Why do supermarkets do that?

1.  Why do supermarkets sell chopped up kale?

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Here’s how kale looks if you buy it from our lovely local Veg Box shop.  All you need to do is give it a rinse and then strip the curly leaves off the tough stalks. Takes a couple of seconds…

The supermarkets all seem to sell the vegetable chopped, so you have chunks of tough stalk throughout the bag. I have bought it this way and know that you have to spend considerably longer picking out the stalks. And you almost always miss some. Plus of course the edges of the shredded leaves start to turn dry and brown very quickly. So – why do supermarkets do that?

2. Why do supermarkets only sell tiny parsnips?

The Veg Box has been selling massive, unwashed parsnips lately. Much cheaper than the small, prettier versions, and one root contributes to several meals. Less peeling too. And it’s helping farmers by giving them some income from veg that would otherwise go to animal feed or waste.

It’s well worth checking out your local independent suppliers. They know their stock, so can recommend which apples, oranges or tomatoes are particularly tasty. They can also suggest ways to cook or prepare some of the less familiar veg.

What do supermarkets do that you can’t understand??

Giving advice – how hard can it be?

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Well, the answer is – very hard indeed! And the other question is – how good are we all at taking advice?

I heard on the radio this week criticism of guidance given on the amount of exercise we should be taking on the basis that it would be unrealistic for many people to achieve that level, and so they would be de-motivated to try to exercise more. I only fleetingly heard this, so I can’t give details, but I believe the advice was that we should be taking 2.5 hours of moderate exercise every week.

Similar problems arise with recommendations about the amount of  fruit and vegetables we shoudl be eating every day. Most, if not all, nations are pointing out to their citizens that the more fruit and veg they eat, the healthier they will be, but the quantities recommended vary greatly. In the UK it’s now 7 a day, I believe, up from the 5 a day we have become used to. But in Japan they recommend 17 different fruit and veg every day. The difference is largely down to the fact that most people in the UK struggle to get to anything like 7 portions a day. However, I have heard some commentators say that it is discouraging to mention 7 so we shoud recommend fewer portions.

The problem is that if we are simply advised to “eat more fruit and veg” or “exercise more”, many people wll have no idea of what they should be moving towards, or how close they are already to the ideal. Someone who only ever eats meat and potoatoes may think they are doing marvellously by having an apple every week or so, or some fruit juice with breakfast. Someone who always drives may think they are exercising well if they walk to post a letter. How will they know otherwise unless someone tells them?

I know that when I was teaching, I had a series of conversations with a parent whose child was doing very badly at school, and had little or no ability to take part in their lessons. Eventually I asked the right question (“Is it just that he’s tired?”) It turned out that he was watching videos every night until his parents turned off the television at midnight. No one had ever told them how much sleep a child needs.

Part of me is continually surprised that we need this kind of advice. But another part of me realises that many intelligent and well meaning people just don’t have the informaton they need to make good choices.

So maybe we all need to toughen up a bit, and learn to take advice the right way. We might not be able to exercise for 2.5 hours a week, but we should know that if we are doing less, we would be wise to make an effort to do more. We shouldn’t give up just because it is hard and we have a long way to go, but use the guidance as a measure of how well we are progessing.

(In case you are wondering why I chose the photograph above, it’s about perspective and point of view.)

From Clevedon to Cheddar (and beyond) by bike

As a Clevedon resident and fan of green transport, keeping fit and healthy and of Somerset as a whole, I was excited and sorry in equal measure by a short piece in the North Somerset Times this week on problems facing the Strawberry Line Association in their efforts to extend the cycle way so that we could get on to it in Clevedon.

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Excited, because I hadn’t heard that there were serious plans to extend the path, and this would be a marvellous facility for those living in and between Clevedon and Yatton. Sorry, because apparently they can’t confirm funding without plannig permission, and they can’t get planning permission without confirmed funding. Not a unique story!

The Strawberry Line already runs along a disused railway line from Yatton to Cheddar, across countryside visible in my photo above, taken from the top of the Mendips. This provides a safe and pleasant cycle path, keeping cyclists ut of danger from traffic, and preventing drivers being frustrated by needing to share roads with cyclists. Individuals and familes can get out into the fresh air, enjoying the environment, getting fitter and not spending too much money in the process.

