Friday, 29 November 2013

As if Christmas wasn't busy enough!

I don't know about you, but December madness has struck early for me this year - super-busy at work, lots of travel, getting presents and cards sorted in time for postal deadlines... it's all go and I'm getting a bit stressed.

Bristol Christmas lights
That said, I also want to enjoy the lovely festive-ness of December in England. The run up to Christmas is so lovely with lights, Christmas markets, roasted chesnuts and mulled wine and holly wreaths and robins etc.

We've got a Christmas market tomorrow so that should be useful for presents. I like to get lovely crafted things instead of mass produced plastic stuff from the mall.

Winter Wonderland ice skating at Cribbs CausewayThere are also several other lovely festive thing that I really want to try and squeeze into December like outdoor iceskating. They have some plastic-y waxy fake ice 'cos it's really not cold enough to keep ice frozen, but still, it seems like fun. I used to enjoy indoor iceskating as a child and teenager in New Zealand.

There's a big rink out at the mall in Cribbs Causeway or there's a smaller one in the town centre. Hopefully I'll manage to get out on one of them for a bit of a blat one evening in December.

Moominland Midwinter puppetsThere are lots of lovely plays, pantos, musicals, concerts and general performance things on, but the one I really want to go to involves Moomins. I've loved the Tove Jansson books since I was a child and still love them now. The Bath Theatre Royal have a puppet performance called "Moominland Midwinter". You can see a bit more about it in this article. The performance seems mainly aimed at children, but I'm going to be there with bells on! (Well, not literally, that might get a bit distracting!)

The last thing that I'd really like to go to is Westonbirt Aboretum's Christmas Lights trail. It looks absolutely beautiful and I do love a good tree. We went to Westonbirt last autumn to enjoy the leaves. Though we were slightly late for the peak colour, we still had a lovely day out tromping around the forest trails. The only thing I worry about is how crowded it might be. Noisy crowds would really spoil the atmosphere. Still, I think I'll give it a go.

 I'll let you know how my ambitious December plans pan out... wish me luck and especially sanity between now and the 25th!

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Red kites rock the party!

Red kite (bird of prey)I commute about 80 miles each way for work several times a week through lovely countryside. One of the treats of my drive is spotting wildlife as I drive along. I've seen wild deer, bunnies, pheasants and owls but one of the best animals is the Red Kite. In the last couple of days I've seen several pairs circling above the motorway. I just love how their wedge-shaped tails flick about in the opposite direction to their wings as they navigate the currents of the wind.

Still photos can't really do them justice as it's all about the size of them (they're quite large birds - with a wingspan of over a metre and a half or about 70 inches) and the graceful way they move. I found a short video for you to see...


I really enjoy the beautiful birdlife in England. We have bird feeders outside our window and as I type there are great tits, blue tits and collared doves hopping about the tree. If there's anything on earth cuter than a blue tit, I'd like to see it!

Blue tit
Although, there is a lot to be said for robins too and robins have a lovely song...


Evidently bird-watching is referred to as 'birding' or if you travel specifically to see birds; 'twitching'. I wouldn't say I'm actually a 'twitcher' but I do get a lot of pleasure out of admiring these lovely creatures. Actually, I did plan my summer holiday around seeing puffins so maybe I am dabbling in the deep waters of twitching! What do you think?

Sunday, 17 November 2013

TKMaxx - my happy place

How much do I love TKMaxx? Well, let's just say that I can spend a good three hours browsing around our reasonably small store in Bristol. I also love saving money (of course!) and finding good new designers. I tend not to look at the clothes as I find the quantity and randomness a bit overwhelming but I love the handbags and scarves and beauty products.

Like these, but dark purple...
I popped in last week for a quick look around and lucked out with some lovely purple leather gloves. The exact same brand and style was 16 pounds in Debenhems - 12 pounds in TKMaxx. Thanks guys!

