Getting ahead with food prep

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Are you a “last-minute-Lucy” or someone who likes to get started with tasks early?

I’ve typically fallen into the latter camp. When issued with an assignment at university (a looongg time ago now!), I’d be the first to head for the library as soon as the question was issued. That approach has stood me in good stead throughout my career, especially when issued with directives from a one-time CEO whose deadline was usually 12:00 noon the following day (no matter how challenging the task).

What I’ve only just realised, though, is how much simpler life becomes if you adopt the same approach to food preparation. Why didn’t I work this out before?! I’ve written about meal planning in the past and I almost always shop to a list (either online or in person), knowing exactly what I’ll cook in the days to come.

However, what I didn’t always do was get ahead with the necessary food prep required to make the actual cooking a lot easier. This would mean I’d arrive home after work then have to start (literally) from scratch. That’s a pretty exhausting prospective if you left at 07:30 and didn’t get home until around 18:30.

Mise en Place

If you’re a trained chef, or experienced foodie, you’ll know how valuable the ‘mise en place’ can be. It certainly makes the production of a specific dish seemingly more effortless. Literally, ‘putting in place’ what you need for a specific recipe may seem like a lot of effort, but it also helps avoid you making mistakes, especially if the dish is unfamiliar.

Watch any TV cook and everything will have been pre-weighed and chopped, leaving them simply to demonstrate how to combine and cook the ingredients in the right order.

Getting ahead

Prepping specific parts of a dish is something I could have been doing before, but never have until now. Imagine needing a cooked sweet potato for fish cakes. In the past, I’d have had to wait for the potato to cook, let it cool a little, then mix in the remaining ingredients. Now, with my newly-discovered cooking super-power, I’m ahead of the game. The potato is baked in the oven the day before, so all I have to do is some deft chopping, a bit of stirring, and we have ready-to-go fish cakes. This helps when family members are wont to say, “What time’s dinner?” at a moment’s notice.

Weekend cooking

At the weekend, there are lots of opportunities to get ahead with food prep. I’m loving Giancarlo and Katie Caldesi’s Diabetes Weight-loss Cook Book, which I mentioned in my last post. Their low-carb lasagne is delicious and I now make my own vegetarian version of it. But, like any lasagne, it requires several stages to prepare. So, yesterday, I made the ‘spinach lasagne’ sheets in advance, cooked the bechamel when I found 20 minutes to spare, and assembled the whole thing during the evening. Today, we’ll have a home-cooked ready meal, with none of the chaos associated with trying to organise the various components all at once (and I’m not a very tidy cook, so this is a good thing!).

Slow cooking

I like the idea of prepping different dishes slowly, over a day or so. Who says you have to slave over a hot-stove, ready to serve a meal as soon as it’s cooked? It certainly takes the stress out of weekday evenings to have food partially prepared. And although you do have to think ahead, taking the slow route to food prep’ is even better if you realise that you’ve run out of something. It’s not unheard of in our house for tasty morsels, destined to go in a particular dish, to be eaten by someone who fancies them as a snack!

So often, we say there isn’t time to cook. But perhaps there is. We just have to fill those spare moments, say while the kettle’s boiling for a cup of tea, with some casual weighing of ingredients or some gentle stirring on the hob. Preparing food in this way also – for me – means that when we do sit down to eat, I enjoy it all the more.

p.s.

Low Carb Lasagne, adapted from The Diabetes Weight-Loss Cookbook

Spinach ‘Pasta’ layers:

Blend together :
370-400g defrosted spinach, squeezed from a 900g bag of frozen spinach
1/2 tsp salt
4 eggs
8 tbsp almond/cow’s milk
1 heaped tbsp psyllium husk powder (get this from Amazon)

Spread across 2 baking sheets that have been lined with oiled baking parchment. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 200 degrees C (fan) for 8-10 minutes.

Allow to cool.

‘Ragu’:

I make a simple veggie version of what could otherwise be a beef ragu.

Combine a large jar of passata with capers, olives, lemon zest, a dash of olive oil and a ti of lentils (I like puy lentils for this).

Use this as your ragu layer.

