Are you winter woolly ready?

Autumn. When there's a nip in the air, the nights start to draw in, and the trees shed their summer finery. Talking of wood though, when it comes to heating your home, how well are you prepared for the colder months? 

Wood burners have become increasingly popular in recent years, but how well do you know yours? 

1. Which wood is best for burning? [See our table below] 

2. How dry is your wood?  

  • What is the water content? 'Green' wood can be as high as 50% water content Is your supplier accredited?

  • Wood should be dried for a minimum of one year, preferably two;  for example, an accreditation scheme such as Woodsure audits log suppliers 

What are the consequences of burning 'the wrong type' of wood?  

  • Chimney cleaning issues 

  • Interior pollution 

Kiln dried logs v seasoned: 

There are 2 major factors in burning wood which affect its calorific value (heat output): 

1. Moisture content 

2. Wood density

Moisture content has far the greatest effect on wood-burning efficiency as any water in the timber has to boil away before the wood will burn.  If you can get them to light at all, logs that aren’t dry will result in a fire that smoulder and creates lots of tar and smoke significantly increasing the danger of a chimney fire. 

Wood density - hardwoods (deciduous broadleaved species) tend to be denser than softwoods (evergreen, coniferous species). This means that a tonne of hardwood logs will take up less space than a tonne of softwood logs, but will be heavier per log and will burn for longer. 

Did you know? 

  • Well-seasoned logs have twice the calorific value of green logs.   

  • Kiln-dried logs have a higher calorific value than seasoned logs as they are drier and less densebut can be very expensive. 

  • Radial cracks and bark that comes off easily suggests well-seasoned wood. 


Which wood is best for burning? 

We recommend Layton Timber who supply logs which come already split3 years'-dried, barn-stored, and offers a prompt, all year-round delivery. Tel 01491 613 222 

Their recommended best woods for burning are: 

Produces a steady flame and good heat output; can be burnt when green, although is always best when dry and aged 

Similar to ash, but does not burn well when green 

A traditional wood with a slow burn and good heat output 

Horse Chestnut 
Great for stoves but don’t use it on open fires as it spits a lot! Gives a good flame and heat output in a log burner 

Also good for stoves but don’t use it on open fires as it produces an acrid and dense smoke.   


Caring for your stove and your chimney 

For your chimney’s health to compliment the logs you are burning and ensure your safety within the home we recommend Sweep Dreams Chimney Services. Tel 07913 905 042.   

  • HETAS is the trade body for wood burners, 

  • It recommends a chimney is swept twice a year, although this can be reduced to once if you are using multi-fuel in your stove.  

  • Book your chimney sweep to attend just before you want to begin using your stove on a regular basis again; this is particularly important if you haven’t used your stove for a while. 


Organisation Unlimited can provide the spark 

Or, simply ask OU to arrange everything for you.

By grouping orders together, we can often arrange bulk discounts and also have preferential client status with chimney sweep services.  

What the Uni websites don't tell you about preparing to study in the UK!


The UK is becoming an increasingly attractive destination for overseas students, with the number of non-EU students rising +3% to 310,000 in 2013/14 [Higher Education Standards Agency].

For many this is the first time they have left home and they need to learn the different customs, cultures and norms of an entirely new society at the same time as coping with all the pressures of studying at University.

Is it any wonder they might need a helping hand from time to time? 

"UK institutions need to work harder to take into account what a big step it is for young people from a radically different culture to get to grips with student life in the UK" 
- Guardian article
Getting grips with student life in the UK

Consider a student arriving from the far east, for the first time to study in the UK (note: Chinese students numbers increased +60% over the past 5 years, the fastest growth from any overseas country) and what they might be faced with upon arrival?

Arrival in the UK: how to get from the airport via the train station to the University?
# OU will prepare a Travel Itinerary, complete with timetables, connections which need to be made, costs, methods of payment,etc. and can arrange a door to door chauffeur service for those not wishing to brave the London Underground on day one!

Arrival at University: how to settle in to University accommodation?
# OU will help to open bank accounts, credit cards, mobile phone contracts and manage utilities including any other lifestyle concerns that may arise.

