Monday, 30 July 2012

Listography: the 5 best things about the summer holidays

Kate (at Kate Takes 5) is doing her regular linky this week about the 5 best things about the summer holidays and I thought I'd take part for the first time ever!

So, without further ado here's mine:

1. Our annual holiday to Wales. We've been going there for years and I can't wait to be sitting on our favourite beach reading while the girls go body boarding and swimming or play beach cricket with their friends. Keep your fingers crossed for some dry weather, doesn't have to be sunny just dry!

2. This is our first summer in the new house and were chuffed to discover that the ice-cream van stops right outside our house! How cool is that? The only drawback is that we have been known to hide when he comes and we don't want ice-cream...

3. Lazy mornings, which always include copious amounts of tea and toast.

4. Eating outdoors - when the weather allows - always makes even the simplest meal feel like a special occasion.

5. Plenty of time to get some decorating done and sort out the new (must stop saying that, we've been here 9 months now...) newish house! 

They're mine, what are yours?

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Mr Boyle, you had me at Jerusalem...

And did those feet in ancient time, walk upon England's mountains green....

The day after the long awaited, and nervously anticipated Olympic opening ceremony and I'm still amazed by how fabulous it was.

After the spectacle of the Beijing opening ceremony there was a lot of speculation about how ours could match it. But thankfully director Danny Boyle wasn't thinking that way because he delivered something far better: a love letter to the world about our history and cultural innovation along with a look forward to the future for our vibrant, multi-layered nation.

From the opening notes of Elgar's Nimrod I was transfixed to the TV, music so embedded in our cultural landscape that most people probably don't know the name of it (I didn't) just that it means something to be British.  Then, setting the tone for the rest of the ceremony, a lone boy singing the epic and soul-stirring Jerusalem...

I admit to being slightly sneering during the run-up to the Olympics, looking at it as a huge waste of money and a potentially disorganised embarrassment. But, wow, if the opening ceremony is an indication of what we can expect then I reserve the right to change my mind.

I loved the whole thing. The pomp, the humour, the cultural references and the eccentricity that is uniquely British. Mr Bean playing the Vangelis 'Chariots of Fire' and ending with a fart? Inspired. James Bond acting with the Queen? Utter genius. Danny Boyle's celebration of the welfare state? A magnificent, timely two-fingered salute to David Cameron. And alongside all of the celebration there was time for silences for the war dead and victims of 7/7 which were elegant, moving and respectful. 

But the added bonus for me was the outpouring of patriotism and pride in our country evident on Twitter. Danny Boyle touched a nerve with so many people, and it was fantastic that - even if for a short time - we turned off our default setting of cynicism and celebrated our national pride.

Enjoy the Olympics over the next two weeks. Hopefully we'll win so many medals I might even learn the tricky second verse of the national anthem...

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Tax, loopholes and why we're being blamed for the mess this country's in

So this week I have been getting more and more incensed by various pieces of news:
  • After the G4S Olympic security shambles the head of G4S, Nick Buckles, announced that he had no intention of resigning his post or worse still, waiving the £57m fee despite taking responsibility for the mess.
  • It was revealed that the BBC has been paying their star employees through payment schemes which allowed them to pay less tax;
  • Despite the country being in the depths of recession due mainly to the greedy bankers, over 1000 of them were rewarded to a 'festival for bankers' by the Square Mile magazine. They were treated to champagne, strippers, massages and dancers. If you want to be even more disgusted, watch this video on the Sky website and listen to them justify themselves.
  • Major companies trading in the UK, such as Amazon and Google somehow manage to avoid paying tax here and many others, such as Vodfone, are in the business of reducing their tax bills by any means possible.
And then yesterday Treasury Minister David Gauke had the nerve to try and foist the blame onto people who pay tradesmen in cash. What he actually said is that it's "morally wrong" to pay cash in hand to anyone. How can he compare it to the £5bn in tax avoidance that goes on, which was what he was actually supposed to be talking about. But no, once again, the little person is to blame. Unbelievable!

My message to Mr Gauke is this: Sort of the rest of this shoddy mess first, and then you can tell me not to pay my window cleaner in cash. Okay?

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

A weekend in Lincoln

We went to Lincoln this weekend, primarily so that my girlies could visit their dad who recently moved there, but also so that I could do the touristy bit. I'd never been there before and I'd heard good things about it from my daughters and I'm pleased to report they were all true.

The girlies stayed with their dad, and I stayed in a very comfortable guesthouse. And we were lucky with the weather too...

The aptly named Steep Hill - a great place for books, tea shops, vintage clothes,
restaurants and other interesting independent shops - no big names here!

The Jew's House

Heading up to the cathedral which is at the highest point in the city

The Cathedral quarter
Going into the cathedral

Inside Lincoln cathedral

Coffee, cakes and cloisters

Lincoln Castle

A view of the cathedral from the castle walls

The grounds of Lincoln castle, where one of the four
remaining copies of the Magna Carta is on show.

Street music. The green helmet revolved as he was playing his, erm, music.
Janak making rangoli patterns with marble dust. Amazing, and a lovely man too.

Lincoln turned out to be a bigger place than I'd anticipated. For some reason I expected a small town, but what I actually got was a cathedral city (I know, obvious really). The city centre has all the big name shops you'd expect in a city, but it was the Bailgate area with its independent shops that really appealed to me. There were plenty of quirky little shops, tea rooms, antique and book shops, vintage clothes shops and restaurants. In fact, I had what was possibly the best Indian meal I've ever eaten in the Bombay restaurant.

It's a lovely place and well worth the 3.5 hour cross-country drive to get there. It was a great weekend, lots to see, plenty of cake and good weather. What more could you ask for?