And I'm currently wearing a lovely scarf by Cynthia Rowley. I'd never heard of her, but I got an excellent greenish peacock feather printed summer scarf a few months ago and now I've got this little beauty for my collection too.

It's reversible - one side black with cobalt blue polka dots, the other side black with a multi-coloured paisley pattern on velvet. It's got lots of useful colours in the paisley to go with a range of outfits. It seems like they'd Cynthia Rowley scarves would pretty expensive as her clothes aren't cheap, but I can't find any of her scarves anywhere on the internet. I guess they must be old stock. Suits me if I get them cheap!

I've also been introduced to Jane Shilton by TKMaxx. Again, I'd never heard of her as a designer, but I got a cute little boxy cream and chestnut brown leather bag by her for summer. Just recently for my birthday I got the little number in the picture to the left. It's nicer than it looks in this photo - leather with a textured fabric bit on the front. It's about 30cm long, so big enough for the essentials but small enough to be light to carry. I do like a cross-body strap to keep my hands free as I'm walking. And yes, purple is one of my favourite colours.

A couple of months ago (having run out of my usual duty free Clinique), I treated myself to some Elizabeth Arden skincare. I'd never used her stuff, but now I'm a fan.

I got the Visible Difference Optimizing Serum Set. The exfoliating cleanser, serum and moisturiser work together beautifully to make a visible difference (the product does what it says on the tin!). My skin looks plumper with fine dry wrinkles smoothed out (temporarily, or course but the SPF 15 helps with reducing sun damage as well). They're only 30ml but as I say, I've been using them about every second day for a couple months and I haven't run out yet. For only 20 pounds instead of around 40-60 pounds elsewhere, I'm pretty pleased.

So yay for TKMaxx! Have you found any nice bargains recently?

Friday, 15 November 2013

WHY is buying a car so hard?

Damaged car
So I've just been through the car purchasing process and am moved to ask WHY is buying a car so damn hard?

I might be coming a little late to this pain as I didn't really have this problem in New Zealand. My lovely brother is a mechanic and he was very helpful with car buying. He looked over cars we were interested in and sometimes even just presented me with a car and saying 'buy that one' (which I did and it was great).

Moving to the UK a couple of years ago, I needed a car urgently for work. I bought one off a mechanic recommended by a friend. I felt a bit ripped off as I paid at least 400 pounds too much for an old car with high mileage, absolutely no mod-cons and a leak that dumped cups of water onto the front footwells. However, I begin to think that I got off lightly. At least that car was mechanically sound and did me 20,000 miles of reasonably trouble-free driving (except for the time that the engine exploded in the fast lane of the motorway... and the leaks that led to it fogging up so badly I had to drive with a squeegee in my hand).

Anyway, we thought it was time to get a safer, comfier car for winter driving on my a long commute. We saved up and started looking around online. On Saturday we looked at a rubbishy one in Wales from a private seller then just had time to get to a car dealer a bit further away before they closed for the day. We managed to look at the car but not test drive it as they said that they needed a staff member to go in the car and there was only one guy on. Great! We had a good look around the car and all the signs were propitious. We arranged to come back the on Sunday for a test drive. By the way, it was over an hour's drive and we had to pay the not particularly cheap bridge toll each time. AND it was howling a gale by the time we drove back.

It was still cold and stormy the next day when we headed back and managed to test drive the car (without a staff member in the car, fancy that! I think he just couldn't be bothered on Saturday. Or he was testing how committed we were...).

During the test drive there was a knocking sound in first gear but we thought (hoped) that might be from a loose inner wheel cover thingy. We were told the car was 'Category D' but didn't really know what that meant.  The dealer said he didn't know what was wrong with the car that it had been written off by the insurance company. We had a thorough look around and couldn't see any damage. We tried to negotiate on price and suddenly, the friendly nice car dealer turned on an instant! Not a jot was coming off the price!

