Thursday, 22 September 2016

My New Website

I haven't posted anything on here for more than a year. This isn't because I've stopped blogging, but because I've moved. 

I first moved over to WordPress and transferred all my old posts and then decided I might as well as go the whole hog and set up my own website. It is on my list of things to do after all. 

I've been setting up my website since early this year. I have soooo much to learn. I made it live just before I disappeared off to the Arctic for the summer. 

Now I'm back and working seriously on it. Come on over and tell me what you think.

You'll find me at

Friday, 10 July 2015

Up, up and away


A year and a half after buying the vouchers and after booking it nine times, I finally got to climb into a giant picnic basket and dangle from a big red balloon floating a kilometre above the earth.

I carefully monitored the weather reports all week. After all this time I feel like a bit of expert when it comes to knowing what weather is considered suitable and safe for a balloon flight to be able to take place. It can't be rainy or foggy or misty. The wind speed can't be over 6mph. The wind speed has to be checked at different altitudes, not just on the ground. The wind has to be in the right direction so the balloon doesn't blow over built-up areas or anywhere it might be dangerous to land. Etc, etc, etc. I wrote about it here.

This time the weather actually seemed quite favourable; in fact, I was mainly worried that it wouldn't be windy enough as the forecast was showing speeds of 1mph. If it's not windy enough, the balloon would go straight up, hover around on the spot for a while and come straight back down again.

At the designated time of 11pm the night before the flight I rang the flight line number. Instead of the usual apology and explanation of why the flight was cancelled, I pricked up my ears as the pilot on the recording said 'Please listen to the following information very carefully'.

He went on to say that the flight would be going ahead, but not from Bakewell as originally planned. Instead we would be taking off from the back-up site of Tissington. He gave the meeting time and directions of where to park and how to get to the launch site from the car park.

Instructions duly noted, it was then it a mad rush to get everything ready and still try to get a bit of sleep before my alarm went off at 2.30am.

After a detour for petrol, I got to my co-balloonist's house before 3.30am and gulped down the coffee she had waiting for me.

It was starting to get light as we headed on empty roads towards the Peak District ticking off a (near) hit list of the kamikaze animals and birds determined to die under the wheels of my van. I like to think it's because of my superior driving skills that I managed to avoid them all.

Arriving in Tissington at the same time as several other people, we parked up and walked the 10 minutes up the lane to the launch site. Through an open gate and into a field containing a very large (and very flat) balloon, a large basket and a herd of very curious cows. 

The cows were so intrigued at the strange goings on in their field they milled around us, stretching out their noses to sniff us and then skittering away when we turned round. They tried to get on the trailer that had brought the basket and balloon to the site. They wanted to get in the basket and they thought standing on a large piece of red nylon made a nice change from grass. 

The basket, which was already attached to the balloon, was lying on its side. A large fan stood to either side of it. Two men volunteered to hold the ropes of the balloon as the cows were shooed away and the fans were switched on. The balloon slowly inflated as it filled with cold air from the fans. As the insides expanded to cavernous proportions, the pilot walked around inside checking everything out. 

Once the balloon was fully inflated, the gas jets were turned on and flames roared into the balloon's innards, heating the air and causing the balloon to slowly rise. As it rose from the ground it pulled the basket upright and we were instructed to quickly climb in. 

Climbing aboard was harder than it looked. Gaps in the side of the basket acted as steps so it all looked quite simple. But the basket was angled slightly outwards meaning gravity was working against us as we tried to hoist ourselves up and get our legs over the side. It was then quite a long drop into the inside, particularly when you were trying to not flail about too much and kick a fellow passenger in the face. 

The basket was divided into five high-sided sections. The pilot was in the middle section with the gas jets directly above him. The sixteen passengers were divided into the four corner sections. The sections were narrow and the four people in each were close enough together to offer cushioning and support in case of any wobbles, but not packed so closely that it was uncomfortable.

Once we were all safely inside, the guy lines tying us to the back of the trailer were released and, waving goodbye to the cows, we drifted up into space. It was a very smooth take-off and we were surprised at how suddenly the ground seemed a long way below. 

Tissington Hall

A rival balloon

As we spent about an hour and a quarter floating above the Peak District, two things I'd been told about still managed to surprise me. The first is that the trees really do look like broccoli. When I'd heard this I assumed it was a reference to how children refer to broccoli as 'baby trees' and that because the trees look so small from this height they could be the broccoli trees referred to by children. Not so. They actually, really and truly do look like they are made from heads of broccoli. 

