Thursday, 31 January 2019

Chicken or cheese?

I quit Slimming World in March last year, after seventeen months with them, during which I lost very nearly two and a half stones. It's a very effective way of losing weight, increasing health, feeling more energetic, and recovering a lost size and look. I stopped going to SW only because I felt I'd slimmed-down enough, and didn't want to carry the weight loss too far: at my age, you can look scrawny if you get too thin. I also wanted my Thursday evenings back for other things I wanted to do.

The kind of eating regime recommended by SW will steer you away from fatty and sugary foodstuffs and towards truly nourishing things that fill your tummy in a satisfying way, yet are low in fat and sugar and - for their bulk - low in calories. This translates into a regime dominated by fresh meat and fish (or vegetarian substitutes), vegetables and fruit - as much as you can eat. Non-vegetable carbs and dairy are allowed, but rationed.

It's all carefully worked-out, and you are free to devise your own menus within the parameters set. You can also be personally creative with menus, and invent and use your own control mechanisms, whatever works - hence my famous spreadsheets!

I have always liked that freedom: it makes me feel that I'm adhering to good rules, but able to do my own thing. And for the most part, the Slimming World approach means I can still enjoy many of my favourite foodstuffs. An almost ideal way of staying healthy, and maintaining the right weight, through wise eating. And although I quit SW nearly a year ago, I have continued to follow its guidelines, and still use those control spreadsheets I invented for myself. I gather that recently one or two SW guidelines have been modified, but it's clear that those I took on board in 2016 will still do the trick for me.

And of course, if I ever feel that I need to up my game, or have lost that perfect resolve, I can always rejoin SW and once more go to their weekly weigh-ins and Image Therapy sessions. Those group meetings were always enjoyable, whether it was my local group, or a group elsewhere in the country that I attended while on holiday. I sort of miss them even now. They were certainly a welcome social focus when far away from home.

But I'm pretty self-motivated, and I think I'm doing OK on my own. I admit to some weight slippage in mid-2018 that I still haven't really recovered from, but all the SW constraints are still in place, and indeed they provide me with handy excuses for being strong and sensible when tempted by something naughty that I shouldn't be eating. I do allow myself the occasional treat - the odd bit of chocolate, for instance - but I never make it a regular treat.

Chocolate is easy to stay away from. Other things less so. One of them is cheese.

I've had to cut out several things I used to eat a lot of, but still miss - or even crave. Cheese is one or these. I love the tasty tang of strong cheddar cheese, or the saltiness of soft and blue-veined cheese. Before SW, I used to eat a big hunk of cheese every afternoon with bread, butter and conserve and a nice cup of tea. All that had to end, apart from the cuppa. There was no way I could have a daily cheese, bread, butter and conserve fix and hope to lose weight!

So cheese has joined the list of things that I allow myself only very occasionally, only when eating out. When sharing a cheeseboard, for instance. Still, now and then I look at ways to include it into my regular eating regime, and yet still keep within the proper SW framework.

Last week, as an experiment, I looked into replacing my afternoon cold, cooked chicken thigh with a little morsel of cheese. SW lets me eat as much chicken as I like. But chicken is bland. Cheese, though... I wondered whether a small amount of cheese (30g) would be equally satisfying as an afternoon snack, to help fill that long gap between lunch and the evening meal. Cheese would certainly give me a big flavour hit. It was an idea that had me slavering.

I considered the matter.

