What if you had loads of money?

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A very expensive house boat on the River Thames

We were at a travel show recently and began to daydream about what we might do if we didn’t have to live on our budget and had a bucket-full of money to spare.  We have a good and happy life spending our £24,000 a year, we travel around Europe in our campervan, socialise, eat as much ice-cream as we need and go to the cinema and concerts pretty much when we want.  Our frugal lifestyle isn’t exactly impoverished and we are content with the life we have because it is the one we chose.  Although I find it hard to put myself in the shoes of someone who doesn’t need to watch the pennies [after 40-years of thrift] I have pushed myself to have fun playing the what-if game?  So … what if a premium bond win or a surprise inheritance suddenly gave us an extra £10,000 to spend, what do I think we would do with it?

  1. Topping up the contingency fund

No surprise here, we might be really boring and just add this to our contingency fund but that isn’t really playing the game is it?

2. Travel

Turns out if we had a chunk of money I would mostly want to use it to do something we certainly couldn’t do without the money and this is travel to see far-away friends.  We have dear friends in the USA and in Australia and spending time with them would be such a wonderful treat.  We have the time now and it is really only the cost of the flights that stops us packing a suitcase and going.  Unfortunately, our current budget doesn’t quite allow for this trip on top of our European trips in our campervan.

The other trip that is hugely expensive but that I have on my wish list is taking the campervan to Iceland on the ferry [over €3,000 for 2018] but what a trip that would be; in my dreams we would spend a month or so touring around Iceland, just imagine …

3. A new home?

I am comfortable living in the less wealthy side of town  where our neighbours are hard-working individuals who don’t go to work in suits but often leave early in the morning in a high-vis jacket; I like living alongside these down-to-earth folk.  £10,000 wouldn’t be enough to make moving home worthwhile but double that might have us considering buying somewhere in the posher [and more expensive] part of town.  We certainly wouldn’t be buying an expensive house boat on the River Thames.

4. A shopping spree?

Even with money to burn we wouldn’t start buying stuff.  Would we buy a new campervan I hear you ask?  Our current Devon Tempest works really well for us, is only three-years old and has done just 26,000 miles; this hardly merits replacement.

5. Giving

In my dreams I have enough money to be able to give a chunk of cash to one or more of my favourite local charities, helping them to be financially stable, and still have enough left over to shower my friends and family with gifts.

These might be harmless musings but it has spurned me on to start calculating the cost of my dream trip to visit our faraway friends.  Having under-spent on our £27,000 budget by £3,000 in 2017 I might hang on to this dream by just a tiny thread.  If we under-spend again in 2018 it might become a real possibility in the future.

 

 

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What is the best travel writer’s camera? The Panasonic Lumix DMC TZ100 is my choice

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A perfect day at Loch Linnhe on the Scottish west coast

Cameras are such an individual choice and fortunately today there are plenty of options out there to suit everyone but I am not the only person that wants high quality photographs from a compact camera.  I now own a Panasonic Lumix DMC TZ100 and think it is the perfect camera for the active traveller I am.  This camera is a million miles from the first camera I owned as a young teenager; this was my dad’s Kodak Brownie that he had been given in the 1950s and I was over-the-moon to have my own camera.  Once I was earning money I splashed out on my own 35-mm SLR camera, a Canon AE-1, apparently the first SLR with a microprocessor and a model that sold very well.  I bought different lenses for my Canon over 25-years and loved using it and it took beautiful photographs but by the 1990s we were taking back-packing holidays more and more and a bulky 35-mm camera with its associated lenses was taking up too much room in my rucksack.  Although I still loved taking photographs, it got to the point where I would deliberate whether I really wanted to take my camera out with me.

My first digital camera was bought in 2005, it was a second-hand Fuji that was still fairly bulky but I was quickly sold with the convenience of digital over film.  Never again would we lose a roll of film because someone had set the postbox alight [such as our precious wedding day photographs] or even have to limit the number of photographs I took.  Digital was the way forward for me; I could take as many photographs as I wanted, see them immediately and edit them in the comfort of my home on the computer.

By 2008 I had moved on to digital compacts and owned a Canon and an Olympus before upgrading and buying a Panasonic DMC-TZ40 Lumix just over four years ago.  At this time we were still saving up to retire and I thought the £200+ I paid for this camera was more than enough for someone who was trying to be frugal.  In this effort to save money I had not anticipated how important photography would become in my emerging career as a travel writer.  I loved using the TZ40 but it didn’t always perform as well as I would like.  There is a lesson here that sometimes being frugal can cost you money rather than save it and less than three years later I took the plunge and paid £550 for my Panasonic DMC TZ100.