Campsite in a quarry

The second thing was the silence. Yes, I'd been told it would be quiet. Yes, I knew that apart from the odd time when the gas jets were blasting extra heat into the balloon there would be no noise from the balloon and that there would be no engines to give a constant background hum. What I hadn't realised is how much background noise there is usually in our daily lives and how we are so accustomed to it that we don't even notice it most of the time. Even in a quiet place you can usually hear cars in the distance, cows mooing, birds singing, the wind rustling the leaves in the trees, a stream trickling by. Up here, there was nothing. Nothing. It was so quiet and still it was almost eerie. 

The eerie feeling was intensified by the lack of life below. We passed over campsites, villages, quarries, a factory. It was broad daylight but no-one was about. Of course this was because it was still unreasonably early on a Sunday morning, but as we'd been up for hours, it felt like it should be the middle of the day. 

Tiny sheep

The pilot had his GPS connected to a laptop and pointed out places of interest below us. We got a really good view of the ancient stone circle Arbor Low and saw lots of other mounds that looked like tumuli. I'm used to walking in the Peak District and feel I know it quite well. Floating above it gave me such a different perspective though. 

Arbor Low

About an hour after we taken off the pilot started to look for a suitable field to land in. It had to have access for the truck and trailer to enter to collect the balloon and basket. It had to be flat and preferably without crops or animals. And of course away from telegraph wires. 

About 15 minutes later we found a field and slowly descended. As we got close to the ground we were instructed to sit down on the foam seat that ran along the sides of the basket. With backs, bums and heads pressed across the side we gripped the rope handles opposite. Sitting in this position meant our heads and limbs were all fully inside the basket and we were braced in case the basket tipped over when we landed.

Two gentle bumps and we were down and remained upright. The whole flight had been so smooth and it really hadn't felt like we were moving at all. At one point we were travelling at over 8mph, but it felt like we were still and it was earth below us that was reeling past. 

Climbing out of the balloon was a lot easier than climbing in. The truck driver was telephoned and informed as to where we were. Before we could deflate the balloon we had to get permission from the farmer whose field we'd landed in. The pilot told us that this is not usually a problem and the farmers generally get a bottle of whisky as a thank you. And of course, if any damage is caused, it would be paid for. 

I wondered how the farmer would feel being woken up at 7.30am on a Sunday morning by someone requesting permission to deflate a large balloon in his field, but then thought, 'it's a farmer, he'll be up anyway at this time'. Unfortunately, this turned out to be one of the few days in the year when he'd felt able to have a lie-in. He was in a good mood though and not only gave permission, but came out on his quad-bike to have a chat and open more gates so we'd have easier access to the road.

It took quite a long time to deflate the balloon and involved everyone tugging on a long rope to try to pull the sides down and then lots of rolling and stuffing to get it into its bag. The balloon and basket were loaded onto the trailer and we followed it out to the roadside where chamagne was served as we waited for the minibus to arrive to take us back to Tissington.

The half glass of champagne was quite nice, but felt like a bit of a contrived attempt at being classy. And at this time in the morning and after being up so long, I would have preferred a cup of coffee and an egg butty. 

We were presented with certificates and looked at a series of photos on the laptop. A camera had been strung from the balloon taking photos of us all as we floated about. We could purchase the 30+ photos for £15, but as they were all pretty much the same, one would have been enough. £15 seemed quite a lot for what was effectively the same photo, so I didn't bother. If I could've bought one or two for a reduced price I'd definitely have done so as it would have been nice to have a picture of us all inside the balloon.

The minibus arrived and we were soon back in Tissington where I made coffee and egg butties in the back of the van.

Was it worth the wait?

Yes, definitely. The whole experience was even better than I thought it would be and we got a perfect day for it.

Would I do it again?

Probably not. Partly because it's expensive, but mainly because of all the hassle of having to keep so many weekends free; having to stay up to make the phone call; finding out it's cancelled; having to book again, and so on. I don't blame Virgin for this (and I'm very glad they take safety seriously and also try to ensure that the flight is enjoyable by only going on good days) as I realise no matter how powerful Richard Branson is, he has no control over the weather.

Would I recommend it?

Absolutely. But only in a place near to where you live so it's easy to get to at short notice. 

Monday, 4 May 2015

Stray Cats of Paleochora

I've realised I don't have enough cat pictures on my blog. Actually, I don't think I have any. This is an oversight that obviously needs to be remedied and my recent trip to Crete has given me the opportunity to do this.

Although stray cats are ubiquitous in Crete, it was in Paleochora that I first really noticed them. Walking along the rocky section of the beach on Easter Sunday there seemed to be an awful lot of cats just hanging out among the rocks. Watching them for a while, it became obvious that they weren't out for a day at the seaside, but the beach was their home. They were beach bum cats. 

