Monday, 31 December 2007

Wet and Windy in Wales.

We're back from our short break around the English/Welsh border and it rained, in fact it started to rain just as we were crossing the Severn Bridge. It was so dull we weren't even sure we could see Wales on the other side!

We had planned to walk across part of the bridge on the cycleway but it was very windy and so we stayed safely tucked up inside the car. After a picnic lunch in the steamed up car, we zig-zagged back and forth between England and Wales exploring the countryside between Chepstow and Ross-on-Wye. Luckily there were opportunities to stop for coffee and hot chocolate to keep us warm.

The next day found us in Hay-on-Wye which is a favourite place of ours. The main attraction is the many bookshops and after much browsing we came away with a few bargains. The weather was mixed but we did get up into the Black Mountains although the only photographs I took were from the car, it was very wet and windy.

Further along the road in the photographs we passed the Youth Hostel that we stayed in back in June. Sadly it is closed down now and there was a "For Sale" sign at the bottom of the drive. It seems sad that a hostel in such a beautiful location was uneconomic and had to be sold. It is a remote area and such a lovely quiet place to stay. It even looks lovely in the rain.

We are back at home now and the Christmas holidays are rapidly coming to an end. There is so much build up to Christmas and then its all over. One more day and then work starts and the day after that, the school term begins - I'm already looking forward to Easter!

Happy New Year.

Friday, 28 December 2007

Rest, sleep, walks and knitting

We are in the middle of eleven nights when we don't have to set the alarm for 6:15am and its lovely. My husband has mixed feelings about having to take some of his annual leave at this time of the year (his office closes completely so he has no choice) and would really prefer to take all his holiday during the warmer weather. I disagree and think that an enforced break and chance to rest at this time of year is a positive thing, an opportunity to slow down a little more in tune with the winter season.
So we have been going on gentle winter walks, watching DVDs together as a family and generally taking it easy. For me this means more time to knit and I have almost finished the cardigan I started in the summer. This is taking me ages, partly because I don't usually get much time to sit and knit and partly because I'm using 2.75mm needles! Anyway I am now halfway through the second sleeve and the rest of it is blocking so hopefully a completed project in the New Year.
We are now away for a couple of days for a short break and are heading to one of our favourite places, over the Severn Bridge and just into Wales.

Friday, 21 December 2007

The shortest day

The shortest days of the year are here and they have been filled with blue skies and sunshine. It has been cold with very white frosts and also quiet with hardly a breath of wind. Quiet weather seems appropriate at this time as the earth lies in hibernation (in the northern hemisphere) resting before the spring.

Some photographs of the wintry landscape around here.

In the garden today I noticed that in the middle of all this cold frost and ice, the first snowdrops have started to peep through the soil. On the shortest day of the year its good to see a definite sign of spring to come.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Pale grey days

Just a few days before the shortest day and the colour here is pale grey. I have just returned from a trip to see my parents and driving along the motorways to their house every thing seemed to have a midwinter grey appearance. I left home before it was light and as dawn broke all the fields were white with frost and the motorway itself was pale from a coating of salt, even the bright colours of the cars were muted by a covering of salt spray and grime.

Mum is battered and bruised following her fall but is in a lot less pain than she was. She is feeling very frustrated at not being able to do much at the moment and my Dad is coping with all the cooking while trying to stop my mother from doing more than she should. I was able to do a few jobs for them but it is at times like this I wish that we did not live so far away, a short visit more regularly would be more beneficial than a weekend stay at longer intervals.

I am back home now and we are winding down at the end of what seems like a very long term. I have already finished work until after Christmas and by the end of this week both boys will have broken up also. They are also noticing the greyness, leaving and returning to the house in the darkness. The sunset is already moving back although it will be the beginning of January before the mornings are lighter. We are all looking forward to the Christmas break and then the lengthening days.

Saturday, 15 December 2007

Our Christmas Tree

Today we got bought our Christmas Tree. We had an artificial tree for many years but when it had become a little thin in places we decided to have a real tree and have had one ever since. A lot of Christmas Trees sold in the UK are imported. We import around 2 million trees from Denmark, Christmas Trees being their second biggest export industry after pigs!