# SW's guidelines let me eat 30g of cheese per day as a source of calcium and protein.
# But I was already using milk for that, and since I loved milk, I'd still want to consume both.
# That could be done within SW rules, but it meant getting very, very close to my daily limit for 'naughty' foodstuffs. No room left for any other treats! And those cropped up most days.
# Waitrose sold 360g of strength 5 cheddar cheese for £3.85. 1.07p per gram. Enough for 12 afternoon snacks at 30g per snack.
# Waitrose sold 435g of cooked chicken thighs - let's say 330g of actual chicken meat (the thigh bone, skin and gristly bits wouldn't be eaten of course) - for £3.49. Meatwise then, 1.06p per gram. 6 pieces of chicken, enough for 6 afternoon snacks at 55g of chicken meat per snack.
# So for roughly the same cost, I'd get cheese to last 12 days, or chicken to last only 6 days at most. On cost, the cheese was much better value.
# And flavourwise, cheese won hands down. I'd much prefer eating cheese to chicken!
# But as for being SW-compliant, chicken won. Even if I gorged myself on chicken, I'd still lose weight. Not so with cheese - unless I gave up all the other naughty extras that I could presently consume without compromising my slimming regime.
# Both cheese and chicken were rich in protein and other things that a balanced diet required.
# But cheese contained a lot of fat, and when you looked at the unopened packet you had to say to yourself, 'You're going to stuff all that fat inside you, where perhaps it will stay.'

Well, I bought a packet of that good-value, knockout-favoured, but undeniably fat-laden cheese and ate a minute 30g morsel of it for two afternoons, instead of my usual chicken thigh.

But I'm afraid it didn't satisfy. There was just too little of it to quell my peckishness at 4.00pm. Even when combined with an apple and a banana. And, to be honest, I didn't like the cheese restricting my daily scope for having other 'naughty' things. Like gravy and mint sauce, if I were cooking lamb that evening.

So I binned it, and went back to my normal regime. Which means chicken and an apple at 4.00pm, unless I'm out of the house.

Cheese will have to stay a rare treat when eating out!

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

And now I've made another PPI claim!

Having decided that this PPI business needed better personal investigation, I went up into the attic this morning to take a further look at my old financial records. And Dad's too. And not just mortgage loans: it was worth looking at such things as insurances paid in instalments, and whether there might be hidden PPI on my credit card account.

I was diligent. And blow me, I found another loan on which PPI had been paid. It was another mortgage, this time on my London house, owned from 1983 to 1989. The lender had been NatWest.

The circumstances were essentially the same as the Girobank-Alliance & Leicester-Santander PPI claim covered in my last post. That is, buying a house to a tight deadline, and having to accept the PPI just to get the mortgage fixed up without delay; yet at the same time earning a good salary as a middling-senior employee in an ultra-safe Government department job - for all practical purposes immune from redundancy and any bad consequences of extended sickness. I was never going to claim on the PPI policy, and NatWest knew it. But I still got saddled with the premiums.

They weren't large. £9.13 per month for 67 months, then £9.40 for the final 4 months: £649.31 altogether. Still, with simple interest at 8% running from 1983, that could easily result in a surprisingly large compensation payment.

Back to Resolver. I've now made a second claim through them.

With that job of mine, I was always (by a big margin) the main breadwinner in my relationships, and I paid the mortgage repayments, and with them all the PPI premiums. From my own bank account too. My long-divorced ex paid nothing at all. But even so, the houses were in our joint names, and it would be no surprise to find that I'm entitled to only 50% of any payout. If that were - say - £3,000, then I'd get only £1,500. Well, I'd be content. It would still be useful money that I never thought I'd get. And very nice to have something back after all this time.

What if Santander and NatWest say no? Well, I think I've got a reasonable case, and I'll escalate it to the Ombudsman. I don't see why not.

After I get a result on these two claims, would it be worth swallowing my distaste and asking a claims management company to chase up any odd bits and pieces of PPI that I may have missed? Especially in Dad's case? Would there be time?

I don't know. I'd have to think about it. Today's researches were mentally tiring, and I've certainly no stomach for any further personal effort. I think I could rely on a claims company to go after the guilty lenders with all guns blazing. If refundable PPI were there, they'd find it. And even if I could have only 60% of any yield after the claims company's fee, it would still be a decent 'win'. So, possibly.

Monday, 28 January 2019

I've finally made a PPI claim

Of all the things that have irritated me when listening to commercial radio - such as LBC - the ads of those PPI (Payment Protection Insurance) claims firms get under my skin more than most. Grrrr.

