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How to Fall in Love with Your Mountain Bike

She was called The Bobcat and it was 1985. My grandfather hauled her, all shiny and new – silver with neon lime and orange lettering – out of the back of his pickup truck and it was love at first sight. I rode The Bobcat up and down the dirt trails and backroads of Nova Scotia until about 1990 when I got too big for her and my mother gave her away to a neighbourhood kid. She was my first mountain bike.

Since then I’ve been a pretty avid cyclist – always mountain bikes. (I once tried using a street bike when we rented some in Amsterdam on holiday. It was embarrassing, I had no idea how to use a back brake and totally lost my temper.) But all through high school I cycled about 11 miles a day after school and I continued cycling until my mid 30’s when I moved to an area of London where my husband and I had 3 of our mountain bikes stolen in succession. So we gave up on owning bikes for a while and the only times since then I’ve cycled has been on holidays and trips to Canada where I could honestly spend days exploring the trails of Kejimkujik National Park. But now we live in a leafy, green suburb (still in London) and have just our daughter her first bike. So its time to get the family cycling again. Its something we’ve been thinking about since our trip to Kielder Water and Forest Park in Northumberland last year. It was an amazing place to hike, but we’ve been itching to get back there on our bikes.

The key to learning to ride your mountain bike is to ease yourself into it. You can do this and you will love it. I promise. You will get on that bike and you will just want to cycle for miles. And the next day you will ache. Badly. So start slow. Make the process a gentle one. Maybe just ride through the local park or around your neighbourhood (around 1/2 mile) for the first day, then make it a full mile the next day, and slowly ease yourself into longer rides. Make sure you can easily do a 3-5 mile ride before you start taking on any trails and always start with the easy (green) trails. It goes without saying, but make sure you have your phone with you so you can call for help if you do have an accident whilst out on the trail. These are just a few basic starter tips based on my knowledge and experience cycling in Canada, the US, Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and here in the UK. Helpfully, Halfords have published a beginner’s guide to cycling which includes a great list of cycling trails throughout the UK, and rather helpfully they are graded for difficulty.

Getting Started

You honestly don’t need a lot of fancy kit to get started.

Essentially, you need a good quality bike that is well suited to your height and build, some comfortable clothes (nothing too loose in the legs, so it won’t get caught up in the gears) and a safe helmet. I survived with only these items for a long time. When you have the right bike, it makes all the difference in the world, so its worth spending just that little bit more money to get a comfortable one with good quality gears and Shimano brakes. I’m on the shorter side at 5’4″ so I prefer lighter and smaller 27.5″ wheels on my bike, and these are great for winding trail routes, however someone taller might prefer 29″ wheels.

Over the years I have found that there are a few other bits and pieces that can be helpful to have and I’ve listed them below:

Bike & Helmet

Obviously you need the bike, and the helmet is a no-brainer in this day and age.

Cycling Gloves

If you’re a bit of a weenie, like me, you might find cycling gloves will help you avoid getting painful blisters and callous build up on the palms of your hands and on your fingers. If you fall they’ll also help protect your hands from getting grazed.

Mudguards

I’ve never NOT had mudguards on a mountain bike. Why would you not have them unless you like having a vertical line of heavy mud spatter up your back and in your hair.

Lights & Reflectors

If you plan to ride at night or in the evening, you’ll need some lights. I don’t ever ride at night so I don’t have these – just a set of front and back reflectors.

Glare-Free Wraparound Sunglasses

When you’re riding in the daytime you’ll want some glare-free sunglasses. I’ve always worn a pair of Oakley wraparounds that I only wear for climbing and cycling. Sadly they don’t make that model anymore, but there’s plenty of new brightly coloured models to choose from if you don’t mind rocking the Dog The Bounty Hunter look. Actually I’m joking (kind of) as there are loads of tasteful options to choose from and the optical laser quality testing that Oakley performs on their lenses is second to none. Eye health and good vision is incredibly important to me which is why I feel passionate about this topic. I found a YouTube video on it here if you have no idea what I’m talking about. However, if Oakley is out of your budget, there are definitely lots of more budget-friendly wraparound sunglasses on the market.

Visibility Jacket or Vest

In terms of clothing, I have over the years bought cycling shorts, cropped cycling leggings, long cycling leggings and special cycling jerseys. But honestly I don’t think that most of it is all that necessary unless you’re commuting long distances with your bike, on a cycling holiday or taking up cycling at a really serious level. (Technical clothing is helpful for wicking away sweat, and can be comfortable, but for novice riders, a pair of jersey leggings and a t-shirt will do just as well.) I do think, however, that a bright yellow visibility jacket or vest is really good to have because you want to be sure, even during the day, that cars can see you.

