Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Travel thoughts - are our holidays real holidays?

A motorway stop in France - a playground on the theme of mushrooms!
Michela is the little elf with the yellow T-shirt and orange shorts

My blog carries a list of my most popular posts and the top spot is taken by part I of my "epic" car journey from England to Italy. We did this twice in our small red Toyota. My daughter was aged one and two, so you can well imagine how much stuff we had to carry with us! 

For us, getaways don't feel like proper holidays - we like to visit our families so there is not much scope for variety: every year we go to Italy and to Staffordshire to the same locations. That's why the car journey was such a marvellous idea - we chose different stops and were able to visit a different city or town for half a day before moving on. This worked really well with compact cities and small towns - it would be quite stressful if we chose a metropolis like Paris. If you want to read our travelogue, click the link in the first sentence, that post also has a link to our first journey, which offers some tips on travelling with a young toddler. 

We have not caved in and bought a DVD player for the car, we have other aces up our sleeves, such as snacks, nursery rhymes, silly car games and plenty of stops (French motorway stops are fab as they often have a playground).

So what about this year? Well, we will do our trip up north at some point and then go to Italy in August. This is when there is a festival (or shall I say festa) in my village, so there are free (and paid) concerts, food, an amusement park and a bit of life (it's a sleepy village most of the time).

In the past years we have been flying and hiring a car but this year the Olympics frenzy has made flying a really expensive business. I'm hoping my partner will feel like driving as I'd love to go to Italy through another route (Germany, Switzerland???). We have always used the Eurostar as much swifter than the ferry but if we don't go through France there are other options... French motorways are quite expensive too but they do save time. I wonder about other countries, would motorways be even pricier? The good thing is that paid motorways are quiet compared to the ones we use to drive up north and the stops are really good. Boring as it may sound I will have to research motorways in other European countries!

A beach in northern France, our first stop

Another "epic" car journey would really make me feel that we are going on holiday not just visiting relatives. So let's see what happens, fingers crossed my partner wants to be behind the wheel!

Visit BritMums' travel carnival at

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Testing, testing.... battle of the madeleines

Spécialité Locale Madeleines, £2.69 for 400g

An article in The Telegraph called cupcakes the new cocaine. Personally I am addicted to the shell-shaped French cakelets called madeleines. I have tried making them but they are not as good as the bought ones, which is perverse as homemade cakes usually taste better! These are the best brands on sale in the UK, other substandard brands can be oily and taste foul. I first came across madeleines while studying Proust when I was 16. Madeleines were easy to find in Italy, but proved a bit more of a challenge when I moved to England. Now they are sold in most supermarkets, so I don't have to hit the deli trail or take advantage of continental trips.
Bonne Maman La Madeleine, £2.39 for 225g

Here is the reference in Proust, skip this if you  want to read the review:
II y avait déjà bien des années que, de Combray, tout ce qui n'était pas le théâtre et le drame de mon coucher, n'existait plus pour moi, quand un jour d'hiver, comme je rentrais à la maison, ma mère, voyant que j'avais froid, me proposa de me faire prendre, contre mon habitude, un peu de thé. Je refusai d'abord et, je ne sais pourquoi, me ravisai. Elle envoya chercher un de ces gâteaux courts et dodus appelés Petites Madeleines qui semblent avoir été moulés dans la valve rainurée d'une coquille de Saint-Jacques. Et bientôt, machinalement, accablé par la morne journée et la perspective d'un triste lendemain, je portai à mes lèvres une cuillerée du thé où j'avais laissé s'amollir un morceau de madeleine. Mais à l'instant même où la gorgée mêlée des miettes du gâteau toucha mon palais, je tressaillis, attentif à ce qui se passait d'extraordinaire en moi. Un plaisir délicieux m'avait envahi, isolé, sans la notion de sa cause."