There is potential to extend the network so that more able cyclists can travel widely across North Somerset, from Wells to the coast. What a boon to local tourism that would be! Loads more people visiting pubs, cafes, shops and bed and breakfasts across the region, taking advantage of the beautiful scenery and enjoying local produce.

I would want to see the path stretch to Clevedon even if I wasn’t an Airbnb host. Honestly, is there one disadvantage to the scheme? If there isn’t, I can’t see it. So I sincerely hope that the authorities help to smotth out the problems that seem to be slowing the scheme down. Hopefully I’l be on my bike very soon!

And incidentally – how have I only just heard of this? Note to self – check local news and events much more regularly!

Putting your best foot forward. How are your New Near Resolutions going?

Do you manage to stick to your resolutions? It seems that most people just can’t do it. They know what they should do, right enough (lose weight, get fitter, spend less, be tidier etc) but it’s just too difficult to see it through.

Well, there’s a simple trick to achieving what you want to achieve, and that is to find the fun in it. Let me explain.

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Let’s take getting fitter as an exampler. It’s mid-January, so the annual peak in gym membership applications is here. There will be lots of new faces signing up for classes or inductions to the gym to start the process of losing weight and toning up. How many of these people will still be regularly training in February? Not so many, I’d be prepared to bet. The problem is that unless you are fairly fit to start with going to the gym, or an energetic Zumba or dance class, it’s going to be too hard to be fun. And if things aren’t fun, it’s very hard to stick to them. At the slightest excuse (it’s pouring with rain: my kit’s in the wash…) it’s too easy to give up. But if things are fun, you do them whatever the inconvenience. Shopping? Going to the pub? Many people don’t have to be asked twice!

I’ve written a short Kindle book to explain my thinking about getting fit through walking, and I’m sure that this is a really good way for most people to get started.

You see, establishing the habit of walking doesn’t need too much time or special equipment. Most people can easily fit some walking into their normal day, either walking to work, or walking the children to school, or walking the dog or going to the library. If you choose your walks carefully and have the right mental approach you can easily find that walking is fun. The more pleasure you find in walking, the more you want to do it, and the fitter you become. The key is enjoying the place you are walking; taking notice or and an interest in what is around you. If you can manage a fast walk for 30 minutes or more, preferably including some hill work, then you are probably fit enough to enjoy going to the gym or starting an energetic class. Read more in my book. A beginner’s guide to walking for pleasure   ASIN B00L3D7ENY.

The same principles apply to other areas of life. To take one more example, it’s easier to eat better and spend less on food if you learn to enjoy cooking. It is fun to cook if you approach it with the right positive attitude; starting with something quite easy and building up new techniques as you gain confidence. I’ve enjoyed cooking for years, but am still working through some techniques that are new to me – making my own pasta for example, and getting good at making bread by hand. (My rye and wheat loaf with caraway seeds and ale was a masterpiece!) Again, it’s about enjoying learning new skills and the results of your work.

So, don’t set yourself up to fail by setting too big a challenge for yourself. Start small-ish, but keep challenging yourself. Above all, find a way to make what you want a pleasure, by focusing on the positives, and you’ll find it much easier to get where you want to be.

Safe cycling, safe walking, safe motoring. What’s the answer?

Shared use of roads by cyclists and motorists and of paths by pedestrians, cyclists and (sometimes) motorists is an issue that won’t go away in the UK these days.

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I’ve just read an online news snippet about BBC presenter Jeremy Vine being stopped by the police for cycling at 16mph on a path. His quote is “If cyclists are forced to travel at walking pace, they will return to the roads and mix it with trucks.” Local papers here in North Somerset have had a series of quite emotional letters from outraged pedestrians, who feel they are being pushed off the paths by cyclists; outraged cyclists, who feel that their lives are at risk if they are forced to cycle on roads and would like to be able to cycle on paths without being criticised; and outraged motorists, who cannot bear the fact that they sometimes have to slow down when there is a cyclist on the road.

