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Christmas Time in Sutton Coldfield

December already, and another merry Christmas is ringing in. Have you started (or finished!) your Christmas shopping. Are you planning a special night out? Or perhaps you are planning a less commercial, more meaningful celebration? Here’s a taster of what Sutton Coldfield has to offer this Christmas.

Christmas gift ideas

The Gracechurch Centre, Sutton Coldfield, under new ownership, will have the usual seasonal cheers with bright lights, late nights and lots of little extras to put pleasure into your gift hunting. It’s open every day and right up to the wire on Christmas Eve – apparently the traditional time for men to start their shopping!

Or for something completely different, start early, on 1st December, at the Sutton Vintage and Arts Fair in the Town Hall.  Find unique and quirky Christmas gifts, vintage and handmade clothes and enjoy some festive fun.

Christmas concerts and events

Sutton Coldfield Town Hall plays host to some musical extravaganzas in December including Musical Memories, Past and Present on Friday 6th December, The City of Birmingham Brass Band in concert the following day and two Family Christmas Concerts at 4.15pm and 7.30pm on Sunday 15th December, which promise to be uplifting and heart-warming in equal measure.

Of course, Christmas is not Christmas without panto, but this year the pantomimes are not exactly at Christmas! Snow White runs at the Sutton Arts Theatre until 15th December and Aladdin plays at the Town Hall from 14th January to 19th January 2014.

 

London comes to Sutton Coldfield

Fancy something a little more highbrow? A quiet revolution has been happening in cinemas across the country, where “as live” screenings of National Theatre and Royal Opera House shows are beating blockbuster films at the box office. The obvious hit for Christmas is the ROH production of Nutcracker on 12th December at 7.15pm, showing at the Empire and a number of other cinemas near Sutton Coldfield. Last year’s Nutcracker beat Skyfall in cinema box office takings!

 

Whatever your plans, enjoy a happy Christmas in Sutton Coldfield, and here’s hoping that 2014 is your best year ever

This article appears in Sutton Coldfield Recommeded, a local magazine delivered to 40,000 homes and businesses in Sutton Coldfield and surrounding area’s.


IT and Media – Hack Attacks

For the past couple of weeks the media has been dominated by stories about the hacking scandal. Of course, this story is all about the illegal hacking of voicemail on mobile phones rather than computers or websites, but that isn’t to say that hacking websites isn’t a major issue at the moment. In fact, as part of the phone hacking scandal, the Sun’s website was hacked and a false story about Rupert Murdoch being found dead was planted on the site.

Of far more significance is the hacking of the Sony PlayStation site a few months ago in which the account details of over 100 million users were taken. More alarmingly, thousands of credit card details were also allegedly stolen. At the same time, one of the CIA websites was hacked as was that of SOCA, the Serious Organised Crime Agency. The question is should Sutton Coldfield residents  be worried?

On the face of it, there are serious grounds for concern. Millions of us use internet banking and, with the unstoppable growth of online shopping, there are countless online credit and debit card transactions every day. Surely, if it is so simple to hack into commercial websites, we are at constant risk of having our money stolen. In reality there is no reason to panic. The first thing to consider is the motivation of the people doing the hacking. Most of the large scale attacks reported in the news recently have been performed by a group called Anonymous, a loose alliance of hackers located all over the globe. In the past couple of years a faction of Anonymous called LulzSec has emerged; LulzSec claimed responsibility for the Sony attack, hacking the Sun website and several others besides. The hackers’ aims are political rather than criminal; invariably they are targeting the organisation that owns the website rather than its customers.