‘Bechamel’:

550ml almond/cow’s milk
4 tbsp cornflower
4 tbsp double cream
50g butter
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp grated nutmeg
1 bay leaf

Mix 3 tbsp of the milk with the cornflower in a small bowl. Pour into a saucepan with the remaining ingredients, then put over a medium heat. Whisk to combine, removing from the heat when the sauce has thickened and is bubbling. Season.

If you don’t want to make a bechamel, you could use some ricotta cheese, which I used in the version shown below.

Making up the lasagne:

With 50g parmesan and 125g mozzarella, proceed as follows:

Drop spoonfuls of the bechamel and ragu into a lasagne dish measuring c. 22 x 26 cm. Don’t mix them together. Layer onto this some parmesan and mozzarella, then use some of the spinach lasagne (cut to fit) as your ‘pasta’ layer. Keep going until you have used up all the ingredients.

Bake for 30 minutes at 200 degrees C (fan), then let everything settle for 15 minutes before tucking in.

My version looked like this:

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Living the Blue Zones way on Blue Monday

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If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’ll know I’m a sucker for a new recipem book. And it’s true that probably the only things I regret letting go of in my decluttering phase are some of my lesser-used cookbooks.

Most recently, we’ve been enjoying the wonderful recipes from The Diabetes Weight Loss Cookbook by Katie Caldesi. These low carb, creative and incredibly tasty dishes offer a lighter take on tradional recipes with an italian twist. I’m also keen to have a look at Amelia Freer’s latest book, Simply Good for You but I am holding myself back because of the book I’m about to describe.

The most significant boost to our New Year’s culinary experimentation has to be the amazing The Blue Zones Kitchen by Dan Buettner.

The Blue Zones concept is amazing; around 15 years ago, Buettner identified the 5 places around the world that have produced the world’s longest-living people. The concept is simple living at its best.

A dip into Blue Zones concept

Here are just 3 interesting aspects of the Blue Zones simple way of life:

Eat a whole food diet

The recipes in The Blue Zones Kitchen are mouth-wateringly good, but simple in their approach. Following the time-honoured recipes of older residents in each location, these dishes are based on just 20 or so basic ingredients and many feature all different types of beans, which – it is recommended – should be eaten every day.

Essentially promoting a plant-based diet, The Blue Zones Kitchen emphasizes whole foods including vegetables, nuts, olive oil (extra-virgin), some grains, lots of greens and fruits with red wine to drink with meals. Out go all kinds of processed foods, plus meat, fish, dairy, eggs and sugar are limited to special occasions or treats.

In our house, we’ve started with a huge pot of home-made Sardinian minestrone soup. That’s going to feel like a hug in a mug when it gets to lunch time today!

Exercise naturally

For exercise, ‘blue-zoners’ enjoy natural movement, especially walking and gardening, to keep them active and healthly throughout their whole lives. What’s refreshing is is that Blue Zones inhabitants simply walk wherever they have to go.

Consider walking up and down the mountains of Sardinia or Ikaria and you’ll realise that will get the heart pumping! That sounds so much more appealing than sitting at a desk all whole day long, then driving to the gym to attempt to offset the lack of activity earlier in the day.

At work, a small number of us who all live relatively near to one another are discussing the idea of setting up a walking group so that we can walk together to/from the office. By doing this, we’d reap the benefits of a simple daily workout whilst also building our social network. I can walk home from work in about 1 hour, 15 minutes, so as the daylight hours extend as we head towards spring, I’m looking forward to doing more of this.

Be sociable without social media

One of the positive aspects of those leading a ‘Blue Zones life’ is what Buettner describes as, “..active engagement with community, friends and family.” Spending quality time with other people increases people’s sense of wellbeing and I’ll be there’s not an iPhone in sight.

Last week, in the news, we learned that UK psychiatrists have said that tech companies must share their data with researchers to help improve understanding of the affects of social media on children. For all of us, having our heads stuck in our phones – even for reading – means that we’re failing to engage with others; make connections; or appreciate what’s going on around us.

