Friday, June 29, 2012

York Watergate, Victoria Embankment Gardens

The York Watergate, Victoria Embankment Gardens, London.
Recently I caught the end of a BBC documentary called 'The Bridges that Built London' presented by Dan Cruickshank. Quite simply the documentary reaffirmed my love for London and in particular the rich history that flows through every street, alleyway and building, all leading to Father Thames.

One part that really interested my revolved around the The York Watergate. This watergate, built in 1626, once directly bordered the Thames, but following Joseph Bazalgette's construction of the Victoria Embankment between 1865 and 1870 it became marooned a few hundred metres from the current bank of the Thames.

After learning this, I went looking for the watergate when walking back from a training session in central London. Its historical use is obvious when you see the shell details over the gateway, hinting at a more maritime past.

The watergate is located in what is now Victoria Embankment Gardens. The gardens are open all year round. For more information: http://www.westminster.gov.uk/...parksandopenspaces/veg/

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Zopa and Social Lending


In a manner not unlike most former university students, my finances suffer from a number of perennial hangovers. Firstly, there is the student loan that we’ll all be paying of ad infinitum; secondly is the all the money we spent on our student overdrafts and credit cards with their foolishly high limits of the early noughties.

Initially, back in 2007, when aged 23 and quite miserable working my first proper job after university, my finances were a disaster. I was employed in Croydon and commuting from Farnham five days a week as a lecturer. The wages, travel costs and rent just did not add up and I found myself floundering. Luckily for me my bank were able to help, albeit with an interest rate on a loan that reflected my poor credit status, but I was grateful they helped at all.

After my one-year contract in Croydon finished, I moved to my current job in Hammersmith. My finances looked up thanks to much lower transport costs, much better wages and living shared accommodation. This meant that in 2010 I was able to go back to my bank, with a better credit rating and renegotiate a slightly lower interest rate of around 18.7% whilst getting rid of a little more debt I’d acquired at university.

Fast forward to June 2012. I am still in the same job in Hammersmith, albeit with more responsibilities than before, but with the wages reflecting this. I am paying slightly more rent to live in Teddington than when I lived in South Wimbledon, and travel cost have stayed around the same for me.

Having checked with a few of the free credit ratings agencies, my score seemed to be ‘good’. Not excellent, average, or poor, but simply ‘good’. This, I assumed, would mean that in my final move to consolidate the last of my leftover student debt – a student overdraft with a different bank – would be easy.

Over the course of 2011 and 2012, I had been receiving almost two-monthly phone calls from my bank about how they could give me a much better rate on my loan if I wanted to refinance it. Having last refinanced in 2010, I thought it best to put off any such decision and said, ‘no thanks.’

When I was called again around May by someone proclaiming themselves to be my ‘Personal Accounts Manager’ – who is sometimes a man and sometimes a woman so maybe not so ‘personal’ – I went along with it, explaining my desire to consolidate the last of my student debts. Imagine my amazement then, bearing in mind my ‘good’ rating when I was quoted an ‘improved’ interest rate of around 27.9% on a 5-year loan for £8,500. The interest alone would tack on the best part of £2000 or more to the total and the monthly repayments could be around £230.

I was left scratching my head for alternatives, but it appeared that there weren’t many open to me, but this wasn’t the case.

On June 8th a story appeared on the BBC’s website entitled ‘Peer-to-peer lending on the internet hits £250m’ and the first name that appeared in the story was Zopa

I decided to have a look around the internet for references to Zopa. Living in the age that we do it is very easy to be suspicious of anything on the internet and I, for one, try to pride myself on being net-savvy. My girlfriend was naturally suspicious, but after finding references to Zopa from a number of reputable sources I decided to give it a go.

Zopa has taken its place as being the number one social lending site because it is just that: social. The lenders are real people, not banks, as are the borrowers. It works by lenders paying money into their Zopa account, choosing what category of risk they are willing to take with their money when lending, and choosing an interest rate on their lending. This provides lenders with potentially much more profitable returns on their money than a savings account with a bank might offer, and there are a number of safety devices in place to protect lenders.

