Review: Fitbit Flex activity tracker

The Fitbit Flex appeals to my love of statistics and has managed to get me moving

No one would ever describe me as a sporty person, so my decision to spend my birthday money on what is effectively a pricey pedometer surprised a few people.

But the Fitbit Flex is so much more than just a step counter, and has helped kickstart a more healthy lifestyle which will hopefully see me finally lose that pesky baby weight (can you still call it baby weight when your “baby” is nearly two?).

Worn on the wrist, the Flex tracks your steps, distance, calories burned and even your sleep patterns to give you a rounded picture of your daily activity levels. It displays your progress towards your chosen goal using a series of five small LED lights (20 per cent increments) which appear when you tap it.

Fitbit FlexThe Flex just looks like a plain black band which I wear on my non-dominant hand against my watch. It comes with two sizes of strap and you can buy different colours if you want to make it more of a fashion accessory.

I’ve had mine for a month or so now and the first thing that struck me was just how inactive I am on some days. On my working days I can sometimes sit at my desk for hours with barely a break. I was shocked. Seeing the harsh truth displayed there on the Fitbit iPhone app (it syncs with its app via Bluetooth) made me think twice about how I spend my time.

On the flipside I was excited to see that I walked more than 21 miles during a two-day visit to Oxford. I was so proud of the first day that I took a screen shot of the grand total for posterity.

Fitbit record day

Some days I even find myself walking round the house unnecessarily to get my steps up and feel that joyful little buzz that it gives when I reach my target. It’s definitely a great motivator.

The Flex has a silent alarm function to wake you without disturbing your bed-mate, but I haven’t tried this out as I have a child who already does this.

It is interesting to see how much sleep I actually get (you put it into sleep mode when you turn out your light and wake it in the morning), although I’m not sure what to do with the information that it takes me an average of six minutes to fall asleep. I’m quite happy to have information for information’s sake though and I enjoy taking a look at the charts on the Fitbit website’s dashboard. I wish you could access a bit more of that via the iPhone app.

The battery lasts for almost a week and charges fully via USB while I have long soak in the bath – no step counting required for that activity.

My one bugbear is that I am not sure how accurately it logs all those steps that I take while pushing a pushchair. I’ll be walking into town without the pushchair tomorrow though so I’ll be able to compare it with the results I normally get.

I’m not sure whether it would really meet the needs of a more serious fitness fan, but since spending my £79.99 on the Fitbit Flex I have definitely paid more attention to my activity levels. I’ve even started jogging regularly and am thinking of entering a 5K. And that would have been completely unheard of just a few weeks ago. Thanks, Fitbit.

Why I love the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery (Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent)

My mum took my little boy for his first visit to the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Hanley today. I was so excited to hear about their visit! Apparently his favourite part was the Spitfire gallery – he had to be almost dragged away. We’ll take him again and again over the years, I’m sure. I love it there too.

Their visit made me think of this feature that wrote for the August 2008 edition of Staffordshire County Magazine (no longer published). It was before the discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard, which now forms a key part of the museum’s exhibitions, but I expect most, if not all, of the items I mention are still there five years on. I hope they are.

Hannah Hiles returns to one of her favourite childhood haunts to see whether the magic is still there 20 years on….

The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Hanley can be summed up for me in a few words: rabbit; skeleton; boat; cows; whippet; and plane.

While they may sound like entries from an ABC book, they represent the highlights of the museum as seen through my childhood eyes – and, it turns out, my adult ones too.

My parents and I used to go to the museum every Sunday. I don’t recall this routine ever being boring – I never tired of stroking the stuffed rabbit, or feeling a pleasurable shiver down my spine looking at the skeleton, or marvelling at the Spitfire, for example. But would I still feel the same all these years later?

Having been given some information sheets by the very helpful staff on the reception desk, I headed straight for the natural history gallery on the ground floor.

One thing that struck me straight away is that it seems like today’s children want more than to look at exhibits – they need dressing up boxes, drawing paper, stuffed toys and such like. Maybe we were easier to please 20 years ago.