The problem is that roads in the UK are often quite ancient, having developed from lanes where occasional horsedrawn vehicles made their slow and steady way between farms and settlements. Other than in new town developments where there is space to provide separate lanes for motor vehicles and for cycles, our roads are often narrow to begin with and then further narrowed by being lined with parked cars. All forms of transport are pushed into close and dangerous proximity.

We are all at risk. Far too many cyclists are killed on the roads – even one death is too many – but there are risks for pedestrians when people cycle on the path, much as cyclists would like to believe it is a risk-free activity. I know this to be true because as a small child I stepped out of my garden gate while waiting for my parents to go shopping and was knocked flat by a cyclist who was moving fast and couldn’t stop in time. I ended up in hospital having a head injury stitched, and the cyclist ended up in shock/trauma/guilt.

The best solution is sadly unachieveable in the short term: to have dedicated cycle tracks everywhere there are cyclists.  Much credit needs to go to the many organisations working to get safe cycle routes established, but there are planning issues in establishing route and usually funding issues too,  so they cannot be quickly built. In any case, they usually run between towns, so they rarely address the problem of how we can all safely share roads and paths in our towns.

I believe the short term solution arises from increased awareness, consideration for others and training.

Cyclists need to develop and use the same observation and anticipation skills as advanced mtorists – look to see what is happening around you and what think about what might reasonably be expected to happen next. If you are cycling down a residential path, anyone could step through a gate at any moment. If there are tall fences and hedges either side of a gate, you may not see someone until it is too late. If there is an adult with a pushchair ahead of you, they might have a toddler you haven’t seen, who might run in front of you. A person walking in the same direction as you may have sight or hearing problems, and may not be aware of you, even if you ring a bell at them.  If the route runs beside a beauty spot, people might stop suddenly or step to the side to look at the view, or to take a photograph. If you are approaching a corner, anything could be out of sight on the other side. Pedestrians are unpredictable – they veer across paths to head for a shop, pub, toilet, a chat with an old friend or to take a seat, so when pedstrians are about, you have have to expect the unexpected.

If it is dangerous for a cyclist to use the road and they switch to a path, they need to be aware of all the potential risks. While they are unlikely to kill someone if they hit them at 16 mph (unless the person has a weak heart and dies of the shock, or has brittle bones so sustains life threatening injuries in the fall, or falls badly and suffers a fatal head injury) the pedestrian can suffer nasty injuries. They can also get a fright from having a cyclist whizz past them at speed, and for the elderly or infirm this can make getting out for a walk a trial when it should be a pleasure and a health-giving activity.

To return to Jeremy Vine’s point ( “If cyclists are forced to travel at walking pace, they will return to the roads and mix it with trucks.”) I think that most reasonable people, including most police officers, wouldn’t expect to enforce a 5 mph limit if the cyclist is on an empty path with excellent all-round visiblity and there are plainly no pedestrians anywhere near. However if there are, or might be, pedestrians around they must be given priority on the path, and cyclists must make sure they can move out of the way or stop quickly if needed. Logically, that means going slowly, and a 5 mph speed limit sounds about right.

Road Safety training is generally available. If you aren’t confident about cycling safely, or feel that as a driver you need more training on how to safely  interact with cyclists on the road, make enquiries locally to see what is available for you. You can also get plenty of hints and tips from revisiting the Highway Code.

I walk everyday, drive occasionally and would love to cycle more. I really hope we can all work together to make sure we can use our roads and paths safely and enjoy getting out and about.

 

Too tasty to photograph! Sorry!!

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As soon as I started eating this, I realised that it was something worth mentioning in a blog, but it was far too tasty to leave. So the empty plate is all I can offer in evidence.

What it was was just about the simplest and quickest lunch you could imagine: mushrooms and bacon in a creamy sauce on a fresh, crispy bread roll.

We’d been out shopping earlier, without a real idea of what to do for lunch, and I spotted some of those big open mushrooms, which looked great. I knew I had some bacon in the fridge that needed using up, so I just added some crispy rolls to my basket and that was that.

