Laaaan-dun

The City of London

Next week, Christine, our baby and I are off to London for a few days. It’ll be our first trip as a family of three there; I last went in January on my own when our baby was only a few weeks’ old. It’ll also be the first time I’ve ever driven to London, as we’ve always taken the train or coach in the past.

I’m driving because we’re also visiting family on the way, but also because of the amount of luggage we’ll need. Babies may be small, but they also need several days worth of food and nappies, a pram, travel cot, high chair and other things. So whilst Christine and I could do several days in London with a rucksack each, with a baby, we’ll need the car.

We’re staying in a hotel in north London that’s easily reached by car and has parking, but is also close to a tube station. Once we’re there, I have no intention of driving in central London – congestion charge aside, I’m not keen on driving in city centres. And whilst London Underground is not great for prams or wheelchairs, our baby thankfully tolerates being carried in a sling.

Part of the reason for our visit is so that I can go to the HE Show at Olympia – if you’re going as well, drop me a line. We’re also planning to go to the Tower of London, as it’s been many years since I visited, and Christine has never been. It’s expensive, unless you have lots of spare Tesco Clubcard tokens like we do.

I always look forward to trips to London, partly because we always make a point of seeing friends who live there when we go, but also because there is so much to do. It makes a change from a few years ago when I developed a general dislike of the place. Back then, I also had access to free train travel and so could visit London (or, indeed any British city) whenever I wanted to. Perhaps I like London more nowadays because I only get to go there once or twice each year, and it usually requires weeks of forward planning – I can’t just decide to go there on a whim like I used to.

29th February

2016 is a leap year, and it’s the last day in February, so today is the rare occasion where you can enter the date as the 29th February into a computer and it won’t reject it. We don’t have anything much planned specially – I’m having an eye test for the first time in… um… longer than I care to admit, and Christine will be at home looking after our baby.

The last time it was the 29th February, back in 2012, it was me that was at home all day. That’s because I was ill with a stomach bug. It was enough to keep me off work for a couple of days, which is impressive as I very rarely have to take sick leave from work.

Going further back to 2008, I went on a walking weekend on the east coast. We stayed at a youth hostel north of Scarborough, and walked along the coastal path towards Robin Hood’s Bay.

And in 2004, I didn’t really write anything interesting, but that’s because we didn’t have Twitter or Facebook in those days and so my blog was home to more inane ramblings.

As I ‘only’ started blogging in 2002, I can’t quite remember what I would have done on February 29th 2000, but it was a Tuesday. So I was probably at school, preparing to take my GCSEs. Scarily, 2000 was half a lifetime ago for me.

Do you get the impression that I always aim to write something on the 29th February, no matter how pointless it is? It’s an opportunity that only comes around every four years I suppose. Maybe something interesting will happen on this day in 2020, but you’ll have to wait another four years to find out, I’m afraid.

Baby update

It’s been a few weeks since I wrote about Christine’s pregnancy. We’re now into week 33 of (up to) 40, so the baby is due to arrive in less than two months time.

Christine has had quite a lot of scans and tests, due to her being deemed ‘high risk’, but so far there have been no major issues. Her latest scan was yesterday and thankfully there was very little to report. Her hospital bag is packed and ready, just in case our little bundle of joy decides to make an early entrance into the world.

We’ve also got most of the things we need at home. We picked up the car seat last weekend – quite important as hospitals won’t let you drive the baby home without one. We also have a pram, a moses basket, changing mat and some clothes. In other words, we should have most of what we need, at least for the first few days. Hopefully.

Professor Elemental

Professor Elemental

Sunday’s visit to Thought Bubble wasn’t our only Steampunk-related outing last week. On Thursday, we went to see Professor Elemental, again in Leeds at The New Roscoe.

Christine and I have been fans for a while, but this was our first opportunity to see him perform live. His music is in a rather niche sub-genre called ‘chap hop‘ – imagine hip-hop, but with moustachioed English gentlemen rapping about tea and splendid trips to the seaside. Consequently, Professor Elemental has a major following in the steampunk community.

Biscuithead and the Biscuit Badgers

Local band Biscuithead and the Biscuit Badgers were the support act, in somewhat reduced circumstances as their drummer had a family medical emergency. Their music is wonderfully whimsical, with songs about David Attenborough, model railways, tweed jackets, and the folk who live on their local street. Whilst a rather different style of music to the main act, it fitted the offbeat nature of the gig.

Professor Elemental came on later, having sat in the audience for the support act; this was a small venue and there were only around 50-60 attendees. After powering through a medley of songs, he improvised a rap based on word suggestions from the audience, which included ‘antiquity’, ‘flange’, ‘antidisestablishmentarianism‘ and ‘nipple’. It was an impressive feat. Audience participation was also requested for his newer song Don’t Feed The Trolls.