The next issue is the level of security on the websites that are targeted. Sony was hacked by means of an SQL attack, a fairly unsophisticated technique that has been around for years. To have credit card details stored on a site with such a low level of security is not going to inspire a lot of confidence but Sony argue that the primary purpose of the PlayStation site is to enable users to play games against each other, not to conduct ecommerce. Internet banking has an extremely high level of security. As well as username and password protection there is usually a one time code security device and, in addition, most banks also provide free anti fraud software to stop the baddies getting their hands on your hard earned loot. Ecommerce sites are similarly secure. As long as there is a padlock sign to the right of the URL bar you can be confident that the site is pretty much un-hackable. Once again, most banks and credit card companies offer additional security software; Capital One, the credit card provider, is currently working on security software that will be future proof for the next twenty years.

Of course, if someone can steal your card details without your knowledge, from the Sony PlayStation website for instance, they could potentially use your card to buy goods and services online. First they would have to get through the anti fraud security and, even then, the liability for any losses would lie with your bank or card provider. The greatest danger still lies in fisching, sending fraudulent emails to get Sutton Coldfield residents to provide their account details. Remember, no bank or card provider will ever send an email asking for your logon details. The only people who are really at risk from the hackers are the owners of the websites who may well not want their dirty laundry aired in public as Wikileaks is prone to do. It is little surprise that Anonymous and Wikileaks are closely aligned.
Graham
IT Consultant


Property – How to buy your dream home affordably

If you think about it, buying your dream home is about more than just finding the right house; it must also be in the right location, on the right plot and at a price you can afford. A common solution has been to buy a plot of land in the right location and then build a house on it that ticks all the boxes. However, suitable sized plots don’t come on the market very often in Sutton Coldfield and, when they do, they can be very expensive.

More and more people are buying an existing property that is in the right location and on a suitable plot and then dramatically remodelling it. An example I found in Surrey was a four bedroom house with an attractive façade that was extended to become a very desirable eight bedroom home. The combined cost of the purchase and building work came in at £1.3 million and the owner now has the house of his dreams with a market value of £1.6 million. A more modest example in Nottinghamshire saw an unappealing 1970’s four bedroom detached home converted into a very striking, architect designed house. The design makes far more effective use of the internal space. The original house cost £260,000, the building work came in at £100,000 and the finished item is worth £420,000.

There are a few things to beware of. It is crucial to have an excellent design – pick your architect carefully! Nor can you cut corners on the building work or the standard of finish and, of course, these things cost money. If the property is located in a conservation area, getting planning permission can be an issue.   Finally, you need to remember that VAT will be payable on any building work you undertake whereas you don’t pay VAT when buying a house. But, if none of these things presents a problem, this is an excellent way to acquire the house of your dreams, not to mention making a profit in the process.

Craig Brown
Estate Agent


Road Test – Jeep Compass 2.2 CRD 4×4

Jeeps have always been the American equivalent of the Land Rover, iconic vehicles with a reputation for toughness, off road ability and practicality. The Wrangler rivals the no frills workhorse Land Rover Defender while the Grand Cherokee offers a kind of cut price alternative to a Range Rover though without the build quality, luxury or prestige. The Grand Cherokee in particular has been a steady, if unspectacular, seller over here but has always seemed more at home in its American heartland.

Somewhat belatedly Jeep has seen the  writing on the wall for big SUVs and is pushing its Compass crossover heavily at the moment. The Compass has actually been around since 2007 and the original version was notable for its switchable four wheel drive system and one of the ugliest noses ever to be slapped on a car. This new version features heavily revised styling, new engines and a choice of either permanent four wheel drive or front wheel drive. Of course, the whole point of a crossover is that it combines the street presence and elevated driving position of an SUV with the practicality, low running costs and road manners of a family hatch. Will Jeep be able to pull off this trick with the same panache of the Nissan Qashqai and impress motorists in Sutton Coldfield?

Straightaway, I have to say that the styling is a huge improvement on what went before. The chunky grill and headlights blend nicely with the squared off flared wheel arches and the sharp lines of the bodywork to deliver a pleasing combination of chunky offroader and crisp contemporary styling. Step inside and there is plenty of room for five adults on comfortable (leather in the case of my test car) seats. Put the back seats down and you get a load area the size of a small van. There’s plenty of kit as standard too but the fit and finish of the interior feels fragile, the plastics are hard and shiny and I didn’t feel any confidence that the switchgear would still be working properly in a couple of year’s time. All pretty much what you would expect from Jeep then!