This weekend, I intentionally spent less time on my phone and more time in the presence of others. It felt like I’d had several days away from the office, instead of just two. Maybe I should switch it off altogether at the weekends…. that would be an interesting experiment.

Don’t be blue

Today is said to be ‘Blue Monday’, a day that is said to be the most depressing in the year.

So, I say let’s not be blue. Let’s learn a little from the Blue Zones way of life and inject a little simplicity, health and happiness into our lives.


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Going barefoot in 2020

Happy New Year 2020! I hope that this new decade will bring you love, peace and joy. In fact, my word of the year is going to be ‘joy’. What’s yours?

Going barefoot

One of the things that will no doubt bring me joy in 2020 is doing more walking. This requires strength, stamina and flexibility both mentally and physically (and from head to toe). I’ve written before about my ambition to walk the South West Coast Path, which we started back in November. Now, I’ll be stepping up the pace, as we will tackle more of The Path in 2020.

For the longest time, I have mostly been wearing what my Grandma would probably have branded ‘sensible shoes’. As I possess long toes that are crushed inside pointy shoes, I decided some time ago that continuing to wear ill-fitting shoes (and/or shoes with heels) would not be good for my long-term wellbeing.

Plus, I use a standing desk at work, so towering over the keyboard when wearing heels negates the benefits of having the desk at all, as this has a negative effect on posture.

Ecco has been my go-to brand of choice in recent years, but last year I came across minimalist barefoot shoes.

A ‘barefoot shoe’ is an oxymoron

The concept of a barefoot shoe is an oxymoron. You’re not literally going without shoes, but the idea of a barefoot shoe is that you have room for the toes to splay naturally and the foot is able to work in the way God designed! My daughter, seeing the picture of my foot alongside the barefoot shoe was horrified: “Mum!!! You cannot put your FEET! On Instagram!!! Your feet!!!!” But I’ve done it again by posting a picture here. If you don’t like feet, feel free to look away….

I’ve tried the Primus Knit and the Ra Slip On

My first pair (pictured) were the Vivobarefoot Primus Knit in Olive. I have found them to be well-made and exactly as described. They are thin-soled, wide and shallow (note that, if you have a high instep, this shape might not suit you). I feel as though they give my feet a little massage when I wear them and, whilst you can feel the ground beneath your feet, this is not uncomfortable. However, these are not waterproof shoes. Given all the rain we’ve had, I’ve not been able to wear them outside on a wet day. This style is better off kept indoors and for the dry weather.

The Ra Slip On has solved my problem of what to wear in the office. The majority of the Barefoot shoes sold by Vivobarefoot are more ‘sporty spice’ than ‘posh spice.’ The Ra Slip On goes with anything and works just as well with a dress and tights as it does with jeans and a jumper. So far so good!

When the brand re-stocks its boots next autumn, I’m going to be first in line.

Joining the barefoot revolution

Tim Brennan, founder of Vivobarefoot, has now set up a community of barefoot enthusiasts. The idea is to bring barefoot shoes to the masses and revolutionalise health across the world. And why not!? Check out Tim on Instagram where you can see pictures of his inital proof-of-concept shoe and find out how to get involved.

So, what will bring you joy in 2020? Maybe going barefoot can be a part of it?


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Another mini-adventure, plus my only decluttering regret

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Last week, with my dearest friend of almost 30 years, I was privileged to enjoy a few days in South West France.

We flew down from London Stansted airport on Saturday, arriving in plenty of time to open up the house, do a mini supermarket shop, and enjoy a customary ‘apéro’ (the local aperitif of choice is ‘Pinot de Charente’). Situated in the country’s largest region – Nouvelle Aquitaine – this is rural France at its best; it’s great for walking, the locals are friendly (il faut parler Francais!) and the food is simple and good.

I’ve written about ‘la vie en rose‘ before, so take a look if you’re looking for inspiration.

On this particular trip, we shared and enjoyed some delicious recipes, also taking the time to mix drinks and create combinations that are easily replicated now that we’re back here in the UK.

