I’m Busy

Yes, as usual, I’m busy. And I don’t think it is just a case of Parkinson’s First Law which states that work expands to fill the time available!

Since Steve Jones of Chapter 39 in Newtown, Powys challenged me to think about, and plan for, the year 2050 I have been doing so. And one of the results is a decision to have the chalet in the garden, originally built as consulting rooms for our Counselling business, refurbished as somewhere someone could live rent free in return for helping me in the garden and woods. Time was John and I would have done the work between us but he is dead and I am older so I have employed a builder to do the work that I feel unable to do. But he still needs me to make decisions, source things like the small woodburner that will heat the place and to pay the bills. And I am doing the jobs I can manage like decorating and building the carcasses for the kitchen units. It all takes time.

Because I am doing so much thinking and designing (the chalet is only the start although probably the most expensive  item on my list of changes) it seemed only sensible to get some credit for it and in the process have someone else to look at and comment on the plans. Therefore I have signed up for the Diploma in Permaculture Design which is a self directed course of study in which I have to submit 10 designs for land, house, lifestyle or whatever. I get the support of a tutor to guide me so that I meet the criteria for standard of work. Unfortunately there is no fixed time scale so I can prevaricate to my hearts content! And all those ideas, thoughts, musings have to be transferred from my head to paper in a form which makes sense to someone else. I must be mad! Why do I do these things to myself?!

Now in my dreams all that work would result in a house so easy to manage that I could drift round in dolled up to the nines, nearly tens, whilst the ghost of my mother beamed approvingly. I should explain that the greatest compliment she could pay another housewife (always a wife in those days – men did manly things not housework) was ‘You could eat your dinner off her floors’. Even as a child I wondered how she would react if that was put to the test! And my garden would look like those the National Trust runs – thriving plants, no weeds, tidy paths… Meanwhile my woodshed would be bursting with neatly stacked logs from the acre that was coppiced each year, my car would be valeted after every journey and my outgoings would be minimal because of my reduced energy and water bills, the volume of garden produce and my general thriftiness. Undobtedly only in my dreams!

In the real world 2 dogs and 3 cats help me trail in mud. They rub dirt on the soft furnishings as they pass and leave hairs everywhere. I am convinced that old spiders use this place as cobweb building boot camp for the youngsters and it is ideal for the purpose being old, wonky and full of nooks and crannies. In the garden it is jungle warfare and the jungle always wins. I clear, mulch, plant and before I can get back to the beginning the weeds have gone mad. I have couch grass, nettles, brambles, bindweed, rosebay willowherb and himalayan balsam in abundance and some of the banks between terraces are so steep that working on them is well nigh impossible.

I have given up writing ‘TO DO’ lists – they are too depressing. Partly that is because jobs like housework or gardening tend not to have defined finishing points – however much I have done I could do more or do it again. Instead I write lists of what I have done and often it is quite a lot.

One of my favourite definitions of stress is that it occurs in work when demand outstrips capability. Both those things are ultimately a choice for me. I have no boss telling me what I must accomplish by the end of the day, week or year. I decide what I want to get done and what, realistically, I might be able to manage. I can choose whether or not to give myself a hard time if I fail. And I can choose to say ‘I can’t do that. I don’t have the skill, knowledge, experience..’ or to say ‘I can’t do that YET but I could learn’. It is true that as I get older I tire more quickly and I have less brute strength than I used to. But I also know more, have more experience of doing things or watching others do them, and am more willing to ask for help or advice. One of the advantages of grey hair and wrinkles and going deaf is that people feel good about helping me.

So, yes, I am busy. At the moment I am particularly busy. And, you know what? I am loving it because I CAN be busy and it certainly beats being bored and reduced to watching daytime TV! Next time I grumble about how hectic life is you can remind me of that!

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Scrap Happy July

Or how to be inspired by some-one else’s rubbish!

My neighbour has been doing a lot of work on his house and a large pile of rubble built up on his driveway. Some was taken by builders working on an extension to another house nearby which had to be built up over a slope so they dumped it under the floor. Someone else wanted some to put in a field gate that was very muddy but they never came for it. So most of it just sat there.