We are lucky and are able to buy a locally and responsibly grown tree as we live near the Yattendon Estate. They grow a selection of Christmas Trees but our favourite is the traditional Norway Spruce. It has become a little bit of a tradition to visit the shop on the estate, choose our tree and then enjoy bacon rolls and mugs of tea in the barn.

We decorated the tree this afternoon. I like quite simple decorations and I like using the same ones every year.

After Christmas we will recycle our tree. Of the 7 million real trees that are bought each year only one in six are recycled. Our council recycles Christmas Trees or some local garden centres are offering a service where you take your Christmas Tree to be shredded and if you take along a container you can take home Christmas Tree mulch.

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Red Sky

Red sky in the morning,
Shepherd's warning.
Red sky at night,
Shepherd's delight.

My younger son took this photo from the car as we were driving to the station earlier this week. It really was a brilliant sunrise and the pink colour seemed to spread over half of the sky.

We wondered if the saying would prove true and that there would be some bad weather ahead. Sure enough we have had very cold weather (well cold for us at this time of year - minus 5C) and very white frost since that morning. I am always surprised by how often this little rhyme seems to be right.

Sunday, 9 December 2007

Rush, rush, rush.

I took this photo yesterday morning on the motorway to Heathrow where my husband was taking a plane to the States on a business trip. We left home just after seven, this photo was taken at around 7:30 and I was amazed at the amount of traffic there was. On a weekend day at this time I expected the roads to be relatively empty but obviously many people start their days early. The set down zone at Terminal Four was very busy and rushed, just time to get the luggage out of the car, shout a quick goodbye and drive away to make way for the next car in a very long queue of cars. It is a shame that everything always seems so hurried.

One of the reasons there is so much travelling at this time of year is that families are spread so far apart. Apparently in the UK the average distance that grown up children live from their parents is 80 miles, which is a lot of miles of driving to meet up with family members at Christmas. I live about twice that distance from my parents and it seems a long way especially as they get older. I have been thinking about this recently as my mother fell at home and broke her collar bone. She is recovering slowly but there are a lot of things that she can't do with her arm strapped into a sling. I phone regularly and will visit when my husband is back home but it would be good to be able to just pop round and do a few jobs to help out.

In the middle of all the rush and activity particularly at this time of year, I think that it is important to try to make time to sit and be quiet and still for just a few minutes a day. Each afternoon I collect my younger son from the railway station and sit knitting quietly in the car while waiting for his train. Last Thursday there was a beautiful sunset, a perfect time to sit and stare for a few minutes.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

local or eco?

I try to think about the environmental impact of the food we eat. I thought that this was a relatively easy thing to do just by using a bit of common sense, obvious things like eating less of foods that had travelled long distances, avoiding foods grown out of season which require a lot of heat for growth and avoiding processed foods where the individual ingredients may have travelled long distances. I assumed we were doing quite well and that eating seasonal local/UK produce was a good thing.

It was a surprise then a couple of weeks ago to read this article and particularly the following paragraph.

New Zealand butter, for instance, sold all the way round the world in the UK, has less carbon emitted per kilogram of butter than English butter, even taking its shipment into account. How can this be so? Because New Zealand cows are able to eat grass, which grows all year round. In the UK they eat artificial feeds for part of the year, and are kept in heated accommodation.

The butter we usually eat is Rachel's Dairy which made in Wales (not too far away really) using UK organic milk. It seems incredible to think that eating this is more harmful (in terms of CO2 emissions) than butter that has travelled about as far as it is possible to travel from the other side of the planet. I have tried to find some actual figures so I can see how big the difference is but so far haven't been able to find any.

I am going to continue eating UK organic butter as at least it is supporting UK farmers and I'd like to see some figures before making any change but it has made me wonder if any other "common sense" decisions are not actually the most beneficial for the environment.

Perhaps we need to rethink the way we look at all year round basic foods. After all butter and cheese used to be made with the surplus milk produced during the summer as a way of preserving the fresh milk. We are used to the idea of eating seasonally in terms of fruit and vegetables, maybe we need to extend the idea to other foods like dairy products, eggs etc.