Take this one, named after another pal:

The Linda

1 measure white rum
1 measure spiced rum
1/2 measure grenadine
3 measures pineapple juice
3 measures orange juice
A dusting of nutmeg and ice, to taste

Recipes we have loved and lost

Over these few days together, my friend and I reminisced over lots of things, including recipes we’ve shared and loved over the years.

Having decluttered many of my recipe books, I will admit that I have since acquired a few more (although some of them are better than others).

One that I’m particularly enjoying is Catherine Hill’s The Weekend Cookbook, which was given to me as a gift. Designed for the foodie looking to cook ‘proper’ (but not complicated) meals at home or away, the recipes really work and I’m very much enjoying them. The bircher muesli with hazelnuts is absolutely delicious.

Now, confession time. Although I have always asserted that I’ve never missed a thing I’ve decluttered, I do occasionally wish I’d taken a little more time before letting go of some of my recipes.

When you cull a recipe you liked

Some of my cookbooks were certainly past their best, with broken spines and splattered pages. If I were to replace them, I might certainly keep an eye out when next browsing in my local secondhand book shop.

In reality, I now need to do another cull of cookery books, but this time I’ll pay more attention to the contents before I let them go.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve often found I’ve loved just one or two recipes in a book, but didn’t use much of the rest of it. As a result, when I do my next decluter, I’m going to make sure I’ve done a colour photocopy of a recipe I might otherwise regret getting rid of.

Happily, providing you can remember what you’re looking for, many cookery writers now have their recipes online. Down memory lane we went this weekend, when I looked up Nigella’s yoghurt pot cake recipe and whizzed up this simple but comforting cake.

Getting started on decluttering

If your books or other personal belongings are beginning to feel like they own you, then now’s a good time to embrace a renewed sense of focus. Joshua Becker’s ever-popular Uncluttered course that’s benefited over 30,000 people is about to welcome new participants for its autumn series. Click on the link here to find out more. I’ve done the course myself and can really recommend it.

Meeting up

If you feel you’d benefit from being a part of a more local network, our next Midlands meet-up takes place on Saturday, 12 October. Get in touch with more details!

In the meantime, whip up a simple dish, take a long stroll or enjoy your own version of The Linda ‘comme les français’. And have a super week ahead.


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What would you take if you only had 15 minutes?

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Image from <a href=”http://Image by Boke9a from Pixabay“>Boke9a via Pixabay

 

Here in the UK, over the last couple of weeks, the nation has been watching and waiting after the dam wall at Toddbrook Reservoir in Whaley Bridge, Derbyshire, was damaged during heavy rain. Around 1500 local residents were evacuated from their homes, following fears that the dam would burst resulting in a loss of life.

During the period in which the emergency services worked tirelessly to repair the dam in order to lower water levels as quickly as possible, residents were given just 15 minutes to re-enter their homes and retrieve their most important possessions.

What would you take with you, if you only had a quarter of an hour in which to do it?

My most important possessions

I thought about what I’d take if I only had a few minutes in which to grab my most precious possessions.

Having ‘let go’ of so much stuff in the past few years (notably in the last 3), it was fairly easy to work out what I’d retrieve. There were only 3 categories:

  1. Official certificates and documentation
  2. Sentimental items
  3. Photograph albums

I can honestly say there is truly nothing else I couldn’t replace, if the worst came to the worst.

Official certificates

Consider how difficult it would be to replace your passport, driving license, birth certificate, degree certificate or other official documentation. I’d definitely grab my file in which I keep most of those items.

Whilst it’s possible to obtain certified copies, I’ll bet it’s a bit of a nuisance. I suppose it would, at least, be useful to make scanned copies. Note to self!

Sentimental items

I have hardly any sentimental items left, since my major decluttering efforts. But I do have a couple of small items of jewellery I’d grab (I love rings – always have).

Photographs

I’d also be pulling photograph albums off the shelves. Although we have a great many photos stored online, there are some collections from ‘the early days’ for which there are no digital equivalents. I’m glad we do have a digital collection, though. Our ‘Google home’ device plays a lazy ‘slide show’ of photos we’ve taken over the years, evoking memories of places we’ve been and family occasions we’ve enjoyed.

But none of this has meaning when you consider the plight of people who lose their homes; lose their health (or both).