Water Bottle or Hydration Pack

I’ve always been a fan of the old fashioned water bottle stuck in a little wire holder which is attached to the frame of the bike, but you can get hydration packs which will hold a lot more water for longer rides. I am intrigued by these systems and may well make the investment at some point. Again, this is only something you need when you’re on a cycling holiday or out for whole day rides. Not necessary for a morning pedal through Wimbledon Common.

Make Some Memories

A GoPro. Because there is nothing your friends and family will love more than watching infinite replays of your 4 hour cycling trail video. Well, maybe not, but you know, I’m a bit of a camera bore myself, and when you’ve done an amazing ride and you come out of the forest to a glorious sunset view of a lake or canyon or a secret waterfall, I can promise you, you will enjoy having a secret replay of it just for yourself, come January when your bike is tucked away in the shed and there’s snow outside on the ground. So meanwhile, start making those memories. (And you don’t need a GoPro to do that!) Get outside, hop on your bike, whether its Kielder, Kejimkujik…or even just Wimbledon Common, and enjoy the summer while it lasts.

This post was sponsored by Halfords, the UK’s leading cycling retailer.

What’s The Best Natural Pillow?

When you think that we spend a third of our life sleeping, furnishing our bed shouldn’t be an afterthought.  It should actually be a place where we invest in quality.  Unfortunately most pillows and mattresses are covered in serious amounts of toxic flame retardant (filled with hormone disruptors) and formaldehyde.  And as if that isn’t bad enough, no matter how much chemical they slather onto our pillows, that doesn’t prevent them from immediately starting to accumulate fungi, dead skin cells, dust mites, their carcasses and their faeces.  In fact, over time (as little as 18 months), up to 1/2 of the weight of your pillow can be attributed to this delightful cocktail.  So yeah…I wash my pillows pretty frequently.

Over the years I’ve slept on pretty much every kind of pillow going and before I go into why I have settled on my pillow of choice, let me run through the pros and cons of the other pillows I have used (and a couple which I haven’t).

Synthetic Pillows

In my first apartment I had the artificial polyester hollow fibre pillows.  They can be inexpensive, but they don’t last particularly well, as they go flat quickly and when you throw them into the washing machine to clean them, they separate and clump up.  Even a trip through the tumble dryer doesn’t quite put them back to rights, and these misshapen, unsupportive pillows can cause neck pain.  They generally have a life span of about 6 months but should never be kept longer than 2 years.  So you can start to see how investing in a good pillow can make a difference.  I’ve also tried memory foam pillows which I personally found to be awful.  They sound fancy, but they’re just made from polyurethane with other added chemicals.  They gave both of us aching necks (when they were supposed to ease them!) and the smell of them gave us headaches.  They also don’t ventilate well and they can make you sweat quite a lot.  They quickly made it on to the guest bed of unwanted pillows.  Not money well spent.

Feather Pillows

I’m not a fan of feather pillows.  Like the synthetic pillows they can go clumpy (even more so) and I find that the sharp bases of the feather soon start to poke through the pillow, making the pillow a bit spiky and cactus-like.  I also have allergies so I find these pillows exacerbate this problem.  And then there is the issue of the ethics of these pillows.  The feathers often come from birds kept in terrible living conditions which are then plucked alive.  I know John Lewis department store has expectations of animal welfare for the birds which are plucked to fill the feather and down bedding they sell.  In other words, these feathers are by-products of the food industry.  Either way, its not pretty.  Personally I have not found an ethically satisfactory source for feather pillows so I would not recommend them from a comfort, care or ethical standpoint.  However, my husband came with a set of these nasty pillows included…so if you are ever staying in our guest room, all I can say is sorry.

Down Pillows

Now while down feather pillows may face the exact same ethical issues as feather pillows do, they are made from the soft, under-feathers of some types of birds – usually ducks and geese – and they are extremely, deliciously comfortable.  They’re also quite expensive, so you’ve got to watch out for companies selling pillows which are a blend of down and feather.  They’re a long lasting pillow and you can wash them in the washing machine, so long as you don’t try to air dry them.  They WILL MILDEW inside the pillow if you try to air dry them, so be sure to tumble dry them until they are beyond bone dry.  They will once again become fluffy and plump after this process.  My husband uses down pillows on his side of the bed, and I find them easy to care for.  I have not found an entirely ethically satisfactory source for down pillows or duvets, so I make sure I look after the ones we already have very well with regular washing, airing and maintenance.  (See Kapok Pillows below for a great vegan-friendly alternative).

