heather moorland above the town.  If you don’t get to the Oatcake Shop in time to buy your oatcakes you can always call in to The Roaches Tea Room to enjoy an oatcake lunch there while taking in the splendid view over Tittesworth Reservoir.

We had a great and restorative weekend in this area.  On Saturday we walked along the disused railway line between Rudyard and Leek and I reminisced about the days when this walk was my commute to work.  On Sunday we walked from Flash to Three Shires Head where Staffordshire meets Cheshire and Derbyshire.  Flash claims to be the highest village in Great Britain and as children we learnt that it is where the term ‘flash money’ came from.  At the remote Three Shires Head criminals could easily jump from one county to another to escape arrest and this may have led to it being an ideal spot for illegal activities, one of which may have been counterfeit coins.  Three Shires Head is one of my favourite spots but on this Sunday it was noisy with the sound of scrambling bikes and the air was heavy with the smell of two-stroke oil that took me back to my motorcycling days.  I am always impressed with the skillful handling of motocross riders but the pretty and generally peaceful spot of Three Shires Head is not an appropriate place to practice this sport.

We stayed at Goatfell Farm, a Caravan Club Certified Location at Bottomhouse near Leek for £13.  This lovely and welcoming site sits in an open field and we had a glorious sunset across the fields in the evening and we tried a bit of star gazing in the clear night away from the city streetlights.


A lesson for minimalists: it doesn’t mean keeping nothing at all

2012 Nov Norfolk and Lincs trip (9)
The first thing we do when we park up the ‘van is make a brew

‘It will wear in’, is a phrase Mr BOTRA and I often use in our house and in the campervan for anything from a pair of shoes that pinch to a new bed that just feels strange after the old one.  So when the oven door on our small Smev oven on our new Devon Tempest campervan was stiff to close, although we knew this wasn’t right, we thought it would improve over time.  But it didn’t wear in, instead it got stiffer and more difficult to close until [you guessed it] the door refused to close at all [while we were mid-way through cooking some garlic bread since you ask].

Of course, by this time we were outside the Devon Conversion’s twelve month warranty on their conversion so I sought help.  An internet search revealed that Smev is part of the Dometic group and I emailed them asking if they had any advice on how to loosen up the oven door.  They replied promptly  telling us that the warranty on their products is two-years [luckily for us the ‘van has not yet reached its second birthday] and sent a list of local service partners.  One of these was a mobile service engineer we had used before and I arranged an appointment for a few days later.

I thought the problem was as good as solved but our difficulties were not over.  Dometic, in their wisdom, put the model number required to order a replacement door on the side of the oven, meaning the appliance has to be removed to find this.  Working in a small campervan is challenging and even the experienced engineer couldn’t work out how to remove the oven.  A call to Devon Conversions provided some tips on where the necessary screws were tucked away but still neither the engineer nor I had thin and long enough arms to safely reach the required screws and he left us with the unyielding oven door.

That evening, feeling disheartened I decided to check through the pile of stuff we received with the new ‘van and had ‘filed’ at the bottom of an ottoman we call the ‘Treasure Chest’.  I wasn’t really expecting to find anything useful but incredibly, there I found a small plastic bag with a screw in it and a label with the required model number for the oven.  I was amazed we had even kept this and I am grateful that Devon Conversions had passed it on to us.  I am also relieved that despite being minimalists with little spare storage in the flat we occasionally keep things ‘just in case’.

Once the engineer had the model number Dometic quickly provided a new oven door and the engineer fitted it, at no charge.  We now enjoy its smooth action every time we are camping.

Retired and loving it

Party time nibbles

I do like to mark occasions with a celebration and I also love bringing friends from different segments of my life together.  Last night was my retirement party and I had a ball.  Mr BOTRA and I hosted an informal drop in at The Lime Bar at Salford Quays so that those who were already retired and lived further away could come early and leave when it suited them or those more local and still working could come along after work and stay late.  The Lime Bar provided a lovely selection of nibbles and I made a selection of cakes as gifts for everyone to eat or take away [like a party bag], so it wasn’t a party that took a big chunk out of our savings.

By the end of the evening my cheeks ached with laughing and grinning so much; the love and friendship in the room made me feel cherished and really should be bottled – its true to say I am still smiling today and the whole evening was like one very big hug.  I was on my feet all evening, determined not to feel regret at not talking enough to someone after they had left but inevitably there were a few people who I didn’t feel I had caught up with enough.  But I did re-connect with previous colleagues from Preston, many of my NHS Manchester colleagues, who are always game for a party, and mixed these up with local friends; I feel gratified that they were all willing to come out on a Thursday night to celebrate with me.

Despite my instructions for no presents my generous and loving friends bought gifts that were beautiful, useful and interesting.  I received books, flowers, bottles of fizz, useful stuff for the ‘van, smelly stuff, a beautiful scarf and a fantastic mug that sums it up really, it says ‘Retired and Loving it!’

All we need to make us really happy is something to be enthusiastic about

2011 Easter Glen Truim 025 Chanonary Point
The beautiful Chanonry Point on the Moray Firth in Scotland

One of my travel articles from this year included a visit to the pretty village of the Devon village of Clovelly,  Charles Kingley’s [the author of the Water-Babies] childhood home.  While researching his life and work I found this quote from him:

‘All we need to make us really happy is something to be enthusiastic about’.