At home I softened up a small finely chopped onion in some light olive oil with some ground black pepper, added the chopped up bacon to get a bit crispy, dropped in the mushrooms which I had just wiped over, trimmed the stalks and quartered, and cooked everything through for a couple of minutes. The sauce was just made by adding a spoonful of flour and cooking it in, and I added a spoonful of mustard and a pinch of rosemary and oregano too. Then, as we also had some cream in the fridge I used that up, with a little extra milk to get the sauce not too thick. Heated until it was bubbluing and thick, and stirred in a little grated cheese. Tasted and added a tiny bit of salt. I cut the rolls in half and put them cut side down into a heated, dry frying pan, just to crisp them up and add a little colour. Put them on the plate and covered them with the mushroom/bacon/sauce mixture and voila! Lunch for two for not very much money, on the table in less than 10 minutes.

This is the sort of food I wish you could get in more pubs, rather than huge portions of rather sub-average fish and chips, or burgers straight from the freezer. Or massive ploughman’s lunches that are made affordable by using cheap cheese. As long as the taste is there, in a pub lunch I think less is usually more. And of course if people do serve up smaller portions, and the food is delicious, there is just the chance that you’ll go back in for a pudding.

It’s also a reminder that you don’t need to buy expensive jars of ready made sauces. If you have some very standard things in your store cupboard and fridge, then you can whip up a fresh sauce in about the same time that it takes to heat through something ready made. So nice to use up good food ( in this case the bacon and cream) rather than chucking it away!

If you don’t already cook like this yourself, get creative. Think about what you already have at home, and how you can quickly and easily use it up. It’s fun, as well as a way to save money and avoid waste, and you get to eat some amazing things!

 

 

 

Taking the pressure out of everyday meals

I love food and relaxing over a good meal but I do worry about food related things too: how much cooking fuel costs, how sustainable the food I eat is, how I can eat well on a budget.

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If that makes me sound neurotic, I’d rather say that I prefer to think about the best way to do things, rather than putting my head in the sand and carrying on in the way I always have. And the messages about thinking about what and how we eat are really stacking up.

  • Obesity in the west is still a growing problem, while people are starving all over the world. I read that in the UK weight and diet related illnesses such as diabetes are the biggest drain on the health service. 
  • In the UK we throw away around 30% of all food produced – I haven’t seen the current figures, but I am pretty sure we haven’t turned things around significantly in the last couple of years. And this is at a time when most people are finding the cost of living is rising, and income is at best static.
  • Fuel prices are gong up year on year, and likely to continue to do so.
  • The amount of meat eaten in the west per person is unsustainable – as summarised on the BBC Horizon programme last week. Plus eating more than a very small amount of (red) meat each day leads to health issues too – fat around your internal organs for one. Part one of Horizon focused on the amounts of meat we can healthily eat.

So in our house we’re reviewing our food and cooking choices to see if we can manage our budget better, eat more sustainably and generally feel we have less to worry about. This is what we’ve done so far:

  • We’re reducing the size of the meals we eat – and this is easier if you eat food like stir fries and shepherd’s pie. You just have a modest portion to begin with, eat slowly and enjoy, and then think carefully about whether you really need a second helping. This ties in well with our efforts to manage our weight through exercise.
  • We make truly delicious vegetable soups from the rather scrawny looking items left in the vegetable rack and fridge on a Saturday, sometimes supplemented by anything seasonal and good value from a shop. You can easily make six servings for just a couple of pounds, and we freeze what we don’t eat to have for lunches later. 
  • We’re trying out meat free days, rediscovering things like jacket potatoes and salads. We’re finding that if they are well done they are delicious. Vegetarian recipes from around the world are well worth checking out.
  • We’re eating more dishes that combine small amounts of meat with terrific vegetables to make food that doesn’t feel meat free – stir fries with a sprinkling of pork, or chicken, or prawns, for example. Shepherd’s/cottage pies with lots of veg in the mix to make the meat go further. We’re slowly learning how to use lentils and pulses well – so they add to the meal rather than dominating it.
  • We’re careful about when we buy meat – we cook a roast on the days when we have company, or know we will use it all through the following days, or have the time to cook something from the leftovers and put a dish in the freezer. Never throw away meat, and only throw away vegetables if you really have to.
  • We check through the freezer regularly to make sure we eat the things we have put in there, rather than having a yearly (or less frequent) sort out, when spoiled food ends up in the bin.