Wool Pillows

Okay, I love wool pillows.  Its incredibly easy to source organic wool pillows and duvets which are locally and ethically made here in the UK as well as in Canada and the US, and they are so comfortable and soft.  I know vegans aren’t too happy about wool, but the fact is that modern sheep breeds need to be sheared, so as long as its a nice organic farm where they love their sheep, I’m okay with that.   Wool pillows don’t go clumpy or lumpy and they don’t go flat.  They’re naturally hypoallergenic, they deter dust mites and wool is a very breathable material.  They’re also super easy to throw in the washing machine on a regular basis too.

Buckwheat, Millet & Spelt Pillows

I have to admit I haven’t tried these, but they may be worth investigating if you like a really firm pillow.  I’m assuming that anyone with coeliac disease or a severe gluten intolerance should probably avoid the spelt pillow and opt for the millet or buckwheat instead, as they are gluten-free fillings.  The millet is smaller and more sand-like, whereas the spelt husks are bigger and have a more massage-like effect on the body.  They also have a high silica content and are considered to help prevent muscle aches and pains.  The buckwheat pillows are robust and supportive while still being light and airy.  They are a great option for anyone who tends to sweat up a storm at night, as they allow moisture and heat to evaporate quickly.

Natural Latex Pillows

I have also not tried natural latex  filled pillows, but they offer a firm support and are a bit bouncy.  They’re also good for people who suffer from dust allergies because they cannot support the growth of bacteria, germs and moulds.  They’re not for people with chemical sensitivities though (lots of people have latex allergies), and some people can detect a slight smell of latex the first few times they use the pillows.

Horsehair Pillows

I’m just gonna say it.  I don’t see myself sleeping on a pillow filled with Black Beauty’s tail.  I don’t care how ethical the sourcing is.  But the advantages to a horsehair pillow are that they provide a medium firm support and are another great one for anyone who gets the night sweats, as they regulate moisture well.  They are warm and dry and the horsehair is said to have anti-rheumatic qualities.

Kapok Pillows

So I’ve saved my absolute favourite for last.  These pillows are incredibly luxurious. If you didn’t know you were sleeping on Kapok you’d swear you were sleeping on the softest down pillow ever.  And its vegan friendly, so if you don’t use animal based fibres in your home, then kapok means that you don’t need to resort to using synthetic fibres. So what the heck is kapok?  Well its a sort of silky fluff which comes from a tree which grows wild in tropical forests.  So while they’re not ‘grown organically’ there’s never any pesticides on them.  These trees are an important part of local economies and therefore are always very well looked after.  The kapok fibre itself contains naturally bitter compounds and that makes it really unattractive to dust mites and other creepy crawlies in general (that was a win for me!) and the fibres are also covered in a sort of wax which cannot absorb or retain moisture, so your  kapok pillow or duvet will always be dry, no matter how damp the weather outside.  Kapok pillows can be washed and tumble dried, but what I love about the one I have is that the organic cotton quilted cover and inner cover can be unzipped, and the soft, downy kapok filling removed while the fabric is being washed.  So if you only want to fluff and ‘air out’ your kapok filling from time to time, its much easier to do so.

OLOL Kapok Pillow

Conclusion

So whatever pillow you opt for, try to find one which provides the right level of support for you, one that is easy to clean on a regular basis (remember the mite faeces & carcasses I mentioned earlier?) and which comes from ethical and environmentally sustainable materials.  Remember that you and your partner don’t necessary need to have the same pillow – one of you might benefit from a firm buckwheat pillow, while the other luxuriates on the softness of kapok.  Personally I love supporting small, local producers and manufacturers.  My organic wool and kapok pillows are simply the best pillows I have ever had.  I can’t remember where my wool pillows from Canada were bought now (somewhere in Canada, obviously!), but the kapok pillows came from Greenfibres, a shop based down in Devon which also produces organic wool, buckwheat, spelt, natural latex and horsehair pillows in the same nifty design where you can remove the filling for airing, cleaning and to adjust the height and density of the pillow.  I’m just going to big up this shop a bit because they were incredibly helpful in talking me through the process of finding a new pillow – in fact I’d have never known about kapok pillows if it weren’t for them – and they’re on Etsy as well, so if you can’t find a local supplier in your own country, you can order them internationally as well.