My late bunny friend was still there, but protected from inquisitive child-hands by a glass case, along with all sorts of other familiar and forgotten wonders. A mummified cat! A six-banded armadillo walking on tiptoes! A tarantula, a badger, boxing hares and a barn owl catching its prey!

While the checked petals of the Fritillary looked as exotic as ever, I was getting so excited about getting to the archaeology section that I had to restrain myself from running straight to the skeleton.

This section describes sites and finds representing 12,000 years of local settlement, and includes treasures such as gold torcs, a cup-and-ring marked stone and what is known as the Staffordshire Moorlands pan – a 2nd century AD Roman artefact currently on loan to other museums, but returning to Hanley in 2010. It is amazing – and eye-opening – to see how many historical objects have been found in Staffordshire.

I was delighted to see that an old favourite, the log boat from Abbey Hulton, was still there, and that the skeleton was still grinning his toothy grin. “I’ve missed you, old chap,” I murmured under my breath.

Moving on into the Community History area, the Arnold Bennett exhibits were enlightening – as well as seeing his bag and slippers, I learned he had been in charge of propaganda in France in World War One – and the Miners’ Strike memorial, carved from Hem Heath coal, was a poignant addition to the gallery.

The two men in the reconstructed pub scene were still playing their interminable game of dominoes while their whippet looked on. According to the board, the dog is called Billie and “he has a special story to tell”. Dog lovers should look for the additional information sheet to find out more about brown-eyed Billie, but should make sure they have a tissue to hand.

After the home scene, chemist shop, fire engine, classroom and fish and chip shop, I came to the room at the museum’s heart – the Spitfire Gallery. The plane last flew in 1952, but still looks every inch the “incredible, immortal combat vehicle”. Reading the tales of bravery of local men on the boards around the room I felt choked up in a way that my childhood self would never have imagined. I couldn’t agree more with the visitor’s comment on the wall: “You are in the presence of greatness”.

Needing a little light relief after the intensity of the Spitfire Gallery, I looked in on You’re History, a gallery featuring trends from the past few decades, and popped downstairs to see the temporary exhibition about the cartoons of Dave Follows, creator of the May Un Mar Lady comic strips.

I must confess that I whizzed quite quickly round the first floor, just as I used to as a child, glancing at the world-class ceramics displays (including Clarice Cliff, Minton and Wedgwood masterpieces), art gallery and Changing Fashions exhibition – but as I did as a child, I paused at the cow creamers and frog mugs, and Ozzy the Owl, a 17th-century slipware owl jug, who was “discovered” on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow in 1990 and subsequently bought by the museum.

It was also interesting to see a more recent addition to the collection, a thought-provoking Grayson Perry piece called “Video Installation” which is actually a ceramic vase, listing 10 sorts of work Perry feels have become clichés in contemporary art.

Having visited the British Museum in London just the previous week, I have to say I enjoyed my trip to the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery even more. While this can be partly put down to nostalgia, I was also surprised to find just how proud it made me to be from Staffordshire, where so many amazing things have been created over many hundreds of years.

As I enjoyed bacon and cheese oatcakes and a pot of tea in the cafe where I used to have a glass of milk and a ring doughnut, I found myself hoping that there are still children visiting the museum every week, laying the foundations for a lifelong interest in the world around them – and that they too will come back in 20 years’ time, and have to hold themselves back from running to see the skeleton…

Review: The Former World by Jessica Grace Coleman

The Former WorldThis review also appears on the Staffordshire Newsletter website, accompanying a profile of Jessica Grace Coleman

Insomnia is never welcome but I had good company on my sleepless nights in the form of Jessica Grace Coleman’s debut novel The Former World.

In fact, the first book in the Little Forest series gripped me so much that it kept me awake and turning the pages, wanting to know what was going to happen to heroine Beth Powers next.

When the book opens, she has just turned 21 and is desperate to leave her small village, where everyone knows everyone else’s business. After a colleague is found dead and her lifelong best friend unexpectedly cuts her off, Beth finds her usually predictable life turned upside down.