We discussed it for a while and finally decided to buy the car. We put down a deposit and hurried out of the cold rain into a cafe to warm up.

Of course when I got home and started searching 'Category D' my heart sank. We debated for a couple of days whether to pull out, try to get a mechanical check and pull out if it was no good or to just go through with it. We decided to go through with it.

We had another drive over the bridge and through the rain into Wales to pick it up later that week. (Don't tell anyone I said this, but I think it always rains in Wales.) Anyway, the car seemed okay except for the rattling in first gear.

In order to find out what the 'Category D' issues were, I booked it into the mechanic as soon as I could for a thorough check over. A few hours after I dropped it off I got the phone call from the mechanic. He asked how recently I'd bought it then bluntly said, "Take it back". I explained that I'd foolishly bought it as a written off car so I couldn't take it back. Besides, on paper it was a great car and car buying is so goddamn awful I didn't want to go through it again!

Basically the car had been in a reasonably big collision hitting the front driver's side area. The driver's side front wheel was inches back from where it should be, the whole engine had been pushed back and the shock absorber was busted. Lots of money later, my new car is more or less sound and safe to drive.

Here's hoping I get to drive it for quite a while so I don't have to go through the hell of buying a new car anytime soon!

So, I've learned that it's essential to get a mechanical check BEFORE committing to buy the car! Have you got any tips or horror stories to share?

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Lovely birthday presents!

Well, I've been rather serious here at Birdy Begins of late so it's time for some frivolity! It was my birthday this week and I got some lovely bits I want to share with you. (And by 'share' I mean show you so that you're jealous, not actually give you some of them!)

First up, smellies! I just love little sets of make up and fragrance so when I spotted this set in Penhaligon's, I sent my lovely husband back to the shop with clear instructions. Penhaligon's shops are dizzying wonderlands of scent and prettiness but he managed to get in and out unscathed. And they did beautiful gift-wrapping!

In this little box, I got good sized miniatures of Lily of the Valley, Ellenisia, Malabah and Artemisia (slightly different from the picture). Some of the scents are a bit too sweet and powdery for me, but I adore the dinkiness of the little box of beautifully presented bottles. The Lily of the Valley is eau de toilette, the others are eau de parfum but there doesn't seem to be much difference in how long they last. They need reapplying after four or five hours, but the little bottles can easily be slipped in a handbag. It's nice to have a range of scents to chose from each morning.

Another lovely birthday treat is from Woolovers. I've been searching for reasonably priced wool cardigans in England for some time. I do find it really quite odd that England gets quite cold, but most of the reasonably priced knitwear is acrylic. In New Zealand I was used to fine knit merino wool being everywhere in winter. In England the done thing seems to be paying huge sums for cashmere. Well, I have a solution!
Wool cashmere pale pink Woolovers cardigan

I got this little beauty in the mail this morning and I love it already (in fact I'm wearing it now). It's soft and snug fitting (but doesn't gape), lightweight but warm. I foresee a few more of these little beauties in other colours coming my way but I must resist the urge to buy more than I need!

I also handily got a pair of rose quartz and garnet earrings in the same mail this morning from someone else. They go beautifully with the cardigan. Thanks, present-givers!

One last birthday treat out of the many that I was spoiled with... I spotted this one online last time I was planning a trip to London. The Tower of London didn't have a particularly fabulous little shop, but the online shop on the Historic Royal Palaces website yielded this slightly macabre beauty.
Henry VIII's wives charm bracelet
In case you can't see it has a broken heart to signify divorce, a cute little axe to signify beheading, a tombstone for death and a crown for the one poor woman who survived being married to Henry VIII. In case you're interested, the details are:

Broken heart – Catherine of Aragon (divorced)
Axe – Anne Boleyn (beheaded)
Gravestone – Jane Seymour (died)
Broken heart – Anne of Cleves (divorced)
Axe – Catherine Howard (beheaded)
Crown – Catherine Parr (survived)

The bracelet is gold plated with tiny diamantes on the base of the crown. I love the surprise of how pretty it looks contrasted with the rather miserable charms. It tickles my fancy (and looks nice with my gold coloured watch).