Meanwhile I was fed up with the area between the garden around the conservatory and the slope down to the lower garden. It is full of bindweed which makes walking from the deck to the workshop and woodshed hazardous. I found myself detouring through the garden and greenhouse to a better path. Plus the bindweed jumped the timber edge (or tunneled under it) and came up to strangle my plants. I scythed it down but what I needed was a hard path to give it some serious discouragement.

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Brainwave!

I got Rob (who lives in the cabin and works 2 days in place of rent) on the job. First we needed something to contain the rubble. Many years ago John and I bought some heavy lengths of treated timber to build raised beds and there were a few left over. One was still in the car-port. To hold it in place he used some fence pins put aside because they were bent which he cut up into shorter straight pieces. Then I found 2 rolls of mulch fabric in the garden shed which were more than enough to cover the space and be stapled to the sides.

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The next day we scoured the garden for abandoned concrete blocks left over from other projects. There were two stacks on the veg patch smothered in ivy, a few beside the path through the fruit garden, another stack in the old pig sty and several others dotted around the car port and drive area. Those we laid to make the main path. (There are still a few left in the pig sty in case another scrappy project comes along!) Then we filled in with rubble barrowed down from the neighbour’s heap.

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When (When..) we get some rain it will all settle but we did not use all the rubble so we can top it up. And when it finishes settling I will buy (yes, sorry, buy) some sand or gravel to finish the job neatly.

So not quite a totally scrappy job but almost!

Scrap Happy is curated by Kate who blogs as ‘Tall tales from Chiconia’. You can find her and links to all the other happy scrappers here

Tick Tock

Time has been much on my mind lately.

Yet again there is not enough of it for me to do everything I want to do. And not, it seems, only for me; almost every blog I have read lately has started with an apology for not having posted much lately. But when I think about what I have achieved over the last month or two it suggests I have not been that much of a slouch! The garden is very green (even if a lot of the growth is weeds) and I am eating something from it every day. I have visited and had visitors, been to events, written up more of my diploma… I just haven’t done as much as I hoped and intended.

When I am waiting for a bus / train / appointment time drags very slowly. When I am trying-to-get-everything-done-by.. it races past. Which is odd because according to science each second is exactly the same length as every other. According to the National Physical Laboratory ‘The second is defined by taking the fixed numerical value of the caesium frequency ∆ν, the unperturbed ground-state hyperfine transition frequency of the caesium 133 atom, to be 9 192 631 770 when expressed in the unit Hz, which is equal to s−1. The wording of the definition was updated in 2019.’ I am not sure why that definition was chosen or how they know, but it sounds impressive and they seem pretty sure it ensures that seconds cannot wriggle around and change their length! But I am equally sure that they do in the real, lived world!

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I love clocks, preferably ones which tick and chime although with my deteriorating hearing I notice them less. My favourite is the grandfather clock I inherited from my mother’s oldest sister and which passes from woman to woman through the family. My aunt was childless hence it coming to me. In due course it will go to my daughter and then to her daughter. There is only one place in the living room where it can go because it is tall and the ceiling, though undulating, is low. For telling the time it is hopeless! It runs for eight days between re-windings, though I try to do it every Sunday so I remember, and is usually at least an hour wrong by then. When we first got it we decided that since it was not reliable for knowing the time we would set it to local time which here is 18 minutes behind GMT and we pay no attention to British Summer Time. However this summer, as last, it refuses to go at all. This old house moves as the temperature and rainfall cycle through the year and at the moment doors are sticking and the old clock has stopped. In the autumn I will find it will go again. It clearly lives in its own little world where seconds are constantly changing in length.

Then there is the face of the old Postman’s Alarm clock which stopped working and no-one could get to go again. The chains and weights needed such a long drop that it was very hard to find somewhere to hang it. I replaced the old mechanism with a battery one and it now lives in the porch.

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The one on the oven returns to noon whenever we have a power cut however momentary. It is often the only way I know there was one. If that happens the oven refuses to come on until the clock has been reset. Why? Why does it have to know the the time to be able to get hot?

The laptop, tablet and my mobile phone also have accurate clocks, updated by their internet connections and no doubt accurate to the fraction of a second – but only useful when they are switched on!