And because I care about you guys and I really  hate the thought of you sleeping on dust mite poop, I’d also like to share with you this great, short video from Clean My Space which I discovered during the ‘nesting phase’ of my pregnancy and its where I learned how to clean and maintain my pillows and duvets:

Real Food Organic Groceries on a Budget

We’re a family of 3 living on a single income and that’s not always easy when you don’t eat processed or GMO foods and try to buy mostly organic.  But, you know, it can be done.

I do a video each month on my YouTube channel showing what I’ve received in my real food organic grocery order (and yes…the odd pizza might sneak its way in there!).  My grocery order has to accommodate myself (pescatarian and mostly gluten-free), my husband (full on meat eater) and our baby (can’t decide what she likes/doesn’t like from one week to the next!) as well as our dog.

We budget around £45-£75 per week (depending on whether its a ‘big shop’ or not) and I’ll let you know how we do it in 3 easy ways.

1. Meal Planning

This is the most important thing I do to save money and still buy the food I want to buy for my family.  There are many ways to meal plan.  There are meal planning services you can use for only a few dollars/pounds a month and this is great when you’re short on time.  If you can find 15 spare minutes per week though, you don’t need to use a service.  I’ll tell you how I do it.  I have a Pinterest account and keep a folder of favourite family meals that are tried and true.  If I’m short on time, I’ll choose 5 or 6 at random, check the ingredients list and add the required items to my grocery list.

2. Online Shopping

This isn’t an option for everyone, as not all areas offer online shopping, but if you are able to do this, I highly recommend it as it helps in avoiding making any ‘impulse buys’.  I just go online, stick to my list and check out.  A lot of grocery stores have delivery plans which are just a few £££’s a month you can do unlimited grocery orders without additional delivery charges.  I find I’m able to get the best variety of real food products and organic groceries at Ocado and if you’re a new customer, they’ll offer you £20 off your first online grocery shop (if you click here).

3. CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) Box or Organic Delivery Box

Many rural areas run CSA schemes which support local farmers and are great value.  You will have to meal plan according to what’s in your box – so sort of reverse meal planning.  There are also non CSA style organic delivery boxes here in the UK such as Abel & Cole and Riverford Organics.  I get my organic fruit, veg & salad box with my Ocado order from a company called Wholegood.  Their fruit and veg are really good quality and they’re very generous with the volume of produce in their boxes.  They also let you know what you’ll be receiving in your box a couple of weeks in advance, which is helpful for meal planning.

Pescatarian Paleo

Okay, like soooooo many others, I’ve jumped on the Paleo bandwagon this January.

But here in the UK the Paleo diet is not quite so much a ‘thing’ yet. In fact, if I had a nickel for every blank look I’ve received when I’ve said I’m doing Paleo, well, I’d have a few nickels at least. (But hey, I live in the UK, so what good are nickels to me?)

So, what IS the Paleo diet? Well, its based on the premise that our guts haven’t really evolved much in the last 15,000 years so we’re really better off eating what our Paleolithic ancestors ate, including fish, grass-fed pasture-raised meats, eggs, vegetables & fruit, fungi, roots and nuts. Things you can’t eat are grains, legumes, dairy, (white) potatoes, refined salts and sugars and processed oils. (Processed oils? Yeah, I know, all oils are processed. I use common sense here: pasture-fed butter, organic raw coconut oil and olive oil are the only cooking fats I keep in the house. If I ate red meat, lard would be on that list as well.) This way of eating isn’t just about weight loss. Done properly, its helped a lot of people with autoimmune issues (Crohn’s, Coeliac, etc) and leaky gut, as well as people with inflammation issues caused by food intolerances they may not even have been aware of before.

The thing is, I’m pescatarian. I don’t eat red meat or poultry, but I do eat fish, so I can’t strictly be called a vegetarian or an omnivore. So I contacted Dr Loren Cordain, an expert on the Paleo diet about whether I could adapt this diet as a pescatarian. I received a fairly prompt, blunt and unhelpful response setting out that in no uncertain terms would they advocate not eating meat. It threw me a little bit, but only for about 2 minutes until I thought about it logically. Whats not to love about this way of eating and why did I need commercial validation to do it anyway? My diet is now filled with brightly coloured vegetables and greenery, fresh organic fish, organic free-range eggs and healthy fats & nuts – lots of unprocessed foods. All I have eliminated from my diet is a vast amount of sugar – by this I mean sugar in the form of bread, pasta and grains, not just refined sugar. So, I say boooo to Dr Cordain and I’m just enjoying doing Paleo the way that works for me.