The bit I like most about this excerpt (if you can't read French you will find a translation here) is the last sentence where he describes the experience of eating a madeleine as a delicious pleasure. As you can see from the price/weight ration, the first product is the cheapest. Bonne Maman's madeleines are individually wrapped inside the bag but it feels like excessive packaging that bumps up the retail price. They are both moist, melt in your mouth and delicately fragranced. But the winner is, surprisingly, Spécialité Locale Madeleines, a truly local speciality in my books. These are sold in most supermarkets - you will find them in the cake aisle in Sainsbury's next to the finger madeleines. I can't specify the reason why I prefer them, they do have an extra je ne sai quoi.... (and are great value!).

Jubilee food ideas from Philadelphia

The Philadelphia press office has sent me some yummy recipes in time for the Jubilee Bank Holiday. Have a lovely jubbly Jubilee with my personal favourites - handy for street parties!

King of nibbles: Potato Cakes

Potato cakes with Philly dip

Serves: 6 (double or triple ingredients for a bigger crowd)

Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes
Total time: 35 minutes

600g floury potatoes, peeled and cut into cubes
1 egg yolk
25g fresh coriander, chopped
5 spring onions, trimmed and chopped
finely grated zest of 1 lemon
100g fine dry breadcrumbs
1tbsp vegetable or sesame oil
150g Philadelphia Light with Sweet Chilli
2tbsp lime juice
1tbsp light mayonnaise

1. To make the potato cakes, cook the potatoes in boiling water until tender. Drain and
mash until smooth.
2. Stir in the egg yolk, coriander, spring onions and lemon zest. Season to taste.
3. Mix well together and shape into about 16-20 small cakes. Put the breadcrumbs on a plate. Roll the cakes firmly in the crumbs. Heat the oil in a heavy based non stick frying pan and cook the potato cakes for 3-4 minutes on both sides or until browned and heated through.
4. Meanwhile make the sauce. Put the Philly and lime juice in a small basin and mix together. Add the mayo and stir to give a soft consistency. Serve them with Philly dipping sauce.

Queen of desserts: Eton Mess

Eton Mess with Philly

Serves: 2 (double or triple ingredients to feed a bigger group)

Prep time: 10 minutes
Total time: 10 minutes

150g strawberries, quartered
2 meringues (approx 12g each)
25g low-fat strawberry yogurt
5g strawberry jam
75g Philadelphia Light, softened

1. Place half the strawberries and meringues in the bottom of a
Sundae glass.
2. Marble the yoghurt and jam through the Philly and spoon into the glass.
3. Top with the remaining strawberries and meringue. Enjoy!

Tip This can also be made with raspberries and natural yogurt for a less sweet alternative.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Blog carnivals: cake!

I do the odd blog carnival now and then. There is one about Chistenings, Celebrations and Cake (click here), which is hard to miss. 

As Marjorie from Little Britain said: " Oooooh, I love a bit of cake. Oooooh, cake. Oooooh, cake " Quite.

So here is my pic of a cracker cake, a first-communion conction with a firework in it. My partner moved away, afraid it'd burn his hair! My daughter doesn't look that impressed.

Back pain, the bane of desk-based jobs

 I had back pain issues around five years ago. I tried acupuncture, osteopathy and physiotherapy, with the latter sorting out my problem. The back pain came back last year, but it was the odd bad day. In the past months I have been waking up every day with a stiff, achey back. I started doing Pilates and it has helped, but it wasn't enough as I have been a bit lazy with doing the exercises on a regular basis. So I looked into replacing my office chair to prevent bad posture.

Office chairs are incredibly expensive - their prices range from around £50 for a basic one to £1000. I visited John Lewis and sat on all the display chairs. I then realised that a decent office chair starts from £200-300. Still I wasn't convinced I'd stop slouching. A visit to my GP confirmed I'm very stiff and I need to exercise. So I remembered seeing a member of staff at (I was freelancing there last year) sitting on a balance ball. I bought one and realised that it's not ideal as I'm too close to a radiator and it moves too much. Then further research revealed the answer, the Gaiam BalanceBall chair! At just under £100 it's keenly priced for an office chair, although at first I wondered why I should pay extra to have castor wheels on a balance ball, which retails at around £25 for a good quality one.
Gaiam BalanceBall Chair