I also got a stack of lovely CDs to while away my long commute, but music reviews are boring in my humble opinion so I'll refrain. Anyway, these are some of the things that have been perking up my busy, rainy week.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Social class - what defines it?

Upper class twit of the year from Monty PythonToday in the office, we got to talking about social class. Don't ask me how, it's normally a fairly touchy subject but me and two English girls had a good chat ranging from what we call the room with the TV in it (in New Zealand it's always the lounge - in England it seems it could be a living room, sitting room or possibly front room instead) to what part your accent plays in advancement at work.

The subject came up because of the BBC Lab UK’s Great British Class Survey earlier this year. We were a bit late to the party as it was published in April but evidently there was some fairly rigorous research involving over 100,000 Brits.

They say "It found a new model of seven social classes ranging from the elite at the top to a "precariat" - the poor, precarious proletariat - at the bottom." and "The BBC Lab UK study measured economic capital - income, savings, house value - and social capital - the number and status of people someone knows. The study also measured cultural capital, defined as the extent and nature of cultural interests and activities." Link to BBC website.

They are convincing in their explanations, but I just don't buy it. I think that social class is a subtle combination of how you  look, think, speak and behave. I think it's mainly down to how you're brought up rather than things like your education, friends, income and what entertainment you enjoy. That said, all things being equal your class will generally affect things like whether you go to University (and which Uni, and which courses) or whether you like classical music.

Still, I think that it's perfectly possible to score "Elite" while other people think of you as "Traditional Working Class" because you happen to have made lots of money but still have a working class accent and attitudes. And I bet that Prince William doesn't actually like classical music, the theatre or ballet but surely he's pretty much as 'Elite' as it gets in British society?

In discussing it in the office, we were all pretty clear on who was which class and all clear on what class we were ourselves. It's part of the complicated interaction of human society that we all juggle.

What am I trying to say? I guess just that it's complicated, but interesting. Go and do the survey and let me know what you think.

Friday, 1 November 2013

How much is enough?

There has been a lot talk recently about simplicity, quality not quantity and ethical shopping. I've been wondering, as I build my winter wardrobe... how much is enough?

I can't fit all my shoes in the bottom of my wardrobe yet I just put a pair of ankle boots in an online shopping trolley. My jumpers are bulging out of my jumper drawer, yet I struggle to find five tops to wear for a working week. Should I follow the common wisdom of spending eye watering amounts on a few perfect items and wearing them to death?

Well, no I couldn't bring myself to do that. I enjoy variety so I'd be bored silly. Plus, I think that no matter how hard you try, there will be some shopping mistakes. It'd be gutting to buy something super-expensive that just didn't work.

Janice from the brilliant blog The Vivienne Files recently posted that the real power shopping is:

Everything is

She is so right and I do try to follow this advice. I also have regularly clear outs and donate stuff to a local charity shop. Still... I struggle and I wonder how much is enough? How many dresses? How many skirts? How many shoes?

I think part of the problem is that there are so many niches. I bought wellies (gumboots) but I only wear them a few times a year. They're really useful, but they take up a lot of space.

I have grey ankle boots and beige ankle boots, but I could really do with some black ones too. (Actually I shouldn't have bought the beige ones - They're not as useful as I thought they might be).I have high heels in many of the colours of the rainbow, but I could collect dozens more to go with various outfits.

Recently we had a small cocktail party without all the equipment that we left behind in New Zealand - no cocktail shaker, no martini glasses or crystal tumblers, no fairy lights, no plastic ice cubes or wineglass charms... and you know what? It was fine.

Maybe another learning is that making do and multi-tasking and maybe even being slightly wrong are okay. What do you think?