Some were quite hard to spot as their colours helped camouflage them against the rocks. They lay in the sun taking in the rays, scrabbling about for titbits amongst the flotsam and occasionally disappearing into hollows. 

The following day, as I sat outside a bar on the main street sipping a coffee, I noticed a ginger cat waiting outside the fishmonger's opposite. It seemed quite confident of being served. Sure enough, the fishmonger's young son came out and offered the cat a snack. The fishmonger, realising what was going on, chased the cat and reprimanded his son. Moments later, a black and white cat appeared and behaved in exactly the same way as the previous ginger. The ritual was repeated: cat waited patiently; young boy came out and fed it; dad chased cat and told son off. I could have sat watching this all day.

Fish please!


The stray cats of Crete are well-known and seem to be tolerated in much the same way the birds are. Sometimes people feed them, other times they ignore them, but I didn't see anyone being cruel or getting annoyed at them. Even the fishmonger, who must have been pretty frustrated, wasn't horrible when he shooed them away. 

From the numerous calendars, bags, tea towels and postcards I saw with pictures of Cretan cats adorning them, I supposed they're quite good for the tourist and retail industries and maybe this is why they are tolerated? 

Of course, being strays they are not neutered, deloused, wormed or even fed regularly. Although they look cute, they have to deal with a much tougher world than our pet cats in the UK. 

Spot the cat

Tourists, falling for their cuteness whilst on their summer holidays, will feed them, enabling the cats to become healthier, stronger and, consequently, more fertile. In the winter the tourists leave and the cats, along with their kittens, are left to fend for themselves. Many don't make it through the winter. A sad thought, but if they did all survive, especially at the rate cats breed, the towns would be over-run and the local government would, presumably, have to organise a cull. If the tourists didn't feed them in the summer, maybe they wouldn't be healthy enough to breed and this would be a natural way of keeping numbers down. Or maybe the cats would adapt to a year-round lean diet and breed anyway. It's not possible to know. But I do know that I enjoyed seeing them around and getting the chance to photograph them.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

How to pay tax?

Now my 'gap year' is coming to an end and I need to start earning some money again I'm realising I have a lot of things to consider. Not least, how best to get paid and how best to pay tax. In the past I've had regular jobs and been paid on PAYE. This is easy: I turn up to work every day and at the end of the month my employer deposits a sum of money into my bank account having already deducted tax and NI. Now that I'm hoping to earn money from various sources and in different ways, it's much more complicated.

I'm just starting teaching through an agency and they've offered me the options of PAYE or being paid through an umbrella company. If I choose PAYE I'll get paid in the same way as before which seems nice and simple. However, I won't be able to claim expenses (and supply teaching can involve long drives each day) and could get complicated when I start to earn money from other sources, particularly if it's not taxed at source.

I'd not come across umbrella companies before (at least not in this sense - I think of them as the big multi-nationals that own a multitude of smaller companies), but they seem to be a kind of middle man. My pay would go to them and they would work out my tax and NI, pay it on my behalf, then give me the remainder of my pay. If I use an umbrella company, some of my expenses would be tax-deductible, but I would have to pay a fee to the company. As I'll be (hopefully) earning money from different sources, I'm not sure this will be the best option for me as I'll probably need more flexibility and advice than they can offer.

My other options are either to set up a limited company or operate as a sole-trader. At the moment, the sole-trader option (which basically means self-employed) seems the most suitable. A limited company would cost more to set up and has more complex (therefore more expensive) accounting procedures. On the other hand, setting myself up as a sole-trader seems quite straightforward and has simpler accounting procedures. Another advantage to being a sole-trader is that if I later want to switch to a limited company, this would be quite easy, whereas switching the other way round is more difficult.

Some time over the next few weeks I'm going to have to find myself an accountant and get some proper advice, but in the meantime my internet research has thrown up this infographic which helps makes sense of the options.

Friday, 24 April 2015

To Stachi veggie restaurant

Was it really a week ago that I was in To Stachi eating one of the best vegetarian meals of my life? I don't think I've stopped salivating over it yet.

We discovered To Stachi when wandering around the Venetian Harbour on our first morning in Chania. The friend I was travelling with remembered an organic food shop on a street set a little way back from the harbour and we went to see if it was still there. We found it, but it's no longer a shop and instead has been converted into a small restaurant.

The place was empty as it wasn't yet lunch time, but we went in and ordered coffee and sat with it at the tables outside the front. The owner, cook, herb-picker, vegetable grower and slow-food aficionado brought us a free piece of freshly-baked cake with our coffee and stayed outside to chat with us. 

Stelios owned the shop that was previously on the site and decided to turn it into a restaurant a year or so ago. He's passionate about vegetarianism and food that is local, organic, traceable and slowly cooked with love. 