Saturday, 14 July 2012

The new garden in summer

Well, the not-so-new garden would be a better description now as we've been in this house since the end of October last year.

Since the spring the garden has been thriving, due largely to the amount of rain we've had.

I can't take any credit, as I haven't changed anything. The only thing I've done is a bit of tidying and pruning as I'm still watching to see the seasonal changes in the garden. The only thing I've bought so far is a purple Veronica plant  bought for sentimental reasons as it was my lovely Mum's name. It hasn't been put into the border yet, but it will fill a spot near the patio area.
The climbing roses are looking a bit rain-worn but are still very pretty, and a small rose bush
that I thought had died has flowered in a pot.
The lavender smells glorious, and the fountain is working again. I love the old brick wall
between our garden and the old Georgian house behind.
The bamboo plant needs some pruning, the buddleia is in bloom and so is this lovely passionflower.
The patio area, where we've had limited chances to sit because of the bad weather.

There isn't a huge amount of colour in the garden, and what colour there is is quite subtle. The structural planting is mostly fine, although there are a couple of plants that do nothing for me so they will go come autumn/winter and be replaced with something else. Not sure what yet.

Do you like to see a lot of colour in a garden, or are your more interested in the structural planting?

Friday, 6 July 2012

The thing every dog owner already knows

Since we adopted Tessie 3 years ago she's been walked twice a day come rain or shine.

And every so often a health report is published that extols the virtues of owning a dog. I read one the other day that mentioned the health benefits of walking a dog, including lower blood pressure, a stronger immune system, lower cholesterol, increased cardio-vascular fitness and weight control. All of these things are true, but for me the biggest benefit of having Tessie has been reduced stress levels.

You see, dogs don't wait to be asked to go for a walk - they are pretty insistent about it, so there are no excuses and walking alongside Tessie has done wonders for my stress levels.  It's the quietness of the walks, the fresh air and the time to think things through if something is on my mind.

Of course it also helps that Tessie is a greyhound - they tend to be incredibly calm dogs - which makes it a very relaxing time.

It's also precious time to enjoy the seasons, chat to other dog owners and just enjoy the most simple of pleasures - walking.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Childcare costs - a national picture

A couple of news items have caught my interest recently. The first was in May when the Government decided in their infinite wisdom to change the income support rules for single parents. From May all single parents whose youngest child was 5 was removed from income support and placed on the Jobseekers Allowance register. This meant they had to be seen to be actively seeking work, which in itself isn't such a bad thing, however there is a catch.

Previously, this only happened when their youngest child was 7, which gave some single parents time to gain extra qualifications in order to improve their job prospects which is important as single parents tend to occupy the lowest paid jobs and also the most part-time jobs. The reform means that single-parents who are taking further education courses will have to leave the course if they are offered a job, even if that job is not what they have been training for.

So, this reform pushes single parents into a labour market with few job opportunities, and even fewer family friendly jobs, and comes a full 17 months before more support for childcare costs for single parents working fewer than 16 hours a week becomes available.
Gingerbread is calling for  single parents with children aged five and six who take up further education courses to be treated as fulfilling work search obligations as well as financial help towards childcare costs for those working less than 16 hours a week.

The problem with being a working single-parent (and I speak from personal experience here) is that the cost of childcare is crippling when it's being paid for out of one wage.  I chose to leave my full-time job when I became a single parent and there were several deciding factors involved in that decision, but one of them was the cost of childcare because of the long hours I had been working. It was then that I decided to change career and thought about teaching, not just because of the holidays but if I'm honest I could see how much money I would save in childcare costs. 

More recently there has been a lot of news coverage about the rising cost of childcare in relation to how much people actually earn, and Family Nest have produced a new piece of research which  illustrates the disparity in affordability in different areas of the country and highlighting how the rising cost of childcare in Great Britain is making it increasingly difficult for parents to afford to go back to work. The basis of the research was to identify what proportion of parents’ wages is spent on childcare per year.

The  Childcare Affordability Report was released in June and highlights the most affordable places in Britain to raise a child based on income versus the cost of childcare and it's quite an eye-opener.

The report surveyed 124 local authorities and official earnings data to determine a league table of affordability for every county and town. On average it found that families pay almost a fifth (18.9%) of their earnings on childcare each week, highlighting the extent of the burden of childcare costs for working families.

Family Nest have created a tool that can shows how far income goes in terms of childcare and where the best place in the UK would be for them to raise a child based on this information.

The national picture looks like this:
• Parents who pay for 25 hours of childcare each week can expect to pay £4,993 annually to
cover childcare bills in Great Britain today
• These costs are equivalent to 18.9% of average annual earnings
• This average annual earnings figure takes into account disparities between part time and full
time wages as well as gender differences
• Based on average earnings, a parent would need to work 391 hours each year to meet the
average cost of childcare in Britain
The most affordable locations
• Stoke in the West Midlands is the most affordable urban area in Britain for parents to meet
childcare costs – costs are equivalent to 13.8% of average annual earnings in the area
• The West Midlands is an affordability hotspot with four of the top ten most affordable locations
in the country located in the region (Stoke, Shropshire, Solihull and Dudley). The North West also features prominently with three of the top ten most affordable locations

The least affordable locations
• Ebbw Vale in Gwent, South Wales  was found to be the least affordable location in the measure of care costs relative to average earnings (why is it so expensive there?). A parent would need to spend 28.2% of their average income on meeting costs
• A wide variety of locations feature amongst the least affordable areas. All of the locations have one things in common, a lack of correlation between local earnings and childcare costs