Sunday, 2 December 2007

Oh dear.

Its been very windy in the south of England not really gales but still enough to blow over my little greenhouse and scatter the pots of salads all over the patio. I was very proud of my baby salad garden but as the saying goes "pride comes before a fall".

As the greenhouse was wedged in between a bay tree and the house and was also right against the fence I thought it would be safe but obviously not. I've weighted the bottom shelf down with a paving slab and am hoping that will make it more stable.

I think I will sow a few pots with rocket seed as that is usually quite hardy but I'm not sure whether other salad seeds germinate in December. I will have to experiment.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Grey Days

The weather has been very grey lately. Yesterday it was dull and grey but not actually raining, the sort of weather when the washing just hangs limply on the washing line until you bring it in just as wet as when you hung it out.

My youngest has been off school with a sore throat and a hacking cough (which I am hoping he will not share with the rest of us) so the mood at home is not cheerful.

The garden still has some colour though so I took my camera into the garden to capture the little patches of brightness.

Maybe November isn't so dull and grey after all.

Monday, 19 November 2007


We celebrated our wedding anniversary this week - 19 years. Each year I make an anniversary card for my husband. As I can't draw I use photographs or magazine cuttings to make a card that depicts something we have done during the year. Usually its somewhere we have been on holiday but this time I thought we should remember this last year as "the year we got the chickens". Here are two of the photographs I used to make the card.

I would never have imagined, nineteen years ago, that someday I'd be keeping chickens!

Nineteen years isn't a particularly long time but we were talking with the boys about things that are available now that we didn't even think about 19 years ago - mobile phones, DVDs, iPods, X box, Internet, ordering shopping online, booking holidays online, cheap air travel, zillions of TV channels, blogging.

Very few people, nineteen years ago would have worried about peak oil and global warming. I didn't start thinking about fossil fuel use until around eight years ago which was the last time we flew abroad for a holiday. We went to Bali for our honeymoon and I didn't give any thought to the damage that the flight might be doing to the planet.

I wonder what changes we will see in the next nineteen years. How much will the climate have changed? Will there still be fuel available for most people to have cars? Will we still be importing food from far away or will we all have to eat local? On balance I think its just as well we can't see into the future (probably too scary!) but I am sure that there are changes ahead that we haven't even begun to think about yet.

Saturday, 17 November 2007

Mini salads.

When I got my mini-greenhouse last month I decided to experiment with growing a few pots of salad leaves during the winter. After four weeks I now have a few baby salad leaves to harvest.
A tray of mixed salad leaves.

Rocket and Red Oak Leaf lettuce (not very red but that is probably due to low light levels).

A tray of Ruby Chard which has taken longer to germinate but is beginning to put up the first real leaves.

I didn't sow much of each as I wasn't sure how well they would grow but I am pleased with the results. The plants look much healthier and are less straggly than when I have tried to grow them on a windowsill. I won't get enough for a large salad but I will have a few leaves to add to filled rolls for packed lunches. A successful experiment and I can measure the distance travelled in food yards not food miles!

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Winter time

The weather has turned more wintry lately. We had a frost earlier in the week and the gritting lorry went through the village spreading rock salt over the roads and pavements. All our gloves and scarves have been brought out again and sit on top of our shoe cupboard in the hall ready to be grabbed as we go out. It seems that more than half the pile belongs to me so I think I should concentrate on knitting something else this winter.

At the allotment I am harvesting winter vegetables, leeks, chard and spinach beet (my parsnips didn't germinate this year) and I am working to clear the ground of the last of the weeds. I planted half a packet of broad beans this week, the second half will be planted after Christmas. This should extend the season but I sometimes find that the second crop catches up with the first.

The beginnings of the colder weather also means that I will have to bring the water container from the chicken run into the house in the evening. The water in our small bird bath was frozen one morning so I think a metal container of water on the ground would easily freeze in a heavy frost. It will be easier to bring it in and stand it in the kitchen overnight rather than having to defrost it if it does freeze.