And until now, I've taken a kind of pleasure in being able to say to them: 'You're not getting my custom! I know that I've never had any PPI. So there!' And to be on the safe side, I have got up into the attic and looked at some old records there, for both myself and Dad.

Dad's were on the skimpy side - he tended to throw out anything that was neither recent nor relevant - but it was quite clear that in his last years, at any rate, he'd had no PPI. I wouldn't need to go through the messy process of claiming it back on his behalf, as his executrix.

I'm quite unlike my father where records-retention is concerned. I keep the lot, weeding out only bills and instructions leaflets for things long gone. I literally have all my bank and credit card statements back to 1970, when I started work. I also have every salary payslip back to 1970. I have kept all the papers relating to my property transactions through the years, and all the papers that record my efforts from 1992 to get a divorce (finally successful in 1996).

Why have I kept all this stuff? Basically, it's 'just in case'. And now I feel justified. Having all these documents has shown me that I do in fact have a proper PPI claim.

Why didn't I think so previously? The general reason was that my former Inland Revenue job was well-paid and redundancy-proof - especially after a promotion in 1985 - and thereafter I was always able (without the slightest qualm) to refuse all forms of payment protection insurance, whether it was on a loan or on my credit card. I simply didn't need the cover - and it was surely obvious to people like mortgage lenders that I didn't need it. So I wouldn't expect it to be offered, let alone added as a matter of course.

Another reason was that for many years I was able to call on the Bank of Mum and Dad, and didn't need to go to commercial sources of short-term finance. So PPI was never usually in question.

All the same, in the last couple of years I have looked for PPI in my records, but stopping my search at the later 1990s (that's still twenty-odd years back). I should have gone back just a little further! There was some PPI, on a small mortgage taken out when I moved from London to Horsham in Sussex in 1989.

How did I find this out? Well, I was researching past fountain pen purchases, and had spent a morning wading through bank and credit card statements, working forwards from 1970, looking for notes on them that would tell me things I wanted to know. When I came to the beginning of 1992, I was amazed to see 'Mortgage Protection Insurance' written on a bank statement. What? Up I went to the attic for more records.

Hmm. I'd forgotten all about this! In August 1989, with time tight, I'd approached Girobank for a loan of £20,000. After faffing around a bit (at the time they'd been moving my account from Bootle near Liverpool to Ashford in Kent) they had said OK to that loan - but on condition that that I pay mortgage protection insurance. They knew what I did, who I worked for, and what I earned, but still wanted this extra money every month.

I remember thinking it was all most unnecessary. What, insurance against non-payment on a small mortgage, taken out by a career middle-manager with a rock-safe government job? Ridiculous. But I went along with it, never suspecting that a money-making scheme had lately been hatched by the lending sector and that I was going to be one of its earlier victims. In particular, I was juggling two house transactions: I didn't want the London house sale, and the Horsham house purchase, to fall through by introducing the slightest delay. I signed, and got that small mortgage.

So I paid £13.99 every month from September 1989 to June 1996 (when the Horsham house was sold and the mortgage - and the PPI - ended). That's £13.99 x 82 months = £1,147.18 altogether.

I'm now claiming it all back - with interest, of course - on the basis that it was mis-sold. I do feel I've got a reasonable case, and I'm hopeful of a successful outcome. But nothing hangs on being successful: I'm not relying on getting a biggish refund.

And there will probably be a long wait. Girobank were taken over by Alliance & Leicester, who handled the redemption of the mortgage and the cessation of the protection insurance payments, and in turn were swallowed by Santander. I shall be dealing with Santander, whom I understand are not the fastest-reacting bank around. And although they would have taken over Alliance & Leicester's records, would it be a quick computer retrieval, or a slow manual search in some vast storage facility for a bundle of papers?

What, anyway, were the mechanics of claiming?

As soon as I realised that I did, after all, have a claim, I resolved to bypass those awful claims management companies and attend to it personally. No way was I going to hand any of them a fat share (plus VAT) for doing something I was perfectly capable of doing myself. But what exactly did I have to do? What was the right approach?