Christine and I had come straight from work, and the weather was inclement to say the least, so we had left our steampunk outfits at home to save them for Thought Bubble, but many others were dressed up in appropriate attire. At one point, someone dressed as a giraffe crawled across the stage, and that probably wasn’t the strangest thing that happened.

Whilst it helped that many of the audience were genuine fans, it was a great, intimate gig – equal parts enjoyable and amusing. Professor Elemental isn’t on tour, per se, but he has a few more live gigs coming up around the country in the run up to Christmas – I’d definitely recommend going to see him.

Thought Bubble 2015

Christine and I at this year's Thought Bubble

After enjoying it so much last year, Christine and I made a return trip to the Thought Bubble Comic Con at the Royal Armouries in Leeds yesterday. I wore basically the same steampunk outfit as last time, but Christine had to wear something rather different as she’s now seven months pregnant. Sadly, her octopus headpiece (called Derek) was not playing well with her and so it was left in the car this time.

As with last year, we spent rather a lot of money, although our most expensive purchase was a babygrow from Genki Gear, so technically it wasn’t for us. We also picked up a couple of books, some comics, some decidedly bizarre Christmas cards and a few small pieces of artwork that we’ll frame and put on the (still mostly barren) walls of our new house.

We saw some great costumes – the £4 entry discount for cosplayers once again acting as an incentive to get people to dress up. I saw at least three female Thors, suggesting that Marvel’s decision to pass Mjölnir to Jane Foster has been well-received, several Starlords and a small boy dressed as a TARDIS. There was also a Hogwarts cosplayer with an actual owl, although I understand she was a paid professional. And the owl later did a poo on the floor.

It was great fun, and I’m sure we’ll be back again next year – all three of us.

How to: get cheaper car insurance

Alas, the car I've bought insurance for is not this Rolls Royce

Having bought a car at the weekend, I also needed to arrange car insurance. The law in Britain now requires all cars that are used on public roads to have a valid insurance policy; if you don’t, then you must park the car off-road and submit a SORN. If your car is found on a public road, parked or moving, then you can be fined. So I needed to have a policy in place before I would be able to drive the car away.

Like many things, buying car insurance can be simple and quick, but if you’re prepared to put some effort in, you can bring your premiums down significantly. I can wholeheartedly recommend the advice on MoneySavingExpert.com which gives some tips on how to reduce your premiums by tweaking the information you provide. I would advise you to read the whole article, but here are the things I tried that worked for me.

1. Trying multiple price comparison web sites

It’s hard to avoid the various price comparison web sites that advertise nowadays. Whether it’s the one with the meerkats, talking robots or annoying opera singer, these sites are well-advertised. They work by taking your details, and obtaining quotes from a range of insurers on your behalf, which are then ranked to show you the cheapest. The sites make their money from the referral fees that insurers pay when you take up a policy. Considering how much these sites advertise, they must make a lot of money from these referral fees.

It’s worth trying multiple sites, as different sites work with different insurers. I got different results from each. You can also usually get cashback if you click through to a price comparison web site from a cashback site like Quidco (referral link) or Topcashback (referral link). I got about £2 from them, just for getting a quote.

2. Go direct to insurance companies

Once I’d found the cheapest insurer – and the three comparison sites I tried all gave the same company – I also tried to get a cheaper quote by visiting their site directly. Again, going via a cashback site may net you cashback as well. Remember those referral fees? Cashback sites pay those to you.

It’s also worth checking Aviva and Direct Line, who do not advertise their policies on price comparison web sites. As it happens, both gave me unaffordable quotes that were nearly double the cheapest that I could find, but, worth a try.

3. Tweak your job description

I have a rather unique job title of ‘Student Recruitment and Data Officer’, which isn’t on the selection lists that insurers ask for. Originally I put it through as ‘Recruitment Consultant’ working in state education, but I found changing it to ‘Administrative Officer’ in the university sector lowered my premiums significantly (by about 20% in my case). As long as the title still accurately reflects your job role, you should be fine.

4. Add another driver

As Christine hasn’t passed her test yet, it was going to just be me on the car’s insurance policy. However, we found that adding another family member to the policy, as a secondary driver, reduced my quote by another 10%. To be effective, this must be someone that would realistically be likely to drive the car, and who has a good driving record with no penalty points or recent insurance claims. Adding an irresponsible or inexperienced second driver may increase premiums, but it’s worth trying.