I know there are more expensive cameras out there and although every camera is a compromise in some way, I now feel I have the camera of my dreams.  Although I am sure I could get even greater quality out of a more expensive camera, the TZ100 delivers great quality photographs, gives me flexibility to change settings, has more features than I will ever need to use and is small and compact and so is never a nuisance to carry on a walk.  I chose the Panasonic because of the positive reviews, for the good quality large viewing screen that I can use even in bright sun and because of my positive experience with the TZ40.  Staying with Panasonic brand also meant I could use the camera immediately as much of the functionality was familiar.

With this little gem of a camera by my side I can no longer blame the camera for poor photographs; I only have myself to blame for any hopeless shots.

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The Panasonic Lumix TZ100

Monton: #surprisingsalford #27

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The Unitarian Church, Monton

Monton is a bit of a Salford secret that is little known beyond the Salford boundaries.  Part of Eccles, Monton is a lovely part of Salford that is as chic as Didsbury but even prettier.  Monton has a village feel, a row of independent shops, smart cafes and a village green, the canal and an old railway line that is now a cycling and walking route.  On our last visit we arrived in Monton after walking along the canal and this only enhanced the sense of being in a small village rather than the city of Salford.  Certainly, if you didn’t know Salford well you would think you were in wealthier south Manchester.

Monton Green was part of the estate of the Earl of Ellesmere but in the late 19th century it was given to the public and is now maintained with grass and flower beds.  Next to the green is Monton Unitarian Church whose building was completed in 1875.  On the church is a blue plaque to John Henry Poynting FRS (1852 – 1914).  John Henry Poynting was a renowned physicist born in Monton and worked in Birmingham.  He developed the Poynting vector which describes the flow of energy in an electromagnetic field.  In the 1890s he grabbed the public’s attention for his work calculating the weight of the earth.

The land-locked lighthouse in the photograph below is many miles from the coast.  This 40-foot high modern folly was built as a weekend retreat by a local canal boat enthusiast and even has its own light for use on special occasions.

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The Bridgewater Canal, Monton

Making the most of a short break in Milan

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The beautiful Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan

The northern Italian city of Milan is the perfect city for a short break and its popularity has grown in recent years following the 2015 Expo.  A couple of days were certainly not enough to see everything in Milan but we managed to pack in some of the well-known and lesser-known sights creating a weekend that was pure Italian and gave us glimpses in to the spirit of the city.  These are my highlights for your own visit:

Piazza del Duomo – You won’t want to miss getting to the Piazza del Duomo.  From here you will be overwhelmed by the extravagant and ornate front of Milan’s gothic Duomo.  Once you have taken in the grandeur of the cathedral, look to your left to see the equally stunning entrance to the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II 19th century shopping mall.  This is the heart of Milan and a must for every visitor and it is always crowded but gazing at the surrounding splendour you forget the hordes.  Strolling through the Galleria to La Scala is free; visiting the Duomo isn’t and except maybe in the depths of winter involves joining queues.  The experience not to be missed is climbing up to the terraces on the roof of the Duomo and going here at sunset has many advantages.  Late in the day the queues are shorter and the crowds less; we were the next to last group in the lift to the roof [the staff tried to put us off, telling us we might not get up before they closed but we stuck with it] and with no further visitors following us we could find some quiet corners among the many statues that adorn the building.  Reaching the front of the Duomo that faces west and the setting sun, I could hear the music and chatter from the surrounding rooftop bars. The disadvantage of going late at night was that we couldn’t get in to the interior until the next day and so had to queue again [for about an hour and a half] and after so much build up the interior of the Duomo is a bit of a let down.

Coffee and cake in a classic italian Cafe – Pasticceria Marchesi has been making cakes and coffee since 1824 and is worth the expense for the excellent coffee and delicious cakes.  There are three shops in Milan and we visited the charming and smaller cafe near to Sforza Castle.  As lunch time approached the cafe became busy with people coming in for lunch and a swift coffee and the system of ordering from one counter and paying at a till appeared chaotic.  We had been walking all morning and enjoyed a relaxing sit down in the calmer back room so felt we had our money’s worth.

Panzerotti Luine – Eating in Milan is rarely cheap so you need to take the opportunity for something affordable when you can.  For a few Euros you can buy delicious Italian streetfood; fried, baked or sweet panzerotto, a stuffed bread snack.  The classic panzerotto is fried with a mozzarella and tomato filling.