Day to day life in the UK: how to integrate?
# OU can arrange for days out to visit places in the UK, to develop and understand the culture, and to have fun - and to shop!
Survive and thrive with OU's help
In short, OU's assistance will allow foreign students to survive and thrive in the UK, taking away the hassle, leaving them free to study and to get the best value out of their time spent in the UK.

Have a look at our TOP TIPS 'Settling In' checklist for University for an idea of the sort of services we offer, or get in contact with us and have a chat. 


Things to think of / be are of / remember when heading to university for the first time

1.    Where is your accommodation?
a.    Halls?
b.    Flat / house share:
i.    Have you checked your lease
ii.    What is insured – what do you need to insure
iii.    What break clauses do you have
iv.    Be sure you know what you are committing to

2.    Can you park your car?
a.    Do you need a permit – where do you get one from?

3.    Are bills included or additional?
a.    Gas / water / electric
i.    Are they on a key that needs topping up?
ii.    Are they on a monthly contract
iii.    Take meter readings when moving in
b.    TV licence
c.    Internet
d.    Council tax- remember as a student you can get this reduced to ‘0’-but you do have to register (not just don’t pay!)

4.    How to get from accommodation to uni
a.    Time it takes
b.    Route
c.    Where to park your car / bike
d.    Do you need a bus pass
5.    How much money you have
a.    How much you may need
b.    Do you need a job as well
c.    Where to apply for work
d.    Is it best to apply to start as soon as you get there or apply with all the other students on arrival?

6.    Where are you lectures?
a.    All on the same campus?
b.    How to get to each?
c.    Who are your tutors
d.    Where is the careers office
e.    Where is the student hub (volunteering centre)
f.    Where is the student union

a.    Pretty much everywhere – get a NUS card
i.    Bank account
ii.    Gym
iii.    Travel card
iv.    Restaurants
v.    Bars
vi.    Musems
vii.    Theatre /cinema
viii.    ALWAYS ASK

8.    Remember to enrol
a.    Freshers week is so much fun, you may forget to actually let your uni know you have arrived!

9.    Bursaries
a.    Investigate extra funding. It is amazing what you may be eligible for!

10.    Where are you going to live next year?
a.    It may seem strange but you need to get this in place by Christmas!  The best accommodation goes early so plan ahead

11.    Enjoy your first year.  Year 2 & 3 you will need to knuckle down and do some work!

12.    Invest in a decent lap top and BACK EVERYTHING UP.  Note making and essays. If your lap top crashes or gets stolen.  Don’t be without your work.

13.    If you haven’t joined FB –do.  You don’t have to share your life with the world but it will keep you linked in with what is going on and where it is happening.


Travel tips for every trip

We all know travelling can be extremely stressful, especially if you’re trying to organise a trip for your whole family. Being in a new country where the language might be unfamiliar and you don’t know the roads can be a recipe for disaster. But we have some tips for you that will ensure that you finally have a relaxing, carefree holiday you deserve.

The sheer number of options that are available can be extremely daunting. It’s nearly impossible to know where you can trust. has compiled all the ways you could get to any given destination and the prices of all of those different modes of transport - so you can easily compare the cheapest prices without having to jump from one website to another.

Scan a copy of your passport and credit cards (front and back) and emergency details then store them in a cloud storage location such as Dropbox so if your cards or passport are stolen, you'll have a backup copy of what you need to report the loss and the telephone numbers of who to ring.  

Particularly if you are travelling to a high risk area for theft, avoid finding yourself in an unfamiliar country with no money or cards by spreading your cash about your person - maybe keep some in your pocket, some in your bag and some in the hotel safe.

For someone who has travelled lots, I should be good at packing light and well but the truth is I’m not!  I find it is really useful in the run up to your holiday, to keep a list on you at all times and as soon as you think of an item you should take - write it down! Plan packing well in advance so you don’t have that last minute panic day before you leave and forget something. You don’t want to end up taking your expensive camera without a camera charger… Better still have a saved travel luggage list on your computer that you just tweak each trip.  If you want to be very organized, note what stayed in your suitcase completely unworn so you know not to take it next time!