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I have other reliable clocks for knowing when I need to go out or expect visitors. They are battery operated and radio controlled. The packaging on one boasted it was accurate to ‘one second in a thousand years’ though I doubt if anyone will be able to hold them to that. Nor do I understand why any ordinary person would require that degree of accuracy.

Apart from when I need to be somewhere at a particular time most of my life is lived by approximate time. I get up when I wake and go to bed when I am tired. I eat when my internal clock tells me I should. In winter days are short and evenings long. In summer it is the reverse. The transition between the two is gradual – none of this disconcerting springing forward and falling back. So presumably the time will come when life is more leisurely and blog posts more frequent. You can decide for yourselves if that is a threat or a promise!

Now my highly accurate internal clock is saying it is time for a cup of tea so that is what I will do next.

Scrap Happy June: Introducing Ada Phitt

Some time ago I came across an idea for a home-made dressmakers dummy. Where I saw it I cannot remember and it was quite some time before I decided to have a go. There were two reasons it caught my eye. Firstly it would be exactly my size and shape – much more accurate than a shop bought one even if theoretically adjustable. Secondly I could make it all from things I had in stock and mostly from scrap. So please welcome (drum roll please) the lovely Ada Phitt

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OK so she is no beauty, but then neither am I, and she has not been improved by a spell in the attic whilst I used the studio as an extra bedroom. She does her job well though.

If you fancy making one of your very own it is easy as long as you have an assistant you are happy to allow to see you in old underwear. I asked my daughter to help. You will need 2 old T-shirts, some rolls of duct tape (I think we used 2 but err on the side of caution – you cannot ash out to the local DIY store in the middle of this!), a pair of scissors, some old cushions, pillows or other stuffing material, a broom handle and a base for a garden parasol (mine was one of the plastic ones you fill with water or sand).

Put on the tattiest of the old T-shirts and invite your assistant to wrap you in duct tape. Over the shoulders, round the tops of the arms, then round and round the torso to the largest part of the hips. The tape should be snug but not so tight you can’t breathe. And wrinkles or large overlaps are to be avoided. Needless to say, at this point we were both laughing so much we nearly wet ourselves!

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Once the shell is complete your assistant needs to release you by cutting right up the back. This is why I wore old underwear – it would be so easy to cut through a bra strap or nick your knickers!

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Rejoin the cut edges with more tape, then stuff the shell with the old cushions. I found it best to put the first cushion under the neck opening to stop the pole going right through, then put some more stuffing in without filling her completely. Then I pushed the broom handle up her spine before arranging more stuffing to wedge it in place. Finally put the pole into the stand and cover her with another old T-shirt so you have something to pin to. If the stuffing migrates a bit over time, as Ada’s seems to have done, it is easy tidy it up when you want to use her.

You can, of course take the pole out of the body and the stand and store them all separately if space is limited.

Then enjoy making clothes that fit YOU perfectly.

Scrap Happy is curated by Kate who blogs as ‘Tall tales from Chiconia’. You can find her and links to all the other happy scrappers here

The Rules of Knitting

You may remember that a while ago I wrote a post about things I had been making, including 2 cushions. (If you missed it you can read it here) One was a present for my daughter and made of fabric, the other was knitted using some wool left over from another project. I noticed that I made the fabric one during the day and the knitted one in the evening whilst sitting with my feet up. Which sort of made sense – to cut out fabric on a big table or to sew on the machine I go into my studio over the utility room. To go up there after dark when it is colder took more effort than sitting in front of the fire.

But now spring has come, the evenings are light and the weather is warm and still I only do sewing in the day! Then I realised that I had inherited this pattern from my mother. The more I thought about it the more curious it seemed. It was only when I began to remember my childhood home that it all began to make sense.

My mother kept her hand powered singer sewing machine (so no integral light!) in the tiny ‘boxroom’ which had a fold out camp bed for visitors but was essentially used for storage. To use the machine she carried it down to the living room and used the dining table so it had to be put away in order to serve the evening meal. After that she would sit with my father and watch TV – and knit at the same time.