Inspirational stories from those who live with less

I’ve been devouring Raynor Winn’s wonderful book,  The Salt Path. Made suddently homeless following a legal case gone wrong, Winn and her husband, Moth, find themselves with no house, no money and no income. Worse, to coincide with the terrifying experience of losing their home and livelihood, Moth is diagnosed with an incurable health condition.

So, with literally nothing to lose, the Winns embark on an extraordinary 630 mile journey, walking the South West Coast Path from Minehead in Somerset to Poole in Dorset. Surviving on horribly meagre rations and camping off the beaten track, Winn explores the nature of homelessness (encountering some interesting reactions along the way).

What’s inspiring, is that at no point does Winn bemoan the lack of home comforts. It’s interesting that – when you’re really up against it – the need for ‘stuff’ disappears and what’s important is more fundamental, more truthful and more about people and experiences than anything money could buy.

I’m glad to say the people of Whaley Bridge have now returned to their homes; how glad they must be to be back. I wonder if what is now most important for them might have changed throughout their ordeal? And what would you take if you only had 15 minutes?


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3 things you need to do this weekend

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How did you spend last weekend? Perhaps you spent time on chores, catching up from the week, or maybe you enjoyed a hectic round of social events?

In her podcast, Before Breakfast, Laura Vanderkam discusses ways to maximise a short weekend (aimed especially at those who perhaps work on a Saturday or Sunday). She advocates prioritising 3 things that will help make the most of your time off, no matter how long you get:

  • Something social
  • Something spiritual
  • Something physical

For me, last weekend fulfilled all of those ideas.

Something social

Last weekend was somewhat extended for me, as it began with a light meal and a catch-up old friends on the Thursday evening.

My ‘Gin and Books’ group followed on Friday, with a spirited discussion on Joanna Nadin’s The Queen of Bloody Everything. Some of us really loved it; others weren’t so keen. So, maybe it’s a ‘marmite’ book. Either way, the gin was lovely; I sampled Strawberry Gin with an Elderflower Tonic.

The following day, I was was scheduled to do my fortnightly Pets as Therapy visit with Ollie, our (almost) 6 year old cockapoo. This combined both the social with the ‘spiritual’ as my heart sings when I see the enjoyment of the residents in the nursing home I visit visibly perk up when they see us.

It’s rare to have 3 social events in quick succession; I wonder why they all arrive at once?

Something spiritual

If you’ve ever been a singer in a group (or even enjoyed singing in church), you’ll know about those spine-tingling moments when you experience a musical moment of perfection.

Anything that’s good for the soul will give you a tick in the box when it comes to ‘something spiritual’. For me, that was baking a lemon drizzle cake on Saturday morning in honour of our daughter’s return from a few days away. Simple pleasures, such as enjoying a lovely cup of tea in the garden or a quiet soak in the bath, can really be uplifting.

Something physical

Our ‘something physical’ last week was a long walk – straight from our house – down to the Millennium Trail, which follows the path round Kenilworth Castle. This morning’s walk followed part of that route, but it’s raining heavily, which is odd since we experienced baking temperatures on Thursday!

We know that getting out in nature is good for us (more on this here), so we try to do this, even if it’s chucking it down!

I love the idea that these 3 simple suggestions can help us make the most of the time we have off. So, what will you be doing this weekend? I’m certainly going to remember to try to incorporate a bit of each: something social; something spiritual; and something physical.


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Rambling along the English Coastal Path

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Craster, Northumberland

We’ve just returned from a week in the most northerly county of England: Northumberland (so called because it is situated on land north of the River Humber).

Having fallen in love with the South West when our daughter was small, my heart has always called me back to Cornwall. However, when Mr G suggested we explore another stretch of British coastline, I agreed to accept the challenge.

We rented our home for the week through Coquet Cottages, an award-winning luxury holiday cottage company. This turned out to be a brilliant choice; it was delightful, as you’ll have seen from some of my most recent Instagram posts and stories.

Heading North

The first difference to the breaks we’d previously enjoyed was that this was a Friday to Friday holiday. This meant that I finished work on the Thursday evening, ready for our drive ‘up North’ the following morning.