So, have I lost any weight with the diet? Well, its only been 3 weeks and as I don’t have a functional set of scales, I honestly couldn’t tell you. What I can say is that my stomach is much flatter, I feel overall much more toned and my energy levels are much higher than they were.

Have I cheated? Well, yes. I have. Several times. And I’m okay with that. There have been a couple of mornings when I have really missed my oatmeal, cooked with coconut cream and sweetened with apple and raisins – so I made it. I didn’t feel the worse for having it. I’ve also continued to have a bit of organic milk in my tea and the odd bit of sheep or goat milk cheese. For me its not a competition about being ‘right’ – its a process of finding out what works best for my lifestyle and what makes me feel the healthiest. I lived a low-fat lifestyle for years, but now my diet is full of plenty of healthy fats – yes, including some saturated fats – and as a result, I’m staying full throughout the day and my usual mid-afternoon hypoglycaemic episodes appear to have disappeared.

What do I eat? You know, its much MUCH easier than I thought it would be. For lunch I might pack a tupperware box filled with organic baby spinach, a small baked sweet potato with a tad of feta crumbled on top, a grated carrot salad with raisins, a small bag of nuts as a snack and a couple of pieces of fruit. Or a half an avocado on a bed of quinoa with some greens on the side or cooked kale with a lemon wedge to squeeze over it all. Because I work in an office, I tend to save eating fishy things for dinner at home or restaurants – at the moment I’m really into Alaskan wild salmon, though also am trying to eat more local sustainable fish and also sardines. I’ve also found a fantastic recipe for cauliflower pizza that I have adapted by putting sheep feta in the crust and grating some St Helen’s hard goat cheese (a version of cheddar) on top.

Because I have a sweet tooth, I also sometimes make an um…healthy(ish) sundae for dessert. To do this, I whiz up 1.5 frozen bananas in the food processor with a tablespoon of maple syrup. If it needs more liquid to get creamy, add a tablespoon of coconut water or coconut milk. That makes the ice ‘cream’, which is like the texture of soft serve. To make the chocolate sauce, you’ll need to open a can of full fat coconut milk which has been in the fridge for at least 24 hours (I always keep a few in the fridge now – the coconut cream rises to the top of the can and hardens and delicious coconut water remains at the bottom of the can, so you can use both) and scoop a heaped tablespoon of the coconut cream into a small saucepan. On a low-med heat, melt the coconut cream and whisk in a couple of teaspoons of a dark cacao powder along with enough maple syrup or coconut sugar to sweeten. It will make a thick, fudgey hot chocolate sauce to pour over your ice ‘cream’. Delicious!

There are some wonderful bloggers out there who inspire me with a regular dose of Paleo friendly recipes for meals, packed lunches, cakes, cookies & muffins. Here are my favourites! (And please don’t knock the Mommy Bloggers – these women channel their energies into creating delicious food for their amazing websites and have a better grasp on social media than most FTSE500 companies!)

Against All Grain

Primal Palate

Coconut Mama

Elana’s Pantry

Nom Nom Paleo

The Paleo Mama

The Paleo Mom

Paleo Newbie

In general, I guess while there is a lot I’m enjoying about this way of eating, I’m a little cautious about cutting significant food groups from the diet and probably lean a bit more toward the Weston A Price dietary guidelines than strict Paleo, but we’ll see how it goes. By my next post I may have eased off the Paleo thing a bit. Its not everyone’s cup of tea, and I’m not convinced that its necessary to eliminate properly prepared grains from the diet but rest assured there are some tasty recipes in the wings and more adventures of dining in London to come.

Keeping It Real…in London

This is the desk of a Londoner at 7.45am.

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This could be the desk of any Londoner at this time of the morning. Inside the bag could be a bacon roll, possibly porridge or ham & emmental croissant. Most likely a bacon roll. Londoners LOVE bacon rolls, especially oozing with brown sauce. Personally I don’t eat bacon or rolls, so this particular bag contains a pot of porridge with slices of banana and maple syrup.

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So you may hear me wittering away from time to time about blissful mornings at Borough Market, perusing tables of fresh baked goods & organic cheeses or I may even claim to the odd morning of waking up with the birds to whip up some fresh muffins.  But during the week – this is how I eat.  This blog is called Eating London and believe me, this is how London eats.