With locals walking tour – Over two-and-a-half hours our guide took us to places we would never have found without her local knowledge and gave us an inside flavour of the city and this proved to be an excellent introduction to Milan.

Rinascente food hall and roof top cafe – I could have spent hours in the food hall at Rinascente department store; it is packed with Italian goodies.  It is also worth climbing up the seventh floor of this store for the roof top cafe.  We visited in the early evening and had a selection of Campari cocktails and snacks for the full Milan experience with a view of the ornate roof line of the Duomo and surrounded by noisy chattering Italians.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper – It is an incredible story that this painting on the wall of the Refectory at the Monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie survived at all.  In its 500-years it has lived through being an armory, prison and animal shelter, as well as bombing and many restorations.  It is claimed that the last restoration in the 1990s took the painting back to its original and it certainly brilliantly and humanly captures a moment in the story of the last supper.

Chiesa di San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore You could spend all your days visiting churches in Milan and you might walk by this unassuming church and not think twice about popping in but make sure you do.  Inside this former convent are such glorious frescoes on every inch of the walls it is worth seeking out.

Basilica of Sant’Eustorgio – Near to the Navigli district and one of the oldest churches in Milan, this church doesn’t have the abundance of frescoes of the Chiesa di San Maurizio but has some interesting features including an early Christian church underneath the existing building.  In the 15th century Portinari Chapel there are colourful frescoes on the ceiling and an ornate ark with the remains of Peter Rosini, known as Peter Martyr or Peter from Verona, the prior of Como.

Naviglio Grande – You can walk or cycle for many kilometres along this canal that once was used by ships bringing the marble for the Duomo in the centre of Milan.  On a rainy morning we attempted to work off some of the calories we had consumed in the cafes, restaurants and bars of Milan by walking some of the canal.  Near to its end the canal area has been gentrified and is now lined with cafes and there are often market stalls.  After working up an appetite we found the canalside Universo Vegano cafe for some delicious and healthy lunch.

Buskers – I like to find time to stop and listen to or watch some of the many street artists wherever we visit and I will happily hand over some change to say thank you for the entertainment.  The street artists of Milan are regulated and are usually high quality artists.

Braidense National Library – Enter the courtyard of the old Palace of the Collegio Gesuitico di Brera, pass the classrooms full of students at the art college and climb the stairs to the library, opened to the public in 1786 thanks to Maria Theresa who considered that Milan needed “an open library for the common use of anyone who wants to cultivate his mind, and acquire new knowledge.”  The peaceful and atmospheric library has shelves of old books and holds temporary exhibitions about some of its collection.

Brera Botanical Garden – Tucked away behind the Braidense National Library we found this small botanical garden famous for its old Ginkgo biloba trees.  Here were signs of spring with blossom on the trees and flowering bulbs.  In summer this would be a cool place to relax that is away from the bustle of the city.

Parco Sempione – Beyond Sforza Castle is this large park that is popular with both visitors and locals.  Covering 116 acres the park has many grand monuments and winding paths among grass that are perfect for a walk.  On our visit there was a fairground in the park with terrifying rides.

 

 

What I wish everyone knew about rock music

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What a rock concert looks like when you are only 1.6 m tall

We had a good position in the middle of the floor, safely on the edge of the mosh pit.  In front of me energetic fans ebbed and flowed like waves on the beach as they flowed towards the stage and back.  As the tempo increased the band screamed ‘Jump,’ and these people reached for the roof, briefly levitating and bouncing off each other like human pinball.  I could feel the rhythm of the bass guitar to my core.  ‘Jump as high as you can and try and stay there,’ the band instructed; there was so much energy in the room this seemed possible.  No one was checking their phones or talking about their day at work, everyone was completely in the moment.  A mosh pit might look like chaos but there are rules to keep everyone safe in this bundle of energy; someone fell and my daughter-in-laws strong arms quickly pulled him up before he was crushed, at the end of a song our son waved a handbag he had found in the air until the owner claimed it.

I have written before about my love of loud rock music; the noise, energy and total immersion of the experience.  Academy Three part of the Student Union building in Manchester is a small [holding 470 people] and intimate venue on the third floor.  Turbowolf have a loyal following that made for a great night of heavy rock music but you might be forgiven for never having heard of them and attending one of their gigs is not on everyone’s tick list.  Every person that was there on Friday night was there because they love rock music, not because it was somewhere to be seen and brag about.

We walked home in gentle rain, hot, happy and tired and soaked in mass-produced lager spilt from glasses as fans rushed to join in the fun at the front.  It is a feeling I want to hang on to.