I also realised that, like many houses of that era, there were no table lamps, and certainly nothing like the flexible task lamps we have now. In fact, I now remember, there wasn’t even a standard lamp which she could have had by her chair. Each room had a central pendant light so that to do sewing involved moving a table so that the light fell on it (but never as bright a light as I would expect to have now) or positioning it in front of a window. Another reason for sewing in daylight. Knitting, of course, can be done with weaker light – at least if it is fairly simple. Hers always was rather ‘functional’! Endless plain jumpers in sensible colours.

Now my studio is well lit with strip lights down each side of the ceiling and a choice of task lights. I have a fan heater in there so that I can be warm whatever the outside temperature.

So Why? Oh Why? can I not sew in the evening or knit in the afternoon? But I feel ‘all wrong’ if I try!

If you are still bound by old, irrelevant rules I would love to hear about them. I would feel less stupid!

A little piece of Heaven

Last Sunday morning found me driving through the back lanes of North Pembrokeshire. The sky was that perfect blue you only get on a May Morning, the Hawthorn was starting to flower in the hedgerows and the verges were thick with wild flowers. In places the cow parsley was so thick that it was almost as if I was driving along the beach between two breaking waves. Then my first glimpse of the sea which was a stunning turquoise blue as if trying to emulate one of those posters of Greek islands!

I would not normally go to a meet-up all the way over on the West coast but I had wanted to see Brian and Dot’s place for a long time and also this was the second meeting of the newly re-launched Pembrokeshire group so I wanted to do my bit to make sure the turnout was good.

My destination was a small farm on a little back road high up above Strumble Head just West of Fishguard. Brian and Dot live in an old farmhouse which has been cleverly divided to provide two homes, one for them and one for their daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter. Stone outbuildings have been converted into three holiday cottages and a house for their son and daughter-in-law. Each resident family has their own outside space and a piece of garden for growing food though there are no fences so it feels very open and joined up. The rest of the land is managed co-operatively. And everywhere there are views across the fields to the sea. Bliss! Find out more about holidying there and see more photos here )

The turnout was good, two people brought children and there were three visiting dogs which all added to the fun. I had left my dogs at home – the rescued lurcher would have panicked and it was too hot to leave her in the car.

After excellent coffee and a chance to chat and to meet a couple of new members we set to work. A field is being turned into a forest garden with space in the middle for a yurt. Brian and Dot had put posts in to mark where they wanted trees to plant trees and mown a circle of grass round each. Our first job was to put down a layer of cardboard on each circle and then pile mulch on top. Some of us took the sellotape and plastic labels off a large stash of boxes they had collected from local businesses whilst others laid it on the cut grass or barrowed mulch from a huge pile at the edge of the field.

Lunch was a chance to sit outside and admire the view as well as continue chatting and sharing ideas and up-coming events. Then it was back to work.

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I had to leave early because of having left the dogs at home but by then all the circles were ready for planting and work had begun on putting new trees into the old hedge to improve the shelter belt. The others stayed to get the yurt frame up ( definitely a job for several people!) and Dot very kindly took photos of that for me.

What a perfect way to spend a glorious day in May

Scrappy Storage of Possible Scrap

A month or so ago I wrote a post about making things. (read it here if you missed it) and my good friend Mrs Snail suggested I join a group of crafty bloggers who post monthly about things made from scraps. It is all curated by Kate who blogs as Tall Tales from Chiconia. You can find her blog (here ) with links to all the other happy scrappers. So this is my first post specifically on using up rubbish creatively.

Every few years I get this strange urge to have a good clear-out, a massive de-clutter; and I withdraw from groups I no longer feel such a bond to making more time in my life. Then of course I acquire more stuff, get involved in new things until the next time! After a couple of limbering up exercises with my daughter helping me to purge the loft and the collection of slides my husband had taken (if I don’t recognise the person or place why keep them?) I started on the house.

Three walls of the sitting room were lined floor to ceiling with shelves of books and more overflowed into the spare room. An old parish chest had been full of them for ten years or so. I took down all the ones I thought I would never read again. There weren’t many left! Which made me lose my nerve. What if I was being too ruthless? Many were old and out of print so if I changed my mind they would not be easy to replace. I started to carry them up to the loft – filling up all the space we had cleared. But the piles started to wobble, putting them in boxes just gave me tottering piles of boxes instead!