However, having sat on it for the past few weeks, I can see why
it's a brilliant product. Before buying I searched for reviews and found over 300 on the American site. They were discussing issues with the chair and solutions: locking wheels and desk height. I will save you the time browsing them all - have the locking wheels at the back so you don't accidentally kick them open and find the right balance by extra pumping or letting air out if it doesn't fit your desk's height. It took me a couple of days to work out the height, at first I was too low, my partner pumped some air into it and it was too high. So we let air out gradually till I'm now sitting at the right height. As you can see my desk is actually an old oak table (I did sit at an antique one before and used antique chair too, see here).

The brilliant thing about this chair is that you can get the ball out and it comes with a series of exercise (with ball in and out). I bought mine at John Lewis, but if you want to see all the reviews and tips from the manufacturer, click here, where there is a pic of somebody sitting on it too.

Note: I bought this product, this is not a sponsored post.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Win a holiday and more...

I love entering competitions, especially online ones. So here is this month's best bunch. If you are running a competition on your blog, feel free to leave a comment with your link. These competitions are my own choice and are based on what I came across this week. This is not a sponsored post.

Best of the compo crop

Weird but wonderful

Pieminister is giving you the chance to win pies and more for your Jubilee street party. To enter the prize draw visit


Did you know that John Lewis now accepts PayPal? There aren't many department stores that do... So if you have money sitting in PayPal and fancy a shopping spree at one of Britain's best stores, visit Spread the news... I am off to have a browse! Update: I bought a gym ball! Further update: I returned it and bought a Gaiam BalanceBall. Review in a more recent post.... brilliant!

Last but not least

I have come across a site where you can enter UK competitions for free. I have found a lovely holiday in the first page! Visit

Thursday, 10 May 2012

SEO success!

My business website is ranking on the first page of Google for my new chosen keywords, hurray! As I explained in a previous post about making money online, I learnt all I know from free sources available on the internet then applied some common sense. There is no magic formula nor dark art involved. 

I have touched on SEO in a feature I wrote on Suite 101 last year on how to create a website for around £40 and this is what I wrote about website promotion: "Once the website is up and running, a website owner needs to ensure it ranks well on search engines, such as Google, Bing and Yahoo. A website owner should try to improve search engine ranking by using SEO techniques. There is good SEO and bad SEO and some search engines have developed formulas for penalizing sites that use bad SEO. It’s best not to stuff a site full of keywords without backing them up with articles and sound information. At all times when a website owner is working on content, they should bear in mind that easy-to-read text is more search-friendly than word games or puns. It’s also a good idea to caption photos as they will turn up on image searches. SEO can be learned from free online guides and from online conferences or workshops." 

This feature is just over one year old but a lot of it still stands. If I may update that section a bit, I'd say, just worry about Google, then the rest will come. Of course more social media tools have become popular, such as Pinterest and BrandYourself. Twitter has become massive with its millions of users and LinkedIn rules the professional world (Facebook for business? Not really unless you sell consumer goods).

So how does an ex web dummy like me and ex young bright thing get to know about social media trends? Well, there is  LinkedIn  and its professional groups, Britmums for blogging and a very handy newsletter from the Social Media Examiner. Yes, it's a lot of reading, but I'm getting results and keeping up to date with what is going on in the digital world.

Watch this space, an ebook for social media virgins beckons....

School blues: head lice

If your child has started to go to playgroup or school, you can't escape the rite of passage of head lice. Even in this day and age it's still controversial for some and it makes you scratch only thinking about it. We all know that everybody can get it and it doesn't matter if your house could pass Aggie's test, but deep down we are marking unkempt, "dirty" children as culprits.

"Don't play again with those children, they live in the dirt," my mum told me after she got rid of my nits. And yes, I'm keeping a beady eye on children with uncombed hair in my daughter's school and monitor scratching every time I am there. Trouble is children scratch their heads a lot, for a multiple of reasons...