He explained that the name To Stachi means an 'ear of wheat' and told us about his family land where he grows a lot of his own produce. We'd also learnt during the week that Cretans are great at foraging, making use of all the wild herbs and greens that grow rampantly on the island.

Helen was so enamoured with the place she decided this was where she wanted to come on Friday evening to celebrate her birthday. Stelios was delighted and promised to make something very special.

On the Friday evening five of us arrived for dinner and were looked after wonderfully by Stelios and his daughter; he brought a constant stream of food to the table and took time to explain what every dish was. Unfortunately as I didn't write everything down, I'm already struggling to remember what I ate. What I do remember was that it was all amazingly delicious. Here are photos of just a few of the dishes we were served. 

Best of all, at the end of the meal, Stelios brought out a birthday cake he'd made specially. It's called galaktoboureko and is made from filo pastry and a thick gooey layer of semolina custard. It's making my mouth water just thinking about it. 


The quality of the photos is poor because not only had I not taken a notepad and pen, but I'd also not taken my proper camera. I expected the food to be good, but really thought I'd be focussing more on the conversation, so I only had my mobile phone with me. Now I'm regretting that decision. 

To Stachi can be found at 5, Defkaliona Street, Chania. 
Here's the Facebook page

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Manto Studios

Manto Studios from the front
Arriving in Paleochora, down on the western edge of Crete's south coast, we had no problems finding our accommodation on a corner of the town's main street. Parking was free and our host had cordoned off a space for us right outside the door. 

Manto's gallery (L), stairs to roof terrace and reception (R)

Entering the reception area we already knew we'd come to a place we were going to love. Art work decorated the walls and hung from the ceiling; a long sofa sat opposite a large TV (we never saw it switched on - Paleochora is far too nice to spend time indoors watching TV); the scent of jasmine drifted in from the courtyard outside the back door. 


Manto, the owner, appeared. She was welcoming, friendly and spoke good English. After moving the buckets she'd set out on the road to keep a parking space for us, she showed us to our room. We had booked a studio which turned out to be on the ground floor. We had our own little veranda with a table and chairs and a stable-style door that led into the room. 

Love the terracotta pots set into the walls

The room itself had twin beds with thick, red satin duvets, chairs, a table, wardrobe, dressing table and TV. Hidden behind a set of cupboard doors was a little kitchenette with sink, fridge and hotplate. The en suite had a spacious shower, toilet and basin with towels and basic toiletries supplied. 


Manto is an artist and has a large gallery at the back of the guesthouse. Her work is displayed throughout and even the headboard, mirror rim and dressing table top had been painted by her.

Easter treats

As an Easter treat she had laid out a selection of goodies on the table. A bowl of fresh fruit, sweets and wafer biscuits; a bottle of wine; three chocolate fondant ladybirds (ladybirds symbolise Easter); a couple of dyed red, hard-boiled eggs (red being the colour of Easter); and a loaf of sweet Easter bread inlaid with another red hard-boiled egg.

Outside the room, the narrow courtyard opened into a much wider space at the back of the cafe area. The plants were just starting to blossom and a line of mint was pushing its way through the soil. The large jasmine tree shaded the area and made it a really pleasant place to sit and linger over breakfast. 

Just part of the amazing buffet breakfast
Just a small part of what was on offer

Breakfast was included in the price and was served in the cafe. The buffet was a help-yourself affair laid out along three walls. Juices, a choice of teas, coffee, a range of breads and home-made jams, fresh and canned fruit, compote, cereals and muesli, scrambled or hard-boiled eggs, bacon, sausages, yoghurt, honey, cheeses and cold meats, pizza, warm freshly-made cheese and spinach pastries, meat pastries, cheese croquettes, olives, three kinds of cake ... it went on and on. I wanted to try a bit of everything, but even taking tiny portions, there was no way I could do it. The food was delicious, the coffee was good and Manto and her husband helpfully explained what everything was and made sure I knew which pastries were vegetarian. 

Just when we thought the place couldn't get any better, I noticed stairs leading up to the roof from just beside the reception door. I climbed them to discover the roof of the gallery was a large sun terrace with loungers and spectacular views of the mountains. Peering between buildings I could just glimpse the sea a block away. 

I loved this place and although I wanted to see more of Crete, I could have quite happily spent the whole week here. If anyone is planning a trip to Crete and looking for accommodation, definitely check out Manto Studios. And if you're in the area, but not actually staying, then at least call in for breakfast. 

An example of Manto's artwork on the wall in our room

Cost: 2 people, 2 nights over Easter weekend, including breakfast = €75 (total)
Non-guests can have breakfast for €6.

You can find the website here.