I did the sensible thing and looked on the MoneySavingExpert website for information, and discovered that it had a link to Resolver, and on that site was a claim template. More than that; Resolver would send my completed claim as an email to Santander. One extra bullet fired them in the name of Consumer Rights, joining thousands already sent. It was immediately clear to me that a standard, well-designed approach through a consumer champion might get results faster than if I put together my own claim. I couldn't see any obvious flaw in this free service, and so I did the deed, working through Resolver's online claim form. I was able to attach copies of various relevant documents, including the original loan offer insisting on that PPI policy.

Well, it's now gone. I will await the outcome with great interest! Resolver will keep in touch, and give me prompts.

I suppose I've actually made my claim at a good moment. The cut-off date for claiming is still several months away, so I may have got in before the last-minute rush begins.

And it may go through without fuss. I suspect that every lender will be trying to process all claims on hand as fast as possible, so that no gigantic backlog develops. And perhaps every claim (like mine) that contains easy-to-check details will get looked at first - the simple-to-deal-with stuff always tends to get prior attention, doesn't it? So it's fingers crossed.

Saturday, 19 January 2019

A creative effort rewarded

So what happened with that little craft project I mentioned - making a pen case? It turned out very well.

I like working with leather, and it only took one evening to get a result that I think looks pretty good. It didn't need to be perfect. Indeed, I didn't want it to be. If anybody noticed a certain lack of finish, then I'd be able to explain that it was home-made - by my own fair hand - and then that might lead to a pleasant conversation about all kinds of projects like this. I'm pretty sure that many people would like to plunge in and not only design something for themselves but make it as well; but reservations about the skills needed hold them back. Well, I'm as unskillful as they come. And I'm writing this post as least partly to encourage equally inept people to have a go. It's very satisfying to create something useful from raw materials. If not a pen case, then perhaps a phone case, or a purse. None of these need be very ambitious or difficult to make.

I began by considering why I wasn't just going to pop my new fountain pen into the pen case I already had. This was it:

Well, it was a traditional design (boring), in black (even more boring), and intended for a both pen and a pencil (whereas I wanted a case for only a pen). In any event, I wanted something in softer leather, a platform that I could gently place the pen onto when I put it down, without much danger of it rolling away, perhaps to its doom.

So I'd need to rethink the design. That black case above wasn't a suitable starting point. It was too elaborate. In particular, the stitching required was way too complicated for me to do. I could only hand-stitch, not possessing a sewing machine.

Experiments with paper folded and stapled in various ways revealed a way to make a very simple but perfectly functional case. What leather could I use? I decided to use some soft brown leather, an offcut from the Pittards factory shop in Yeovil, and cannibalise a yellow-leather purse bought from the Pittards outlet shop in Clarks Village at Street. I thought both would go nicely with the teal colour of the pen, and both would also look good against the teal colour of my bag. (I also had a blue-green offcut, but didn't use it on this occasion)

So, I cleared the table in my study, got the necessary simple tools together, measured and made lines on the brown leather, and cut out a rectangle. Then I folded one longer edge to form a kind of pouch for the pen to go into, hand-sewing the ends. I also cut out the embossed Pittards logo from the purse. This would be glued inside the case, but visible when it was open - a nod of thanks to Pittards for the leather. 

So far, so good. As you can see, when it was exposed but not actually being used, the pen nestled between the pouch section and the yellow Pittards label (which had just enough thickness to stop it rolling sideways). 

I still hadn't decided how I would fasten the case when the label section was folded over the pouch. So I took time out while I cooked and ate my evening meal. Meanwhile, I placed the new soft brown case upside-down next to the black case I'd spurned:

As you can see, when fully folded up, the new brown case was narrower but longer. The length didn't matter: wedged upright, it fitted perfectly into a corner of my bag. But it still needed some means of keeping it folded up so that the pen couldn't accidentally drop out. By and by, I thought on the lines of serviette-rings. After eating, I made a ring out of a glued strip of the same brown leather. 