5. Include some business use

If you think adding another driver is a bizarre way to reduce your premiums, here’s one that seemed even weirder. I will need to drive for work from time to time (I reckoned no more than 1000 miles per year) and so I included this in the policy. This means that I won’t need to arrange a hire car, so my employer also saves money too. After getting quotes with this included, I tried taking it out and stating that the car would only be for ‘leisure’ use (no commuting and no work-related activities). That actually pushed the premiums up by about 10%, so I put it back in.

Plus the things that I didn’t try

I didn’t try everything. I could have got an even cheaper policy if I had opted in to a ‘black box’ insurance policy. This involves the fitting of a recording device to your car that monitors your location and how you drive – and if you drive safely, you’ll save money. InsureTheBox is one of the better known firms that offers this (a friend works for them), but it’s available from a variety of insurers.

Sometimes, opting for third-party insurance can be cheaper, but it covers less than fully comprehensive insurance which could leave you out of pocket in the event of an accident. And, again bizarrely, sometimes comprehensive cover is cheaper than third-party because of risk factors.

And if you have another type of policy with an insurance firm (say home or travel insurance), some insurers may give you a discount if you take out more than one policy from the same firm. Our home insurance was arranged via a broker when we got our mortgage so I wasn’t able to approach them for a car insurance quote on this occasion.

In the end

As it happened, the cheapest quote I got was via Confused.com, for Diamond insurance – a company that historically only covered female drivers. Both are owned by Admiral Group, incidentally. Overall, the policy ended up being about £200/year cheaper than when I started, which isn’t bad for a couple of hours spent entering information into various web sites. Insurance for new drivers is always expensive and I’m hoping that, should I continue to drive like Captain Slow, my premiums should come down in future years.

A car. An actual car.

A photo of my Nissan Note

Well, I now own a car. After having passed my driving test last month, and with an imminent house move and a little one on the way, we decided that we really needed to get a car sooner rather than later.

Fortunately my parents kindly gifted us most of the money that we needed, so we were able to buy a decent-sized second hand car. After trawling the listings for local dealerships on Auto Trader, we found a local dealership with a good range of cars within our budget. We then narrowed this down to two cars, at the same price, which we took on test drives.

The first was a Hyundai i30, which was good car, and slightly newer with better equipment, but it didn’t drive so well and didn’t have as much internal space. So, we went for a 2008 Nissan Note.

It’s got a 1.4 litre petrol engine (which is fine for us) and a manual gearbox – I’m indifferent when it comes to manual or automatic but both Christine and I are/were learning in a manual car. The boot is big and there’s also plenty of legroom in the back, plus there are Isofix fixings for a child seat. It’s very much a family car, and whilst it may not be very cool or trendy, it should be very practical for us.

I’ve had a bit of time to drive it but the big test will be in a few weeks when we drive down to Staffordshire for a family wedding. I say ‘we’ – it’ll be me driving there and back as Christine still hasn’t sat her theory test yet, never mind her practical test. I may try to arrange a motorway driving lesson with my instructor before then.

After putting up with not having a car for so many years, it feels very weird to finally own one. We’ve managed to make do with public transport, but I am very much looking forward to not having to pay over the odds for taxi fares, or complicated bus and train journeys that take twice as long as driving would.

Tomorrow, I’ll talk about car insurance.

20 week scan

A 20 week ultrasound image of our baby

Last week, Christine had her 20 week ultrasound scan. Our baby is developing normally, it would seem – everything seems present and correct, and he or she is growing at the correct rate. And the image is much more clear than it was at the first scan at approximately 11 weeks.

We did found out the gender of the baby and have told some people (mainly family), but we’re not making it widely known. This is mainly because the sonographer wasn’t very confident about whether the baby is a boy or a girl, but also because we don’t want to end up with lots of pink or blue clothes in case we have another child later on.

Christine is still due to give birth in early January.

Passed

A photo of part of my driving test report, showing just two minor errors

I passed my driving test today, with just two minor faults (you’re allowed up to 15). As you can probably imagine, I’m delighted, and also very relieved.

Technically this was my third attempt at the test, but it’s been almost 8 years since my last attempt and so I’ve had a fresh set of lessons since. My lessons have been approximately weekly since July last year so it’s taken just over 12 months, although that includes a month-long break in March when I was in the Middle East. I passed my theory test in April.

Now I just need to wait for my full license to arrive, which will take two-to-three weeks, and then I can go and buy a car. Having a car will definitely make things easier, especially with a newborn baby come January.

2015 is certainly turning out to be a big year for me.

A photo of me posing with my Practical Driving Test Pass Certificate

Expecting

An ultrasound scan of our baby, taken at around 11 weeks of gestation

I’m proud to announce that Christine and I are expecting a baby. She’s around 14 weeks pregnant, and it’s due in January. We’re both delighted.