Jeep offer a pair of petrol engines with the Compass or a 2.2 litre diesel sourced from Mercedes. The two wheel drive version kicks out 134bhp but the 4×4 has 161bhp as standard. The engine is nicely refined and gives you all the grunt you need with a respectable 125mph top whack and a sub 10 second 0-62 time. I managed 42mpg as well, not bad for a car like this. Although I didn’t take it off road I’ve no reason to doubt that it would acquit itself well in the mucky stuff.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t fare so well on the tarmac; the ride is bouncy on any kind of rough road surface and there is way too much roll through the corners. I thought the whole point of a crossover was meant to be that it drives like a hatchback.

All in all the Compass is not a bad effort; it’s certainly an improvement on the previous model. I really don’t think that it is quite good enough though; it doesn’t have the drivability of the Nissan Qashqai and it lacks the prestige of the two wheel drive Land Rover Freelander. Chrysler, Jeep’s parent company, has now merged with Fiat and the Compass will be replaced next year by an all new Fiat based model. My concern is that the Compass is serving to downgrade the Jeep name, a global brand that has been over sixty years in the making. General motors made a similar mistake when they handed the blue collar icon of the Chevrolet brand to some sad little cars from Korea – remember Daewoo? Rather than using the Jeep brand to add kudos to a Fiat, perhaps Chrysler should concentrate on producing a car good enough to add kudos to the Jeep brand.
Kit Johnson

Car tested Jeep Compass 2.2 CRD 4×4 £23,595 OTR


Fuerte-not so ace-Ventura?

Corralejo, in the north of the island, has a main strip not unlike Blackpool that comes complete with a veritable extravaganza of Chinese, Indian and Italian restaurants; you would have to walk at least fifteen minutes to find paella. When you do finally reach the end of the glittering runway, you are rewarded with views over the marina which melt the trip down the promenade into a distant memory. Go to the top end of the town with its white stone buildings, small tapas bars and yachts at every turn and you realise that this is where the brochure pictures were taken.

If you are looking for lush, extravagant evenings in  traditional restaurants, then you are in the wrong place. Thinking we’d made a terrible mistake, we wet-suited up and flippered our way down to the beach where my whole attitude changed. Within minutes of starting our snorkel we   spotted Parrot Fish, white and Zebra Sea Bream, Sargo and a Culebre (an eel that looks just like a sea snake!) Fuerteventura, literally meaning strong wind, is  perfect for wind surfing, kite surfing and sailing. Once you have hurdled the porpoise-like, russet coloured bodies on the beach, the coastline is a cocktail of vessels, sails and boards with which you can harness the area’s best asset.

After a few days of water sports our legs were aching. We had tried to get onto a coach trip to Jandia on the south of the island, but   unfortunately this was too complex an arrangement for the hotel staff. Luckily the car rental people were much more agreeable and we were behind the wheel of a Nissan Micra before you could say ‘shoddySpanishholiday’. As chief map reader, I decided to shun the main roads in favour of the scenic route. Driving on the island is very much like an extremely  limited safari, goats everywhere and a few   camels tied together by the side of the road with the occasional chipmunk squashed in the middle. Our progress was broken only by my partner’s occasional whimpering as we climbed rapidly and realised that we really should have hired a 4×4. Quashing this thoroughly non-British attitude we continued, at times in fear of our lives, onwards and upwards. The reward was impressive; a vast, empty national park complete with bronze statues of Ayos and Guize and views over the sea to the land masses beyond.

Reaching Moro Jable, and contemplating events over a beautifully grilled bream at Leo’s fish bar, I felt somewhat cheated that its Palm Beach presentation was not mirrored up North. I am very open-minded; I had looked for canaries with my camera, eaten goat (fatty lamb), tried the local speciality (unbelievably salty baked potatoes) and yet I still couldn’t figure out why Fuerteventura is a year in, year out favourite destination for Sutton Coldfield residents.