Coming to Zopa as a borrower, I was reassured to some extent by the manner in which they conducted an initial ‘light-touch’ credit check prior to giving me a quote, but they do stress that a credit rating must be good in order to get a loan. As it was, they were able to offer £10,000 at 8.4% over five years, with repayments at around £204 per month, so I went ahead with the application.

This wasn’t the only thing that they are able to offer though. Along with being able to repay the full balance whenever you want, you are also free to pay into your loan whenever you want without any additional fees. Although this wouldn’t reduce the length of your loan, it would reduce the monthly repayments.

With credit checks done, a copy of my bank statement in PDF format emailed to Zopa head office and a couple of phone conversations with a polite member of staff, it was a matter of only 48 hours until the funds were disbursed. I was able to pay off the balance of my old loan, saving around £1000 on interest payments in the process and feel satisfied that Zopa are on my side as a borrower.

Subsequent to taking out the loan with Zopa, I have also raised my concerns with my current bank’s complaints department about the discrepancy between the rate I was quoted by them and the rate I was given by Zopa. I was particularly concerned that many years of loyalty and improvements in my credit score seemed to count for so little. 

There complaints manager, who in part missed the point of my complaint, said that the rate I was given was ‘indicative only’ and may be subject to change following a full credit check. I ask, when they have all of my details in front of them, why base their indicative rates on numbers plucked out of the sky? Why not look at loyal customers’ records first, or even use the ‘light-touch’ credit check strategy employed by Zopa before quoting unrealistic amounts? Who is going to risk the somewhat ironic potential damage of a failed credit check for a rate of 27%? Furthermore, I still wonder whether they would have matched 8.4% anyway!

It’s early days for my relationship with Zopa, but I am hoping that this refreshing alternative to dealing with banks really begins to catch on. 

Important: There are a number of social lenders currently in the marketplace, and borrowers and lenders should always shop around for what is best for them. Social lending in the form of peer-to-peer lending is available in a number of countries ranging from the US and UK to South Africa. Edited December 2016 to reflect the company's new branding.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Shard

The Shard, or Shard London Bridge, nearing completion, in the London dusk.
One of the perks of living in London is there is always plenty to do. After watching a midweek open-air performance of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest near City Hall, I passed by the Shard.

At this time of the night the light had already left the streets, but at the top of the shard, in its nearly complete state, there was still plenty of daylight left to reflect off the steel and glass rising up over the south side of the Thames.

With this particular filter on the Instagram app, there was something reminiscent of the early 1970s colour photographs of the World Trade Center as it was being constructed.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Het Withstraat Dagboek: De Rivier is Bevrozen, maar Onze Harten Zijn Warm

A humber barge makes its way through the ice on the Neuiwe Maas.
It was always somewhat inevitable that last night’s party would last until the wee small hours. Even though everyone was back in time for curfew, this didn’t bring an end to the festivities. 

It is Sunday 12th February and 59a Witte de Withstraat is alive with the packing of bags, shouting of names and the scurrying of people to and from the breakfast room at Werelds. As ever I am just as bad as the students for leaving packing to the last minute whilst Pia, Julian and Jas stand around looking smug having done the bulk of it last night.

Last night’s partying was mild really and went without any reproach from any of us teachers. The students were sober and where we could keep an eye on them, so it seemed only fair to let them listen to music and talk loudly.

Having been called to a room under the pretence of a student being ill Julian, Pia and I were all also presented with gifts by the students who jumped noisily from cupboards, closets and the like – wine in the case of Julian and me, with Pia getting a sachet of Capri-Sun orange juice. When retiring to our apartments it seemed to be only a very short amount of time that had passed before 3am crept up on us like a dozy rattlesnake.

This morning holds the prospect of more freezing cold temperatures this time sampled from aboard a boat on the Nieuwe Maas. With the students assembled and looking a little bit dishevelled, we skid our way up Witte de Withstraat. In a flush of adventurousness we slip down William Boothlaan, a quiet sidestreet, along Schiedamse Vest past an Orthodox church, across the deserted Westzeedijk Vasteland dual carriageway and into the Scheepvaartkwartier (literally: Shipping Quarter).