I'm sure in a couple of months I shall be fed up with the cold damp weather but at the moment I am enjoying the changes to the routine that this time of year brings. My favourite time of the day is late afternoon, around half past four. I have just returned from picking my younger son up from the station so both boys are home, the chickens are safely tucked up for the night and its getting dark so I can go round the house pulling all the curtains to keep the heat in. At the moment we have set the heating to come on just for three hours each evening from six to nine but if its cold we switch it on for an extra hour for a bit more warmth. The boys chat and unwind after school while I start to prepare the meal, then when my husband gets in a couple of hours later we can lock all the doors and the whole family is safe and warm at home.

Friday, 9 November 2007

Rosehip Syrup

This year the fruit harvest has been good both in the gardens and in the hedgerows. Blackberries, sloes and elderberries have been plentiful and I collected some of each as they became ripe. There are also a lot of rosehips about this year but I have not collected them since I was a child when we used to remove the hairy seeds and call it itching powder. Rosehips have twenty times the level of vitamin C as oranges and during the war when shipping was disrupted and fruit from abroad was not available, large quantities of rosehips were collected by volunteers to be made into syrup. From 1943 - 1945 the annual amount collected was 450 tons. The syrup was sold for 1s 9d (about 8p) for a six ounce bottle but mothers and children could get larger quantities at reduced prices from welfare clinics.

In the latest Permaculture Magazine there was a recipe for Rosehip syrup so I decided to have a go. The recipe in the magazine seemed to be based on the recipe given out by the Ministry of Food in 1943 and which I found reprinted in Food for Free by Richard Mabey.

The original recipe used 2lb of rosehips but I just did half the quantity.

Mince 1lb of rosehips and empty straight into one and a half pints of boiling water. It is important to put the hips in the boiling water immediately after mincing to minimise the loss of vitamin C.

Stop heating and leave to stand for 15 minutes. Then filter the mixture through a jelly bag. Put the mixture remaining in the bag back in the saucepan, add 3/4 pint of boiling water, allow to stand for 10 minutes and then filter thorough the jelly bag again.

It is important to remove all the hairs that cover the seeds as these will be an irritant if swallowed. The recipe suggested refiltering the first cupful of juice to make sure all the hairs are removed.

This close up photograph of the jelly bag showed a number of these little hairs so to be sure to remove all of them I filtered the juice through a paper coffee filter!

Place the filtered juice in a saucepan and boil until the volume is reduced to 3/4 pint. Add 10 oz sugar, boil for 5 minutes and then pour into hot sterile bottles and seal.

I didn't have any bottles so I put mine in jam jars.

The original storage instructions were to store in a dark cupboard and to use the syrup within one to two weeks of opening. I think that it would keep for longer than that if it was refrigerated as there is quite a high sugar content.

I have tasted the syrup and it does taste just the same as the "Delrosa" rosehip syrup that I remember from when I was little. Although Delrosa syrup has not been available in the UK for some years, it can still be found in some countries.

I wonder whether in the future when we need to depend more on locally produced foods, we will once again be gathering rosehips on a large scale to make this vitamin C rich syrup.

Saturday, 3 November 2007

Saturday Morning

This morning I went outside to let the chickens out of their hen house at about quarter to seven. The sky was very pale blue and there were no clouds. During the week at this time I am normally up and busy, sorting packed lunches etc, ready for my husband and youngest son to leave for the train at just after seven. Today though as it was Saturday I wasn't in a rush so I took my early morning mug of tea out to the garden. Its just as well our garden isn't overlooked as I must have looked quite a sight wearing a dressing gown and wellies!

It was lovely just to sit quietly for a few minutes and listen to the birds and look at the garden. The weather was very still, no wind at all and so it made a very peaceful start to the day.

Within half an hour I was busy again, the washing machine whirring, a batch of bread started and the household waking up but somehow the calm of the slow start to the day seemed to stay with me. I don't expect to be wandering around the garden first thing every day but maybe taking a bit of time to be quiet and still at the start of the day would have the same effect.