It’s fair to say that the North has three attractions; the Sirena beach bar for its  seafood and sumptuous  Moroccan décor, the water sports and the unconscious sense of the comic. Only in the North would you be  introduced to a man who dubs himself a wine connoisseur, after describing his tipple as “er, red.” They are comfortingly generous with spirits measures though, especially in el Blanco café – supplier of the strongest Mojitos known to man. Maybe this is         deliberate as everything did seem a little easier on the eye as we walked back. The West African heat is obviously addictive for  travellers who return year after year but surely that isn’t enough to be losing your head over? My advice is to enjoy the water sports and the sun but take the rest with a good pinch of Canarian salted potato.
Carrie Cartwright-Owen


Coq au Vin Recipe

Some say that the French style of food is a little dated and does not belong in today’s culinary catalogue; however, there is no denying the great taste and combinations you find in many French dishes. Here is a classic peasant dish, particularly  popular with the workers on the vineyards of France, also popular witth residents of Sutton Coldfield. Remember the golden rule for cooking with wine: If you would not drink it, do not cook with it.
 
Serves 4
Preparation: 30 minutes
Cooking time: 1 hour
 
Ingredients
25g/ 1oz butter
160g/ 6oz shallots, halved
160g/ 6oz streaky bacon, cut into strips
4 garlic cloves, crushed
300g/ 10oz button mushrooms
Sprig of thyme
500ml/ 16fl oz red wine (Burgundy or Shiraz)
500ml/16fl oz chicken stock
1 Chicken cut into 8 pieces
Salt and black pepper
 
Method
1. Heat a thick bottomed pan, add the butter and fry the   shallots until browned, then add the garlic and fry for a couple of minutes.
2. Add the mushrooms and   bacon, brown slightly and then pour in the wine and stock. Put in the chicken pieces and thyme, then bring to the boil and simmer for 30 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through.
3. Remove the chicken and   reduce the liquid by a quarter, put the chicken back into the sauce, season and serve with sauté potatoes or crusty bread. 

Roy Wood – Restauranteur


Ant Problems in Sutton Coldfield?

No doubt many Sutton Coldfield residents are by now starting to see ants around the home. The ants you see above ground represent only about 3% of a colony so by far the best way to get rid of them is to find the nest. Spend a little time identifying where the ant trails are and place some ant bait as near as possible to them. I find the gel type poison baits work best, although other methods such as powders or sprays can sometimes work too. Once the ants have found the bait they will take the bait back to the nest and the whole colony will then feed on it.  When deciding where to place the bait be mindful of the risks to children and pets so ensure that you read the precautions label first. 

Ants are often difficult to control, and complete eradication is hard to achieve so if you wish to have a go yourself you just have to keep plugging away and try to eliminate or cut down the infestation as best you can. Pest control companies are able to use a wider range of baits and insecticides, and of course their expertise too, and this should be an option to consider particularly if you are having difficulty controlling an infestation.

Later in the year, the queen produces winged ants (commonly known as flying ants). Both male and females are created by the queen specifically for mating purposes. When the conditions are just right, usually on various days from mid July until the end of August and on humid or thundery afternoons when the air thermals are conducive to good flying, they leave the nest and take flight, mating on the wing (this can even happen occasionally at other times of the year inside a well heated home).  When this happens, Sutton Coldfield residents are advised to open your windows to let some of them fly away, and treat the rest of them with a flying insect aerosol spray. Once mated all of the males die as do many of the females too, but some of the mated females (next year’s queens) survive and seek out places to hibernate in readiness for making a new nest the following year when the cycle begins once again.

If you need any free advice regarding ants or any other pest species please give click here.
Neil Barnett
Complete Pest Management, Sutton Coldfield.