Head lice treatments
I will be brave and admit I got nits from my daughter twice. When I mentioned this to some mums, they moved a mile away from me - why? Nits don’t have wings, so unless they got close and personal, which you don’t as an adult... - while others shrugged their shoulders, saying everybody goes through it, just try XZY shampoo. Well I did try two shampoos and to be honest I wasted my money. It was deeply satisfying seeing nits drop from the comb into my sink, but these shampoos don’t kill all the eggs, so unsurprisingly, around ten days later I had baby nits scurrying on my head.

So it was off on the internet to find out the wisdom of the afflicted masses. If you are a nit novice, I recommend visiting the NHS site, where you get really good information. If you want to try alternative remedies, you can try hair gel (suffocates the nits), mayonnaise (ditto), olive oil (ditto) or tea tree oil (preventative too). Trouble is you get a greasy scalp and your hair will look sticky so you will have to wash it, and then the nits will come back next time you are reading a story to your child and her/his head touches yours. Nits walk from head to head...

In our case there was also the slight complication that we both suffer from dandruff, so it’s hard to say if it’s an egg you are looking at or dandruff, unless you squash it, of course - don't do this if you are squeamish.

Best treatment for head lice
I finally got rid of our head lice and I have to thank the NHS leaflet my daughter’s school passed on. I did try a tea tree shampoo and gel too, but although effective they didn't give me total reassurance (and my hair looked awful gelled up). 

The way I did it was through combing my hair and my daughter’s regularly, twice a week. I did my daughter’s hair while she was in the bath playing with a dolly that pees if you put water in her mouth - this way there was no complaining of being uncomfortable or bored as she was sitting down and occupied. I used the fine combs I got from the unreliable (and full of nasty chemicals to boot) shampoos I tried. By the second week there were just tiny hatchings, but regular combing got rid of those. I really got good at it, stopped cringing and just concentrated on combing all over and getting rid of the critters. I became the Rambo of the nit world.

Say no to chemical warfare (on your head)
Trouble is that all this combing and the residue from the two nasty shampoos I tried made my scalp very itchy. It was a vicious circle situation as I wasn’t sure I had nits left, but the comb kept "saying no". So it was very providential that the lovely PR at GreenPeople sent me a Lavender shampoo and conditioner to test. I also got a natural deodorant (perspirants contain aluminium, which is not that good for you).

So in my chemical-busting mission, I tried the shampoo and the deodorant and found them both excellent. The shampoo got rid of the itching and reassured me as nits don’t walk on heads with strong scents as they can’t smell us - some nit busters advise using tea tree oil and lavender scented shampoos. Think of the ogre in a fairy tale, if he can’t smell humans, he won’t attack. The nit is interested in sucking human blood and like mosquitoes they detect us through our smell. ARRRR, it doesn’t bear thinking about it, but if you look at some of the pictures of crusty scalps online you get my drift.
So if you are thinking of buying a nit shampoo, think again. They can’t guarantee 100% success and the only useful thing in the box is the comb. Yes, they will kill the nits and some eggs but part of the next generation will be cruising your scalp a week later. Regular combing might be boring but it works. If your head is badly infested, try three times a week, so you are working against their reproductive cycle. Female lay a huge amount of eggs every day.

And the natural deodorant? It’s slightly bigger than other roll-ons and it worked really well, even after a session at the gym. It has a medicinal, herby smell but it’s not overpowering and it doesn’t stain clothes.

I do love natural, organic products, I just wish more of us buy them so the prices can come down a bit. But as with everything you get what you pay for. And the truth is that chemicals are cheap while natural ingredients are costly because they are harvested and carefully processed for a long time to ensure they keep their goodness. 