Sunday, 28 October 2007

Winter time

The clocks were put back an hour last night which makes it the end of British Summer Time. As the days get darker and winter approaches, the countryside and the garden seems to be slowing down and I think I must be slowing down too. The days pass and I don't seem to have completed all the things I'd planned. Perhaps I am programmed to hibernate in the winter.

As the days shorten, I am letting the chickens out of the hen house later and they are roosting much earlier. They now spend more time sleeping than they spend awake and active, perhaps thats what we should all do in winter.

The past week has been half-term here so it has been an ideal time to be lazy. I enjoy the break from taking to and from schools and packing lunches.

These pictures were taken on a visit to my brother and his family this weekend. Although the weather was a bit dismal and dull there was still a lot of autumn colour to admire before we get properly into winter time.

Monday, 22 October 2007


On Saturday evening we went to see Ray Mears. He is touring the UK at the moment with his show called "In front of and behind the lens". He talked about the places he has visited and the television programmes he has made during the last 15 years. It was fascinating. He talked for over two and a half hours and the time passed so quickly.

He has made programmes throughout the world and gathered a lot of knowledge about the hunter gatherer way of life and the skills used. In almost every community he visited, the traditional way of life was dying out and it was only by talking to the older people that he was able to build up a picture of the way they had lived for generations and generations.

What struck me most as he talked about all the different tribes and groups he had met was how in each case they were all very "in tune" with their surroundings. Whether it was tracking animals in Africa or knowing where to find fish in a frozen lake they all seemed to know their surroundings in a way that most of us will never be able to do. There was also a great respect for their environment, for the animals that they hunted and plants that they gathered. These seem to be societies where there is very little waste, when an animal is killed for food every part is used, just enough of a plant is harvested for building, for medicines or for making fire. Traditionally the communities were almost totally self sufficient, as they often lived in remote areas all their needs had to be supplied from the local area.

While we in "developed" countries are trying to eat local foods, reduce dependence on fossil fuels and consume less of the world's resources perhaps we can gain inspiration from these traditional hunter gatherer communities.

Thursday, 18 October 2007


Over the past week or so I have been trying unsuccessfully to buy onion sets. Apparently there is a shortage of sets in the UK due to the wet weather during the summer. My local garden centre have sold out and are unable to source any more.

I've always grown onions from sets but I know that they can be grown from seed. This article suggests planting seeds in January or February at 50-59C which I would not be able to do as I have no heated greenhouse. I have read that seed can be planted directly in the ground around March - April but as onions need quite a long growing season I wondered about the size of the crop raised this way. Alternatively I could start the seed off in March in my new mini greenhouse, which would extend the season slightly.

Does anyone have any tips as to the best method of growing onions from seed?

Sunday, 14 October 2007

Simple Living

I was wondering what to write as I sat down at the computer - I haven't really been doing anything exciting to share.

We tend to judge our lives by the big events, experiences, purchases, etc, but simple living isn't really about the exciting things, its about enjoying the small everyday things.

Its a change of mindset that I think we will all have to make as resources to fuel the exciting activities become fewer and fewer. When we are unable to travel long distances easily, we will have to be content with exploring the area close to home. When travel takes place at a slower pace then there will be time to notice the details.

When it becomes impossible to ship/fly exotic or out of season fruit to our shops, we will have to be content with our local foods and gain pleasure from cooking them well.

When there are fewer mass produced goods in the shops, we will spend more time making things for ourselves. Making and mending are not thought to be exciting but they can be enjoyable, satisfying activities.

So during the last week I haven't done anything exciting but I have enjoyed some simple activities around my home.

Today we had these carrots with our roast chicken lunch. They were on a corner of my allotment and I'd forgotten about them. It was a pleasant surprise to discover that they'd done so well.

I also found just a handful of late autumn raspberries in the garden. There were only a few so I stewed them with some local cooking apples so that we could all share them. They turned the apple a really rich colour.

Finally a few photographs taken on a gentle Sunday afternoon walk just a couple of miles from home - not exciting but a lovely way to spend a very warm October afternoon.