As she delves deeper into the village’s sinister secrets alongside loyal ally Will and enigmatic stranger Connor, the plot moves effortlessly between murder-mystery and paranormal suspense without ever missing a step. A creepy scene set in a cinema and its dramatic aftermath are so chilling that I almost get goose pimples just thinking about them.

From the first page the characters are so well-written that you feel you know them. And the dialogue, which is deceptively hard to write and often a clunky let down in early novels, is natural and believable throughout.

For local readers, there is the added intrigue of spotting the Staffordshire connections, as the village of Little Forest is loosely based on Jessica’s upbringing in Little Heywood. Beth’s friend Will Wolseley, for example, owes his name to nearby Wolseley Bridge, and local band Poison Prescription are surely inspired by the notorious Rugeley poisoner Dr William Palmer. Shugborough Hall also makes an appearance in the novel as Chillingsley Hall, scene of a pivotal night in the Little Forest calendar.

While many loose ends are tied up in the novel, there remains plenty to wonder about. Why was Detective Chief Inspector Rick Wood roaming the woods in the early morning? What will Beth learn next about her family? And what other secrets is the village concealing?

I’m just glad that there are two sequels already available – and that Jessica has plans for a total of eight Little Forest books. It’s surely just a matter of time before this self-published series is picked up by a big publisher, so get in there early and spread the word. I for one can’t wait to find out what Beth Powers does next.

* The three Little Forest novels are currently available for just £1 each on Amazon Kindle, and are also availabale in paperback. See the Jessica Grace Coleman author page on Amazon for more information.

Why I love my Mooncup (review)

If you’re reading this, I’m guessing you are curious about alternatives to traditional sanitary protection. If, however, the very thought is making you squirm, this might not be the post for you. Even my husband looked away quickly when he realised what I was writing about. Come back again soon! 🙂

I’m amazed that the Mooncup is such a well-kept secret. It can’t be down to British prudishness as we all seem to cope with the knowledge that other sanitary products exist. Say Bodyform to anyone, for example, and they will no doubt let out the hearty “wooooooooooooooah” from the adverts and see mental images of a rollerskating woman.

But there’s no gutsy wail for the Mooncup, a medical grade silicone cup which catches menstrual blood; no bucking broncos or rollercoasters; no bowls of brightly-wrapped sweeties confusing hapless boyfriends.

No, the might of the advertising industry has not risen up behind the Mooncup. Could it be because there’s not much repeat business? One woman will use over 11,000 disposable sanitary products in a lifetime, but once you have bought a Mooncup (about £20), you can use the same one for years.

Publicity photo from Mooncup website

Publicity photo from Mooncup website

I love my Mooncup now but our relationship did get off to a rocky start. I tried a few years back with the smaller Size B cup, but I never really got the hang of it. It was uncomfortable and leaked, and I couldn’t be bothered to persevere. And so it languished, unused and unloved, in my underwear drawer while I carried on with tampons, panty liners and pads. I felt uncomfortable with the amount of waste this was creating (women use on average 22 tampons or towels each period) and while I switched to washable panty liners and pads for nighttime I didn’t want to investigate the alternatives to tampons.I got quite used to not having periods while pregnant and for several months after my son was born, but once Aunt Flo returned I decided to give the Mooncup another go. I bought a new one – the larger Size A (for women over 30 and those who have given birth) – boiled it in a saucepan to get it ready for use and eagerly awaited the next month’s arrival.

Few women can claim to be happy when that time of the month rolls around, but I was pretty excited to try out my new bit of eco-friendly kit. I’d already trimmed the stem down (the Mooncup sits much lower in your vagina than a tampon and the stem can rub if it is too long) and decided on “folding method A” from the detailed usage (with “A” you just fold the rim in half – “B” looked way too complicated with origami-like twists).

I crouched down and popped it in. Just like that! I heard a satisfying squelch as the seal was formed and gave my muscles a squeeze (good old pelvic floor exercises!) to make sure the Mooncup had fully opened out, and the job was done. I couldn’t feel a thing.