Mini bars are expensive. If you don’t want to buy anything from the minibar, ask the hotel to empty the refrigerator, it not only stops you spending well over the odds for a cold drink but also means you have an empty fridge you can stock with your own goodies.

Communication is key.  Always learn the words for “hello, please, thank you, delicious and goodbye” to bring smiles to the locals you meet.  A little effort in a local language, goes a long way.

Do make sure you have adequate travel insurance especially if you have any existing medical conditions.  There are many specialist insurance companies including International Travel and Healthcare, and Pearson Insurance.  Travelling in Europe?  Get an EHIC card it gives you discounted medical assistance across all 28 European countries.  Do note though that an EHIC card does not replace the need for standard insurance.

If you want a free room upgrade then book for a non-peak time.  It often helps to let the reception desk know that you’re celebrating a special occasion. If that fails, ask if they’re doing any incentives - you might find that a room upgrade is extremely reasonable. Tripadvisor is often a good indicator in finding out if your hotel is easily persuaded in giving upgrades.

If you’re travelling with your family then mix up each person’s luggage between all the suitcases so if someone’s luggage goes missing, they still have something to wear on holiday until it is found! 

Your hotel concierge is a great source of information but for the really local advice on bars and restaurants, approach the bartender whose friends may work in local restaurants and will know the hottest place for the best price. And when staying at hotels abroad, grab one of the hotel's business cards and keep it on you at all times to explain your address to a taxi driver. 

Top tip for glam girls  …  save yourself effort by getting semi-permanent eyelash dye before you go away. It won’t smudge like mascara, which is particularly useful for long flights, swimming and hotter climes!

But remember,when you’re out having fun though, don’t forget about home. Do not put a luggage tag with your name and address on it.  If you feel the urge to use one, put your name and phone number. At the end of the day, your luggage is not going to be posted to you, someone will want to call you if they have inadvertently picked up your case. The insurance industry say proof is hard but they are certain this information is sold as it passes through baggage handling.  And keep your social media sites private – and make sure your children’s sites are private too. Instagram, Facebook, and many more social media sites are open to a wealth of people and vast networks who can see you are on holiday – which means your house is empty.  Without being too boring about it, manage your risk.

Finally though, remember you’re on holiday. Don’t sweat the small stuff.  Be patient, enjoy and absorb the different cultures that you come across and observe the life around you.  If the cash machine is out of cash – fantastic – make an unplanned journey across town to find another. Relax.  Enjoy.  Experience

How to host the perfect dinner party

Everyone loves a good old fashioned dinner party, however successfully hosting one is not always as easy as it first seems. So what makes the perfect dinner party? Cardinal rule number one is if you're going to go to the trouble of inviting people over at least make sure there will be plenty to eat! If you can, prepare something to eat that your guests wouldn’t necessarily cook themselves.  That said, a tasty well-made dish is far more important that trying to do something exciting, different and what actually turns out to be inedible!  I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t rather a good old fashioned roast versus an undercooked chicken with a curdled cream sauce.  

Do go to the trouble of finding out if anyone has any allergies or fierce ‘dislikes’.  For those with allergies, intolerances or special dietary requirements that are not able to be included in the menu you have chosen, make them something special – they will really appreciate it.  Perhaps a Sri Lankan vegetarian curry?

Another crucial thing to remember is timing. Guests don't want to be hurried to the table; they can go to Pizza Express for that. On the other hand, they don’t want to wait until midnight to eat – unless you are living in Spain perhaps! Offer your guests a welcoming drink on arrival and start the dinner party as you mean to go on but don’t be put off by non-alcohol drinkers.  Make them a delicious mocktail like a non-alcoholic mojito or look for syrups such as early grey, lemongrass and ginger, and make a refreshing cordial drink with sparkling water and fresh mint.

Remember your guests want to see you, not have you hiding away slaving in the kitchen.  A cold and pre-prepared starter and pudding allows for less chaos in the kitchen and advance prep reduces the chances of things going wrong.  The quality of some foods is even enhanced from the opportunity the flavours have to combine – Pate de Campagne should be made three days in advance and salmon tartare is very quick to put together and can be made the day before.  Follow @mepickard for weekly recipes (Foodie Friday) which are great to do at home, easy to follow and don’t keep you chained to the kitchen when you have guests.