Our route was incredibly simple. Once we were on the M1, we headed straight up to Leeds from where we picked up the A1, stopping to enjoy the friendly atmosphere of the Black Bull pub near to Scotch Corner.

On we travelled, arriving at the cottage in late afternoon, before heading off to explore the beach at Warkworth, our nearest village. It was such a thrill to walk over the dunes and find ourselves on stretch of golden sand that extended as far as the eye could see.

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Beautiful beaches

A castle on every corner

From that first moment, we knew we’d found somewhere rather special. With what seems like a castle on every corner, Northumberland combines stunning, unspoilt coastline with countryside to rival anywhere we’d been before. We couldn’t wait to explore.

During the course of the week, we did a lot of walking, which was a complete delight (even in the light rain we endured when doing a circular walk from Hauxley Nature Reserve, via the water’s edge, and back again). This was life lived at a slower pace, simply and with time to notice and appreciate our surroundings.

Wonderful walks

These were the real highlights:

  • Dunstanburgh Castle from Craster (pick up some fresh Kippers for your tea on the way back in Craster)
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Dunstanburgh Castle
  • Seahouses to Bamburgh Castle (and back) (our longest walk at 11.4 km and just under 19,000 steps.
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Bamburgh Castle
  • A circular walk from the beautiful village of Rothbury, about half an hour from the coast and the home of Cragside, owned by the National Trust. Here, you have a real sense that you’re in Border country; the landscape is more dramatic and the stone properties suggest a hardy existence in winter. Plus, we were treated to our very own private air show, as a pair of fighter jets flew right over our heads, as we crossed the moor. 
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Rothbury

We also visited Alnwick (pronounced Ann-ick), home of the famous Alnwick Castle (but not dog friendly, so we couldn’t go inside). Alnwick is best known for two famous Harrys: Harry Hotspur (who features in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part One) and Harry Potter (the castle was one of the film locations for the Harry Potter series).

Nearby Alnmouth (Alun-muth), whose image features on the home page of Coquet Cottages’ website, was another gem. Ollie, our 5 year old cockapoo, was very happy playing catch-ball on the beach there.

Cosy evenings

During the evenings, once I managed to get the logburner going, we settled down to enjoy a glass of wine and a good book. I’ve been reading Raynor Winn’s wonderful memoir, The Salt Path, which charts the journey of Winn and her husband, Moth, as they walk the 630-mile South West Coastal Path. It’s a terrific read (and I’m not going to give the story away – you have to read it!), evoking memories of many of the places we’d visited over the years of holidaying in Devon and Cornwall. Theirs was no afternoon stroll, however; the Winns were wild-camping and completely exposed to the elements, but this book got me thinking about the therapeutic nature of walking.

Walking for health

As humans, we’re meant to walk. It’s kinder to our joints than running but has all the same health benefits (you just have to do it for longer). There’s also something meditative and calming about walking outdoors; the steady, rhythmic aspect of trekking – coupled with clean, fresh air – blows the cobwebs away and allows you to get a different perspective on life.

It seems we’re not alone in thinking that walking is a good idea; it appears we’re right ‘on trend.’ An article in The Guardian suggests that walking is now considered cool.

Walking for good

Not just ‘cool’, walking remains a force for good. Take Becky and Jamie Gunning who’ve just walked 198 miles (coast to coast) in 7 days to raise money for the Royal Marsden Cancer Charity – and jolly well managed to raise over £20k. You can check out Becky’s Instagram to find out more.

Closer to home, the young people from my daughter’s school recently took part in a gruelling 24 mile walk across the top of the Coventry Way (some did the whole hog at 40 miles), also raising money for a jolly good cause.

So, an idea is forming (with a little nudge from my friend, Rae). It is said that when men experience a mid-life crisis, they buy a fast car. Women go walking. Well, I may not be in crisis, but I have a zero birthday not too far ahead. Maybe I’ll give myself a little walking challenge of my own. I’d certainly like to return to lovely Northumbria; a few more ramblings along the English coastal path would be just lovely.


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