The silence of the street and the frost hanging in the air bring to mind personal imaginings of Siberia and I muse momentarily on the fact that this is how a Sunday should be. Quiet. Relaxed. A million miles away from the 24/7 rampant consumerism that grips all quarters of modern London. Perfect. 

Having taken a shortcut between two buildings I arrive in the bare open expanse of Willemsplein ahead of the rest of the group with only a chilly looking tram for company. In front of me is a boat bobbing around on the semi-frozen fringe of the Neiuwe Maas, resting against the side of Willemskade (lit: William’s Quay).

The rest of the group finally catch up and we have a few minutes to pose for pictures on a podium covered in artificial grass, set against the concrete, glass and steel backdrops of the Tulip Hotel and the SNS Bank offices.

On board the boat, called the James Cook, the whole group heads to the top deck, as a long Humber barge chugs sluggishly by, pushing miniature icebergs out of the way in a manner that would easily make the Titanic envious. The students drape themselves over each other, posing for pictures again whilst attempting to shield as much of their faces from the cold.

As the boat moves off, one by one the students come and ask whether we can cancel our tickets home. Some even confess to having prayed for us to become stranded by snow meaning an extension to our stay in Rotterdam – at this point, little did they know that a snowstorm would hit Amsterdam Schipol upon our arrival and the following day a suspect package would be left in the toilets.

With the gentle humming of the James Cook’s engine lulling the students into a state of calm, the four of us staff members reflect on what has been a highly successful trip. No tantrums, no tears, no trials, although Pia can be hard work if she’s left too long without coffee. Either way, the students that we brought with us come from a variety of social groups, yet they have bonded excellently.

Waking from her sleepy stupor, our noisy Iraqi girl declares: “a week ago I wouldn’t have even spoken to any of you, or even said ‘hi’ to you in the corridor. No I feel that we are more than friends, we’re like a family.” In so doing she wipes a solitary tear from her eye and draw rapturous applause from her audience, who amazingly aren’t bored of her making speeches every two hours.

All that remains for us to do is to wave goodbye to the Erasmusbrug as it pierces the cloud-laden sky, to board the big orange coach, to endure a litany of emotional songs from Beyoncé’s back-catalogue and to board our slightly delayed plane.

This trip to Rotterdam, although brief when compared to my annual visits to Uganda, leaves all of us with a wealth of positivity and affection for The Netherlands. We’ll be sure to come back again next year and to visit people who we now consider our friends and a place we now consider to be like a second home.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Brighton II: A Rusty Winch

An idle winch spends its retirement sat on Brighton beach in Sussex.
After taking some considerable time eating lunch on Jubilee Monday at Terre a Terre, a group of us went for a stroll along the seafront at Brighton. Whilst the girls went into the Brighton Fishing Museum, I went looking for something rusty to photograph.

I found an old winch, presumably once used to pull the fishing boats ashore, sitting on the beach as a testament to Brighton's once busy fishing industry.

Using the Instagram app once more, I selected a filter that darkened the grey clouds in the sky, but kept the real subject of the photo light.

For more information about the Brighton Fishing Museum, visit: http://www.brightonfishingmuseum.org.uk/

Monday, June 11, 2012

Brighton: from Inside Terre à Terre

The view from inside Terre à Terre, Brighton, looking out through the skylight.
During the four-day Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations, a small quartet of us took the train down to Brighton for lunch and some sea air. A friend of a friend, led us to the vegetarian and coeliac-friendly Terre à Terre on East Street in Brighton for lunch.

The weather had spent most of Monday looking decidedly moody, but in the middle of lunch the clouds cleared and sunlight came flooding through the skylight.

The photo was taken using the Instagram app for iPhone. The filtering effect was designed to washout some of the colour and give the cleanliness of the white and blue an effect like a 1970s Swedish design photobook I once flicked through.

Terre à Terre comes with my highest recommendation. For more information: http://www.terreaterre.co.uk/
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