This got me thinking about my own enthusiasms and how these contribute to my happiness.  I have a fairly wide range of things I am enthusiastic about including walking, being in our campervan, cycling, travelling, reading, spending time with Mr BOTRA and with friends, cooking good [veggie] food, eating excellent ice-cream and drinking red wine, listening to loud rock music, writing, laughing and comedy, foreign TV thrillers, tai chi and learning.  Taking part in all these [and other stuff] enhance my energy levels and feed my spirit.

I am drawn to people who have their own enthusiasms; they might not be enthusiastic about the same things as I am but I admire people who enjoy doing something and clearly get a lot of pleasure from it.  I have friends with enthusiasm for gardening, visiting Iceland [the country], ballet and Shakespeare; none of these are things that fire me up but I love to hear them talk about their own enjoyment of these activities.

I enjoy taking part in some of the above activities with others and I find that enthusiasms shared can more than double the pleasure.  We are part of a book group and the discussion always enhances my understanding of the book; camping trips with friends and walking with other people are sociable occasions that create shared experiences we can all look back on.  Our son and daughter-in-law have an enthusiasm for whale and dolphin watching and the photograph of Chanonry Point reminds me of lovely times when we have joined them on this beautiful beach watching the dolphins.

Considering the force of enthusiasm took me to Patti Smith who considers enthusiasm as a state of radiance:

‘If we walk the victim, we’re perceived as the victim. And if we enter … glowing and receptive … if we maintain our radiance and enter a situation with radiance, often radiance will come our way.’

She goes on to relate this to William Blake’s life.  He was a creative genius who was not appreciated in his lifetime but who held on to his vision and radiance or enthusiasm.  We all have knock backs and stumble and I certainly constantly let myself down; my cooking is often not as perfect as my vision when I start out with the raw ingredients; my writing is never good enough and I often fail to learn to the extent I aim to but I try and stay enthusiastic and carry out activities with love and joy while seeking self-improvement.

PS Iceland looks beautiful and I would love to visit this country but I am waiting for them to discontinue commercial whaling.

Reducing our use of plastic one tiny step at a time

Making hummus in our tiny food processor

We have a long way to go before we are anywhere near a Zero Waste Home.  But, as with everything, when the overall goal is so enormous I feel better if I at least start to make some small steps towards getting there.

Since the 1980s we have taken many tiny steps towards being a low waste house.  We already make our own bread; we don’t buy any sort of microwave meals [we don’t have a microwave] or convenience foods [with the exception of Linda McCartney’s sausages, which come sensibly packaged in just an easily recycled cardboard box].  We gave up laundry liquid for a cardboard box of powder earlier this year and buy as many fruit and vegetables that are both local and come without packaging as we can find.  We have recently moved on to Lush shampoo bars, rather than buying plastic bottles.  We keep leftovers in bowls and containers in the fridge [and then use them] and have a roll of clingfilm we have owned for decades and it just seems a shame to throw it away.

So, it has been a long time in coming but I finally got around to making our own hummus.  This is something I eat lots of and the plastic pots it comes in have been taunting me every time I bought it and spoiling my enjoyment of this wonderful food.

For me the crucial step was buying a jar of tahini [we always have garlic, olive oil and chickpeas in the cupboard] … every time I went shopping I prevaricated because it was just something else to make space for in to our tiny kitchen.  I know that making hummus is really easy to do and takes just a few minutes, after all I made my own back in the eighties when you couldn’t find it in a supermarket.  But last week I got a grip, bought the tahini and whipped up some delicious hummus.

So for a day or two I will enjoy the virtuous feeling of taking a step in the right direction until I read some more and come up with the next thing to tackle … if I can find room for a five litre container of white vinegar it might be cleaning products.

Supermarket shopping by bike: a win-win

Ortlieb panniers can carry a lot of stuff

Isn’t it great when something turns out better than you thought.  Since working from home the only thing I have really missed is the exercise I got walking to work.  Although I make sure I move around a lot during the day, my work is mostly sitting at a laptop and so by the end of the working day I am itching to get moving.

To make sure this idea to take exercise happens I thought I would try stopping the supermarket ‘big’ shop in the ‘van or using home delivery and instead get out on the bike two or three times a week to get all our shopping.

Previously, I have always done a bicycle shopping trip once a week mainly for fresh fruit and vegetables.  In addition about once a month we would do what we call round here a ‘big’ shop to get store cupboard essentials and cleaning materials. We are lucky to have five supermarkets within easy cycling distance of home [no farmers market nearby unfortunately as we don’t live in that sort of an area] and I vary which one I visit to add variety to my trips.

I honestly expected this method of shopping to be more expensive, as I am visiting the shops more; however, the spreadsheet doesn’t lie and I am pleased to say I have found the opposite, it has actually saved us money.  It helps that I do plan meals, make a list and stick to it as I hate to waste food and I mostly use the cheaper supermarkets.  Also, I am limited to how much I can fit in to my [very roomy] Ortlieb pannier which stops some impulse buys.

So … the figures.  For the first four months of 2016 our supermarket shopping [all our food and household items] average was £248 per month. For the last two months, since working at home and shopping by bicycle the average monthly spend in the supermarkets has been £212 per month, a saving of £36 each month.   In May and June we were mostly on holiday, so different rules apply and these months are not featured.

We are saving money and I get out on my bike – a win-win, as they say.