Green People Lavender Shampoo and Conditioner are £7.75 each for 200ml. The Natural Deodorant is £7.95 for a 75ml roll-on.  Green People products are available online at Selected products are on sale through Ocado and independent stockists across the UK.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Making money from blogging and web writing

Get your rank and download How Parents Blogger Make Money?
Make money from online writing:
hot to get an online portfolio
Make friends and get tips on
how to make money from your blog

Can you really make money blogging?
Even if you are new to blogging you will have heard about monetizing, affiliate marketing, the lot. Many bloggers are hoping to make money or at least get a few freebies, but some might have unrealistic expectations. Read Penelope Trunk's post Reality Check, You Are Not Going to Make Money from Your Blog  and weep! Some bloggers applaud her honesty, but many are really angry and in denial. This post was published in 2009 but it is still getting lots of comments.  Getting an income from blogging is a kind of Eldorado for aspiring writers. You write in your own time and get paid for it. In reality very few people make heaps of money out of blogging or get a book deal, and those who get a decent income have other arrows in their bow, such as running a linked business and being a professional writer. There might be other avenues, which I'm not aware of, so please leave a comment if you know any!

Making money as a web writer
I started blogging because I needed online writing experience. I had a website very early on called London Cheapskate, then started this blog in 2005. I have four now - they are there for me to post things I can't get published, to air my opinions or display photos. So far I got very little money through affiliate marketing and monetising, but some posts have landed me writing jobs. For instance this blog post on making stew helped to secure a commission writing family recipes. It's still one of the most popular entries, with two craft posts and one about being a Cheapskate in Cambridge (old habits die hard). Like many 'older' journalists the rapid rise of the internet took me by surprise and suddenly it was all about html, SEO and digital writing. I decided to make the switch as soon as I could. I'm completely self taught, I even designed my own website and wrote an article about the process to show how easy it can be (and all for under £40). I'm no boffin. Blogging and writing for Suite 101 and Bright Hub helped me get an online writing portfolio quickly. I was lucky that all my hard work paid off. My website landed me a big copywriting gig in 2009 and I reinvented myself as an SEO copywriter.

Fine, but I still want to make money from my blog
Right, if blogging floats your boat, why not try this free course by It's really ace (pardon the pun) and it covers all the basics of blogging (you don't need to be a parent to apply). If you are interested in SEO, I recommend browsing Great SEO. And if you want to know how other bloggers are faring, why not join Tots100 and download their free ebook How Parent Bloggers Make Money? Last but not least, you can get more tips and a supportive network at Britmums (dads are members too)! If you are not a parent, then you will need to find other ways to make your blog shine. If you have any tips, feel free to share.

PS: I owe a lot to the generosity of Alison Rothwell who coached us all through Britmums (formerly British Mummy Bloggers). Please read my previous post about SEO for blogs featuring her top tips.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Five top tips to improve Google ranking from an SEO expert

Alison in action at a conference
I first heard of Alison Rothwell through the blog network British Mummy Bloggers (recently rebranded as Britmums). She set up a free SEO group and taught us lots of tips. Nowadays she is a very busy, successful lady indeed and I hope she doesn't mind if I post this "oldish" article - on the web  everything goes at the speed of light. I feel it's still relevant and it shows up her great coaching skills. 

Improving your Google PageRank will, of course, have a knock-on effect on your position within the natural search results. But don't make the mistake of concentrating solely on PageRank. Improving PageRank should be a part of a well-organized SEO strategy. With that in mind here are five top tips to help you improve your Google PageRank.

1. Create a Google site map
Google has a great number of free tools you can use. So if you don't already have one, head on over to and create a free account, then follow the instructions to create a sitemap. While you are there, take a look at some of the other free tools they offer.

2. Get good back links
It's common knowledge that the more links you have, the better it is for your PageRank. But while it's common knowledge, it's not entirely correct. It's not so much the quantity of links you have, but the quality. All links should be from relevant sites, preferably with a high PageRank themselves. A good way of getting quality back links is to post in relevant forums. Answer any questions that may have been posted and include a link back to your site offering more information. DO NOT spam these websites with links,  though, or you'll be banned.

3. Mind your spelling
Sorry, but Google doesn't like spelling mistakes. So always make sure your content and titles are spelled correctly. It was once common practice to optimise sites with misspelled words for popular search terms to try and fool the engines. Those days are over, if your site has misspelled words on it, your PageRank will be penalized accordingly.