What about the end of the meal? If things are going well perhaps have something fun up your sleeve. Party games vary from the sublime to the ridiculous so know your audience.  Try something like a game such as picking up the peanuts with chopsticks, or do some dessert wine tasting with a small competition of who can guess the country, year and grape.

Finally remember it’s the people that make the party and not the food itself so relax, enjoy and don’t worry if something isn’t perfect.  Have fun.  You have invited these people to your home to enjoy their company, so, make sure you do just that!

5 Top Tips

  1. Make sure you don’t have too many canapés – you want people to enjoy your main meal and not be too full!  Try something different but keep it simple.  There are so many wonderful bite size food examples that make for a much better, healthier and entertaining option to crisps and nuts.  For example, break a quail’s egg into a croustade and add a teaspoon of seasoned cream, then pop in the oven for about 3 minutes you will have delicious baked eggs.  You can vary the eggs by putting chilli or tomato or pesto in the bottom of the croustade first.
  2. Make a playlist to set the mood and get the party going – Spotify offers millions of playlists so have a listen and pick one you like!

  3. Start with an empty dishwasher. This is a golden rule!  It might seem like a pain at the time, but it’s usually a good idea to wash pots and pans as you finish using them before guests arrive. That way, you won’t have a scary pile of dirty dishes at the end of the night and your house will look calm and clean when your guests arrive.

  4. If you don’t have to use it beforehand, set the table the night before.  It’s an easy thing to check off your list so you don’t feel so rushed!  Having your table all ready for a dinner party gets you in the spirit, rather than in a panic!

  5. If your food doesn’t go as smoothly as you expected – don’t try and hide it! If your vegetables are a little overdone so what?  Own it and then it won’t be an issue that people talk about behind your back the next day. Try to have a little laugh about any culinary disasters.

I had 99 problems ...

.... but now I have none!

Whether you are a fan of Ice-T or Jay-Z (or have no idea who they are!) there are times in your life when you really feel you have 99 problems.  You are drowning in your own to-do list.  Productivity is low.  Stress and guilt are high. You are struggling to meet business and personal obligations and feel like you are on a swift journey to chaos.  AHHHHHHH!

Bringing life back to a calm balance is easier than you feel.  Stop. I know you don’t feel you have time to but – STOP!  Sit, breathe, get a long piece of paper and write a list.  Prioritising is an art and a key to making your life more manageable.  There are two main approaches to prioritising and both start with a list!  So WRITE THAT LIST!

The list is long and you are anxious just looking at it.  Divide the list in two, the quick easy jobs and the ones that need total concentration, time, thought and energy.  You’re half way there.  When considering the importance of tasks, ask yourself the following 5 questions:

1.       How will this task benefit you?

2.       Will it enable you to get closer to your goals or objectives?

3.       Will completing this task help you build relationships?

4.       Who will you let down if don’t get the task done?

5.       How much money or free time will outsourcing this task give you?

Now delegate!  Often people don’t delegate because they consider it takes too long to explain to someone what needs to be done and by which time they could have done the job themselves.  No, no, no!  Whether it be your child, your partner, an outsourced individual, once they have learnt that task, they can do it again and again which removes the job from your list, your time and ultimately, your anxiety. 

Imagine having your own PA or concierge on tap to help you at the times when you require it.  Ensuring that you do not become overwhelmed by your workload, be more productive and stay relaxed and at ease with your life.  The great thing about outsourcing is that you get to do the things that you enjoy and want to be doing and give somebody else the ones you don’t want to do, that you don’t have the time to do and those you don’t have the inclination or want to do.

We are living in a different age, in an economy that is digital, global and intangible, we are all expected to do more, be more, create more in our lives.  More and more busy families are using the services of a PA / concierge to make their lives more manageable.  Adaptable, services tailored to your individual needs allows you to create value in your life becoming an irreplaceable life force which allows you to produce more, share more and feel calm and accomplished in your busy life. 

Give yourself more margin in your life without the need for a costly and timely recruitment process. Have your own concierge / PA without the overheads of salary and benefits and who you can adjust the contracted hours of according to your needs.

 Have you got 99 problems? … I haven’t got one!