We’ve also bought a pressure cooker, and think this will work well for us.

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It’s a bit of an investment – the one we bought cost close to £100, but it reduces the cooking time by up to 60%. This means it also reduces the amount we spend on fuel by 60%, and this should come into its own when we get to the colder weather and stews becoming appealing again. I wonder how long it will be before we have saved £100 in gas bills? Stews are easy to cook in the pressure cooker, and they are another great way to use cheaper cuts of meat, and to increase the veg: meat ratio without anyone noticing. We’ve also invested in a couple of recipe books focusing on stews from around the world, so the choice is much more exciting than the word sounds. The plan is to cook up a good quantity and freeze enough for a couple of meals. Then we’ll only need to reheat to enjoy – saving time and minimising energy costs.

Stew really is a word that needs reinventing. Suggestions anyone?

I remember pressure cookers from the old days – terrifying things hissing away threateningly on the cooker. I always felt that the cook was taking their lives in their hands every time they turned the thing on. Not so with the modern incarnations, which are quiet and feel much safer – although you do of course have to read and follow the manufacturer’s instructions carefully, and there is a little trial and error initially in getting the timings right, as you get to know the equipment. 

We had considered getting a slow cooker for many of the same reasons, but decided this wouldn’t work for us. We are not quite organised enough to get everything we need ready for a meal long enough in advance of wanting to eat. The pressure cooker means we can be spontaneous and cook something pretty quickly when we are ready to eat. 

I haven’t unpicked the costs involved in all these decisions, as I haven’t been using the pressure cooker for very long. My feeling is that we are managing to reduce our basic food bills, so it is less of a burden to afford celebration meals for a treat. We shall see how all this works out, but it’s definitely food for thought!

 

 

A Cornish interlude (complete with mermaids)

It amazes me how the origins of stories and legends – such as the existence of mermaids or lands that can only be seen and reached at certain times of the day or year – can become crystal clear through a personal experience.

I wrote in a previous blog about the mysterious way that Wales, when viewed across the Bristol Channel, can either appear close enough to step across to, or can vanish completely. As another example, on our recent visit to Cornwall, I snapped this group of mermaids swimming past th harbour at St Michael’s Mount.

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It really did look like long red hair, streaming through the water, and so a legend is born … the mermaids of St Michael’s Mount!

Here’s a more prosaic picture, looking back across from the harbour to Marazion.

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We’ve been down to Cornwall several times visiting our good friends, who now offer holiday lets in The Cabin at Trenow and we are never anything other than entranced. There is always something breath-taking to see, including gorgeous cottages, fabulous land and seascapes and rare wildlife. Food and drink is in no short supply either, with pubs, cafes and super restaurants like Ben’s Cornish Kitchen (which you can almost see in the photograph) all delivering on quality and character. We ate at Ben’s one evening and had a delicious meal from a tempting menu. Each dish can be accompanied by a glass of a recommended wine, and the matching worked perfectly for me. My main course was a fairly straight forward dover sole, but the starter and dessert were both things I have never tried before: a light and airy gorgonzola mousse to start and a cold curry to finish (cardamom flvoured rice pudding, mango curd, coconut jelly, a little popadum and several other perfect little surprises. You’ll be wise to book, as the tables are well spaced and they only go for one seating per evening, so once everyone who had booked was in, the closed sign went up and we just ate and chatted in perfect surroundings.

Sorry to go on – I was getting carried away with the memories!

In short, if you don’t know Cornwall well, or haven’t been down towards Land’s End or the Lizard for a while, you really should try and get there. It is a fairly long drive right down the length of Devon and Cornwall, but takes just less than three hours from Clevedon – provided you don’t try and travel at peak holiday times (a Friday or Saturday in August, for example). Why not take a few extra days on the way down and back to break the journey with stops at Clevedon, or other lovely Somerset towns on the way?

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Gorge-ous walks and photo opportunities

Always nice to get out and about and see something new. Although we have lived in North Somerset for two years now, there are many places that many people will know very well that we are just discovering.