 

A starling murmuration is the Blackpool headliner

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The murmuration of starlings over Blackpool’s North Pier

Continuing the theme of a winter that is full of sunshine [yes I know we’ve just had a very wintry week] we have managed to get away in our blue campervan at various times this last few months in the sunshine.  In truth walking through the carpets of snowdrops at Bank Hall in Bretherton near Preston you don’t need the sunshine to make you feel good; the bright white snowdrops bring their own light and it is impossible to be unhappy surrounded by flowers that mean spring is just around the corner.  We chose another sunny day to visit the wonderful Cobble Hey Farm on the slopes of the Bowland Fells looking over Garstang.  Here a beautiful woodland garden has been created that shows the full range of different varieties of snowdrops; snowdrops with yellow stems, tall snowdrops and early flowering snowdrops are all here.  In the barn we also met our first spring lamb.

Before Storm Emma arrived we spent a couple of sunny days around Blackpool.  It was cold in the clear weather and we had a much better time than we expected.  The Fylde coast around Blackpool is brimming with attractions from trams to public art, from history to the pleasure beach.  We walked along the front taking in all the old and the new, munching freshly-made doughnuts from a seafront stall.  Despite all Blackpool’s sights, the best show by far was the evening spectacular of the murmuration of starlings over the North Pier.  Thousands of starlings swooped in unison around the pier and the Irish Sea creating black clouds in the sky before roosting.  The starling’s captivating display was even more impressive than the stunning sunset that had hundreds of cameras clicking.

Away from the brashness of Blackpool we visited Fleetwood, a traditional seaside resort that I remember from childhood visits.  I have always loved the Knott End Ferry, The Mount and the sense of a bygone age that Fleetwood has.  I had relatives who lived in Rossall near Fleetwood and my family would house-swap with them for a week in the summer; they got a chance to meet up with relatives still living in north Staffordshire, we got a cheap week by the seaside.  In 1969 I also stayed there for a week with my Grandmother while she house and dog sat.  I treasured time with my Grandmother but this was a memorable trip for two particular reasons; firstly my Grandmother allowed me to stay up and watch the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon and secondly I found a wallet stuffed with money on the wide and generally empty Rossall Beach.  My Grandmother took me and the wallet to Fleetwood Police Station where the Police Officer emptied the sandy and wet notes on to a sheet of newspaper laid across his counter so they could dry out.  A few weeks later the grateful owner sent me ten shillings [a small fortune for a nine-year old] as a reward.

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Carpets of snowdrops at Bank Hall

Camping comfort food: dhal or lentil curry

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Dhal simmering in the pan

While the weather is below freezing I want to eat warming comfort food that is quick to make and delicious to eat.  My go-to recipe in these circumstances is lentil curry.  The recipe is below but it is a versatile dish that you can make your own and add to as suits you.  This is made from ingredients we always have in the store cupboard either at home or in the campervan and for me lentil curry is the ultimate comfort food, you can eat it from a bowl with just a fork [or even a spoon], it is warming and spicy and tasty and memories of all those other lentil curries from the past linger around it.

Dhal / lentil curry for two

Boil a pan of water with a pinch of salt and add two good handfuls (maybe 200 grams) of dried red lentils and a couple of bay leaves.  Boil and skim off any white scum as they boil and top up the water if necessary until the lentils are soft [about 20 minutes].  For this recipe you don’t have to boil the lentils dry.

Remove the bay leaves and put the lentils to one side [I put them in a bowl in the campervan and reuse the same pan for the next stage].

Fry a finely chopped onion in vegetable oil until it starts to catch and brown slightly and then add spices to suit you.  At home I use a teaspoon each of ground tumeric, ground cumin and ground coriander, a couple of crushed garlic cloves, a pinch of chili flakes or a fresh chili chopped and maybe a little fresh ginger if I have some in.  In the campervan I usually only have a garam masala mix and fresh garlic to hand.  Fry these for a minute or two and then add the lentils to the pan.  You are now more or less finished but you can garnish the curry with fresh coriander if you have this available.

For variety I sometimes add a couple of chopped tomatoes to the onion or a chopped courgette.  Sometimes I add some finely chopped spinach at the end and this adds some colour.

I serve this wonderful simple food with either plain boiled rice or naan bread or home-made chapattis, the choice is yours.  Not only is this quick to make it is also a cheap eat.  In the campervan naan bread keeps the washing up to just one pan which is a win-win.  Enjoy!