You can leave the Mooncup in for four to eight hours but in the early days of using it I was so sure that my cup would runneth over that I removed it more frequently than that. But even when I’ve left it in longer it never seems to be more than half full. Apparently they can hold at least three times as much as the most super-absorbent tampon, and because they don’t absorb moisture there’s no dryness on lighter days.

To remove it you just carefully grasp the Mooncup, break the seal and gently pull it, tipping it slightly to one side to ease it out. Then tip the blood into the toilet, give the Mooncup a rinse in the sink (I use a couple of drops of Dr Bronner’s Baby Mild castile soap) and reinsert. If you’re in a public toilet or without access to a sink just give it a good wipe with toilet roll and wash it properly at home. I have occasionally had to use my muscles to encourage it downwards after using it overnight (took ages first time, but am now a dab hand at it) and only once have I spilled the contents – practice makes perfect! And my top tip? Put some toilet roll into the toilet before you empty the Mooncup to stop the blood sticking to the toilet bowl.

You must be wondering whether emptying it is disgusting. I am fairly squeamish – I used to feel very faint during blood tests until I got all too used to them during pregnancy – but I actually find it fascinating. It’s definitely a good way to become more in tune with your body, as you can see the ebb and flow of your cycle, and how the colour and consistency of the blood changes. It’s not awful; it’s completely normal.

It’s not just good for those some-might-say “hippy dippy” reasons though. A further benefit is that I barely suffer from period pains now, whereas in the past I would be curled up with a hot water bottle for several days a month. And there’s no longer any need to hide a tampon oh-so-subtley up my sleeve when heading for the loo at work.

I just wish more people knew about the Mooncup – hence this post – as I am a complete convert and can’t imagine using anything else now. It’s good for the environment, your bank balance and your lifestyle – what’s not to like?

** Full disclosure: the Mooncup links in this post are affiliate links, which means that if you click through from here and buy a Mooncup from the official website, I will get a percentage of the sale. They’ve even got 10 per cent off until 31 December 2012 (using code XMAS2012). Why not give it a try? 🙂 **

Review: 24 Hours In Journalism by John Dale

24 Hours in Journalism coverEarlier this year former magazine editor John Dale asked journalists around the world to send him their accounts of their lives on one day chosen at random, Wednesday, February 8.

The result was 24 Hours In Journalism, a glorious romp through a broad spectrum of the media – freelances, editors, columnists, war correspondents, lecturers, unemployed hacks, keen work exes, agony aunts and many more – all united in their belief in journalism and their commitment to their chosen path.

These are not the phone-hacking scumbags that many associate with the trade. We get to see the hopes, fears, passions, highs and lows of real journalists operating in real time. Some of them are making history. Some of them are making the tea. All of them are contributing in some way to our greater understanding of the world we live in now.

All human life is here. There are conjoined twins and love rats. Risky missions and military manoeuvres. Council meetings and maternity leave. Glamorous launches and meagre lunches. Dale even gives a brief mention to The Oldie magazine’s largely ignored report into Jimmy Savile’s predilections for young girls

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I enjoyed the sections from local and regional newspapers the most. They captured perfectly the small stories which are the big stories for the communities involved, like the quest to decipher a scrawled signature on a winning raffle ticket.

While I found the book quite hard-going at first (it’s so over-written in parts that I was actually cringeing), once I got used to the writing style I couldn’t put it down. There were times when I wanted to stand up and cheer (as I did during the “ink on their fingers” scene in the film State of Play) and there were others where my heart just went out to the people involved.

It’s hard to believe that all this happened in just one day, but of course, news is everywhere, all the time. Turn any stone and you’ll find a story. These journalists will get up tomorrow and do it all again, in the knowledge that today’s hard work will be lining hamster cages across their communities in no time at all. But they know that what they do matters. I found it a very inspiring and uplifting book, despite all the changes sweeping the media landscape.

* John Dale is doing it all again next year from 6am on Monday, March 11, to 6am on Tuesday, March 12. He is, he says, interested in “quiet, routine days” as well as drama and conflict, “local journalists as well as big shots”. For more information see http://www.24hoursinjournalism2013.com/