I also unpicked the hand-stitching, which (to my mind) didn't look nice enough, and glued the ends of the pouch section instead. This restricted the internal length of the pouch section, so that when slid inside, the pen now fitted very snugly indeed, and was in no danger whatever of budging whatever the provocation. Gluing was clearly a good technique when using leather!

Now was that ring just slightly too slack? I decided that it was. I soon made another, which was a closer fit on the main body of the pen case. That completed the work.

And in the morning light, next day:

I felt very pleased. A deliciously retro object, and all my own work!

Had I saved myself much money by making a case myself, instead of buying one in a shop, or online? Well, the straight answer was no, not much! I hadn't looked online for design ideas, but doing so now showed me that other people had arrived at similar solutions before me, and had done it more skilfully. Actually, it was astonishing what had been out there, had I looked. Here's a selection from various websites:

Dear me - that's terribly similar to my case! Mind you, I prefer my 'ring' solution to winding a bit of string around that stud...

That last design is rather neat.

The colour of the case doesn't have to be brown. There's a splurge of different colours to be had:

Although the colours next used wouldn't be my first choice, there's no denying that these cases from a Cornish maker are trendy and eye-catching! 

Well. Who would have thought that in the twenty-first century it was even possible to buy a modern fountain pen case? Of course, any of these would fit your ballpoint or rollerball pen just as well, but they do seem to be made with proper pens chiefly in mind.

I'd definitely agree that the cases offered online are all head and shoulders above my own effort in terms of finesse and finish. But seeing them in no way makes me feel that I should have taken the easy route and bought a case online, and not bother to make one. After all, mine is unique; and I have all the satisfaction that comes from creating something with my own hands. That's ample reward.

A nice new signpost for those condemned to death or transportation

On my way back to the caravan from my Rendezvous Lodge walk last October, I saw this red signpost at a crossroads on the A31 near Winterborne Tomson. Of course, I had to stop and take a closer look.

As you can see, it has had a makeover, and is all freshly repainted. You can even see (in the bottom shot) how they mount the fingers one on top of each other, and can angle them just so. The post is topped by a London Underground-style circle and crosspiece with 'Dorset Red Post' on it, and the Ordnanace Survey grid reference (minus the letters that identify the 100 x 100 kilometre square, in this instance SY).

These red posts are scattered around the West of England, and are not at all numerous, which makes them pretty special. Dorset has four of them. I wrote a post featuring the one at Benville, north-west of here (see Blood-spattered signposts, and transportation for life on 23rd October 2016), and reiterated what a passing chappie, who seemed to know his stuff, had to say about why these posts were painted red, and not the usual white. The gist of it being that condemned men were usually hanged on gibbets erected at crossroads, and left there, blood dripping from their lacerations, to be pecked by crows until they rotted away. All as an Awful Warning not to steal turnips if you were hungry, nor to be rude to the squire. Naturally the adjacent signpost would also be blood-red. Which all sounds like a good explanation, except that the best place for setting up a gibbet - to get maximum exposure and visual impact - is on a high place, in some bleak and windswept spot, where it can be seen for miles, like this one I saw last year near Elsdon in Northumberland:

They hang 'em high in the north east!

The Winterbourne Tomson red post on the A31 is basically in flat meadowland. The Benville red post I saw in 2016 was half-way down a hill. Here it is. Remarkably similar in style - perhaps Dorset County Council repaired and repainted both at the same time:

And now I've discovered an article on the Internet that has an explanation for the redness that seems to make sense. See The writer of that article offers a rather convincing theory that as the four Dorset red posts are all the same distance from the county gaol in Dorchester, they must mark the old resting-points, or muster-points, that were used when marching prisoners to incarceration or transportation. And in the case of the A31 red post, he points to the farm just down the road, which is called Botany Bay Farm, and a pub not far away called the Botany Bay - that spot (now part of Sydney in New South Wales) being the Australian landing-place of choice for transported prisoners. Such as the Tolpuddle Martyrs, who tried to set up a farmworkers' union just down the road, and got sent Down Under for their pains. 