4. Check out what your competitors are up to
Do a search in Google for the search term you want to rank for. The people at the top of the list are doing something right, so let's take a look at what they are up to. Type the following search string into Google "", replace with the url of the top ranking site. You will now see a list of sites that are linking to that particular webpage. Make a note of the links and try to get them to link to your site as well.

5. Don't forget the rest of your site
PageRank, like the name suggests, is an indication of the quality of the page you're on, not of the website as a whole. A common mistake is to concentrate on increasing the PageRank of your homepage, thinking that it will filter down to the other pages on your site. Well no it won't, try to get links into the whole of your site, for a number of different keywords. Do all this correctly and soon you'll start to see the fruits of your labours.

 Alison Rothwell is an online marketing expert who prides herself on helping small businesses achieve their full potential. Whatever the size of your business, visit to find out more about her SEO workshops and social media expertise. 

Working, scrimping, plus Win an IPad and IPod Nano!

Are you a scrimper? Read on to enter the competition
Working, commuting and scrimping tips
Last month, I worked inhouse for two days a week for a local publisher on a casual basis. Unusually I was a design assistant in the marketing department. It was a welcome change from wordy editorial work. Nowadays I work in Word and NoteTab, so I miss the InDesign layout element of my pre-maternity job as an inhouse magazine subeditor. There I was whizzing around London, meeting famous people, getting beauty freebies and browsing shops up and down Oxford Street. It was an expensive lifestyle for sure, despite the freebies. However, I used to run a Londoncheapskate website back then!

Commuting was such a bane, though, despite the fact that I lived in zone 3. Last month I cycled to the publisher’s office and it was lovely because I crossed central Cambridge and pedalled past old colleges. Cycling is such as cheap way to go from A to B and if your employer is running a bike scheme, you can save money on the bike's purchase. The company I worked for even loaned bikes.

But now I’m back home, indexing and pitching for features. In my spare time I work on an ebook, which I’m designing in Quark. I got my version of Quark from a computer magazine, so it is legal and was very cheap! But what about the competition, you might ask, enough of your yadda yadda....

Well, this competition is run by, which is offering one lucky reader the chance to win the latest Apple iPad3 and iPod Nano. Just visit and provide a money-saving tip. has already polled 6,000 of UK parents and asked them to share their greatest money-saving tips. Here are their top 10 tips:

1. Shop around – find the best deal before you buy.
2. Budget, budget, budget – stay within your means.
3. Buy (and sell) secondhand – on sites like eBay, use charity shops and take advantage of hand-me-downs!
4. Before you buy… always ask yourself, “Can I live without it?”
5. Plan the family’s weekly meals – cook more than you need and freeze extra portions for another day.
6. Shop for groceries online – or draw up a list before you get to the store and don’t deviate!
7. Buy in bulk – stock up on offers, deals and bargains for those items you use regularly.
8. Never pay full price – always lookout for a relevant voucher or discount code online, cut out coupons and use cashback sites.
9. Buy value brands – from school uniform to nappies, you could save a fortune.
10. Open a savings account – pay into it as regularly as you can.

The competition closes on 31 May. Good luck!

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Ice cream delight

This moreish recipe was sent to me by the Carte D'Or press office.  
Fab for BBQs (I wish) or to cheer you up on rainy days

All together now: Rain rain go away, Come again another day!
Or rather: Rain, rain go away, Never come again any day!


Grilled peaches with ice cream

Serves: 4

8 scoops of Carte D’Or Amaretto and Vanilla Ice Cream (200g/400ml)
4 ripe peaches
1 tsp icing sugar
A drizzle of oil
2 tbsp flaked almonds, toasted

PRE-HEAT a griddle pan until hot.

HALVE each peach, removing the stone. Sprinkle the cut sides of the peaches with the icing sugar.

DRIZZLE a little oil in the griddle pan and place each peach, cut side down. Cook for 1-2 minutes.

SERVE with a scoop of Carte D’Or Amaretto and Vanilla Ice Cream inside each peach half.

DECORATE with the toasted flaked almonds and serve immediately.