This weekend we went with our lovely family visitors up the Mendips, to Burrington Combe, where we enjoyed a short walk beside the gorge. Much less famous than the nearby Cheddar Gorge, there is a pub and a cycling centre at the bottom of the combe, but then just nature and local people living their normal lives. We parked in a small layby with several others cars and then headed off up the hill.

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Before we knew it we were beside the edge of the gorge with the rocky ribs showing through the thin vegetation clinging to the steep sides. We’d seen the small herds of goats from the car, but didn’t manage to spot any here: they are too canny and too agile to be approached too closely.

I photographed a carline thistle, which looked spikilly regal against the turf. Not a plant I have ever really noticed before, but one that I am glad to have seen.

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Fantastic views of further afield from the hill top, too. I can almost claim that I can see my house from here, as the view extends to Wales in the far distance, with the Bristol Channel and Clevedon and then the flat country which spreads out in front of the Mendips.

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We went on the the lakes at Chew Stoke for a completely different sort of walk – water birds, reeds and trees – before heading back to Clevedon.

The evening was so beautiful that we went off for our third walk of the day, round by the marine lakes and then up the hill. Here’s the view of the Mendips from Clevedon …

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and here’s the last shot I took of the setting sun with some fishermen and walkers obligingly silhouetted against the sky. Love the way the sun looks!

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Some of the featured photographs are available to buy at my RedBubble shop – MagsArt. You can buy them as framed or unframed prints, cards, prints to metal, cushion covers, tote bags … the possibilites are endless!

It’s so easy to walk and maintain fitness levels if you are enjoying what you are doing, and although we must have walked well over 6 miles in total, several of which were up and down hills, we hardly noticed the distance. For ideas on how to start walking your way to health, and have fun while you are doing it, see my Kindle book A beginner’s guide to walking for pleasure. It’s ASIN number is B00L3D7ENY, and it’s available to borrow free if you are a member of Amazon Prime.

Places to go, things to see …

Tredegar backdoor

Tredegar House, Newport … I’d never heard of it, or thought of going, I must be honest, but our good friend Claudia is visiting this weekend, and we all have National Trust membership which we don’t use enough. I was checking the nearby properties that we could drop in and see, and  the decision was made.

It’s a fairly easy drive from Clevedon, up the M5 to the M49 and then the M4, over the Severn Bridge and then on to Newport. Like most people, I love going over bridges. It’s partly the architecture/engineering and partly the views, so any trip that involves a bridge or two is off to a good start.

Tredegar House is just off the M4 and has lots of easy parking. It addition to being easy to get to, I must say that it has something for almost everyone, whether you like looking at formal gardens, feeding the ducks on the lake, picnicking in the park or kicking a ball around – or, of course, looking at stately homes. This one has had several incarnations, including a spell as a school, so it’s interesting to see the layers of history and how the different eras merge and, indeed, emerge. The suite of rooms that constitute the kitchen and household management zone are particularly impressive: separate rooms for pastry preparation, meat preparation, a still room as well as a scullery and the main kitchen.

The cream teas are great too! Well worth a visit. 

Much enjoyment to be had earlier in the weekend too, with an enjoyable visit to Clifton, and a look at the camera obscura in the observatory. My companions didn’t fancy the trip down into the Giant’s Cave, so I’ll save that for next time. Great wildlife watching opportunities in the Avon Gorge, with a pair of kestrels almost persuading me they were peregrines … And a drink on the terrace of the White Lion Bar, behind the Avon Gorge Hotel. Fabulous! There was a wedding party having photos near a fabulous old car, and students in gowns – for graduation photos of course. As always, lots to look at. 

Lots to enjoy in Clevedon too, with a stroll along the shops on Hill Road and across the park to the pier, as well as a very nice pizza at Scoozi’s.

The great thing about getting out and about is that you burn off a few calories and get some exercise almost without noticing it – and certainly without minding it. As I say in my book (A beginner’s guide to walking for pleasure, available now on Kindle ASIN  B00L3D7ENY) find something you like doing – such as walking in interesting places – and it is much easier to switch to a healthier life style than it is if you try to make yourself take exercise that you don’t enjoy.