There are apparently modern regulations on signposts that require the local authorities to not only keep traditionally-styled posts like this in good order, but to preserve their original colour as an historical matter. So for centuries to come these posts will be there, just as now, even if the contemporary navigation systems in the conveyances of the time won't need any such roadside aids.

Thursday, 17 January 2019

Bear Grylls, and a lesson in kissing gates

Yesterday I left you high up on the Dorset downs, walking southwards towards the village of Winterborne Zelston. Here's the map again:

My route back to where I'd parked Fiona was very straightforward: down into the village, turn left at the church, then follow the path and tarred road back to Mapperton.

Winterbourne Zelston turned out to be one of those thatched-cottagey Dorset villages, rather attractive and distinctly upmarket. The church seemed neat and tidy, and worth a look.

Inside it seemed well cared-for, with several lists showing who was on the local electoral roll, and who was responsible for flowers and cleaning and locking-up. 

Lady Sarah Grylls? Hmm. And then this:

Now was that Bear Grylls in the lower picture, the well-known risk-mad outdoor adventurer on TV? Was he also a Christian then? And was the Lady Sarah Grylls on the electoral register his mum? I really didn't know much about him. Looking him up later, the answer is yes to all of that. Well, well. And if I hadn't poked my face through the door of this church I'd have never known.

Across from the church was a wooden bridge over a shallow water-course.

This is chalk country. When the weather is dry, all the water is underground, because the porous chalk drains any rain away. Only when there is prolonged wet weather, and the water table rises, can streams flow above ground. Such as in the winter. The streams that appear then are called 'bornes' or 'winterbornes' and that's why there are so many villages in Dorset (and elsewhere in Wessex) that have 'Winterborne' as the first half of their names. Locally to Winterborne Zelston are Winterborne Tomson, Winterborne Muston, Winterborne Kingston, Winterborne Whitechurch, Winterborne Clenston, Winterborne Stickland and Winterborne Houghton. But there are also several Winterbourne Somethings on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire. 

Onwards. The eastward path back to Mapperton left the church through a most unusual kissing gate. My good friend Angie knows all about these, and is an expert. I will gladly be corrected if I get anything wrong in what I say next about them! This gate was but one of three in quick succession, all different. Here it is.

The top picture in this set shows that you could use either the kissing gate, or, if you were desperately boring, a regular gate. Well, I strive not to be boring (though I probably fail dismally: sigh) and eased myself through the kissing gate - although, sadly, there was nobody to land a smackeroo onto. But I wasn't looking for rural sex, so it didn't matter. As for this kissing gate's design, it was the opposite to the usual set-up of a fixed semi-circular part and a hinged gate, designed to let a human body pass through without having to climb over, and yet be a barrier to daft beasts like sheep and big beasts like cows. This one had a fixed gate but a hinged semi-circular part. Much more fun. I wonder why they aren't more popular? It was, as usual, rather a squeeze; so I suppose the regular gate is not only for the ultra-boring - you might be on the tubby side, and have to use it.

Only a short distance away was the next kissing gate, still rustic, still made of wood, but of a more conventional design.

And then a third gate, this time in mundane galvanised steel.

Missing from this collection of kissing gates was the wrought-iron type - such as this dilapidated example seen by me at Bramshott in Hampshire in 1993...

...or this much better example I encountered in Shaftesbury in north Dorset in 2008:

Surely I'd see one of these too? But it was not to be.

By the time I got back to Mapperton, I'd had enough of country walking for the day. It was still warm, and I was hungry. I was so glad when Fiona came into view!

As I reached her, I checked my Fitbit. Gosh. 14,000 steps done. Hurrah!

That wasn't the end of my walking for the day, despite some mild protestations from the ligament in my left knee. I did more in the evening. In the end I got over 21,000 steps in that day, as shown in the weekly summary Fitbit emailed to me:

You do this kind of thing in the longer, sunnier days of the year, not in January. But I'll get back into it in the months ahead.