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Then I had a brainwave. My friend Jeni and I had bought compost for our gardens in a large enough quantity for it to be delivered – on two pallets, which were still in the carport waiting for a use to be found for them. A quick check proved that a pallet was exactly the right size to fit into an alcove in my studio – perfect. Lurking in a shed was a stack of terracotta cylinders. They are made to stack as the inside of a chimney when a house is built. Why we bought them is lost in the mists of time but they have come in handy for a number of projects. Even so there were 8 left. 4 pairs lifted the pallet to just the point where the sloping ceiling meets the wall. Non-fiction went underneath with the stacks holding each other up, fiction and theology went on top (the juxtaposition was entirely subconscious I promise!)

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Problem solved! If they are still there in a couple of years time I will start taking them to the charity shops. Then I can either use the shelf for storing something else (the clutter will be building again by then I know) or dismantle it and use the pieces for something else entirely.

A muted Hooray!

The BBC’s Welsh news carried a report this morning that ‘the UK Committee on Climate Change is advising that Wales should cut the numbers of sheep and cattle, plant more trees and encourage heavy industry to clean up’ (read the full article here) What’s not to like?

Weeeellll?

Whilst some smallholders of my acquaintance keep sheep and poultry primarily as pets not many of them keep cows. Cows, at least on any commercial scale, involve getting up at silly o’clock every morning, seven days a week, bank holidays and Christmas included, to do the milking. And repeating the procedure in the late afternoon meaning that even a day out has to be a short one. At the large organic dairy farm up the road Charlie, the manager, milks over 200 cows every day except between Christmas and Easter-ish time when the cows are dry because they are pregnant. At the moment he is calving (regular checks, helping any cows which are struggling to deliver their calf and frequent visits from the vet for the problem cases) AND milking the cows who have had their calves AND feeding the calves which are old enough to be taken off their mothers. He cares about his cows but he does it because it is a job, it keeps a roof over his family’s head and food on the table. Even if only one or two cows are kept, as Michelle and Phil do at Dyfed Permaculture Farm Trust (links at the bottom of this post) going on holiday is a logistic nightmare

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Sheep are just as demanding. At lambing time shepherds sleep in their clothes and patrol at frequent intervals day and night ready to intervene if a sheep is distressed. And there is hoof trimming, fly-strike prevention (Flies lay their eggs in the mucky wool at the rear end of a sheep, the eggs hatch and the maggots eat the flesh into sores. Regular trimming of the wool and vigilance are needed to prevent it) and then there is shearing…

Like most of us farmers get satisfaction from doing a job they are good at and of course there are compensations but for most it is as stressful as any other type of self-employment and physically grueling. Farming is not for whimps!

So reducing numbers of livestock would help them right? Would you be happy to take a pay cut even if it meant working less hard? No, I thought not.

The Government seems to be taking the Marie Antoinette approach ‘Let them eat cake’. Or rather ‘Let them diversify’

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That often means tourism. Not every farmhouse is easily adaptable to B&B. Not every farm has a set of picturesque outbuildings ripe for conversion to holiday cottages and not every farmer makes a good host. Even if you enjoy welcoming people into your home and have the right infrastructure it is hard work and a precarious business. And it has implications for the community. Until Pemberton’s Chocolate Farm closed I regularly encountered drivers who were quite unable to reverse to a passing place along these single track lanes. So instead of them going back 100 yards I would reverse a quarter of a mile. An irritation for me but no joke if you are in a tractor with a trailer behind waiting whilst they panic and weave their way slowly back, or are a courier driver with an algorithm imposing deadlines on you that take no account of such things (townies all, those algorithms!) More importantly some villages on the coast have become ghost towns in Winter – they might as well put up a ‘Closed’ sticker on the ‘Welcome to..’ sign on the road in.

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Plan B is ‘Added value’. Make your milk into yoghurt or ice-cream, get your fleeces spun and sell the wool or, better still, knit or weave it and sell your crafts, sell your meat direct to the customer on-line. Animals were traditionally sold through the marts and not every farmer can, or wants to, become an entrepreneur. And as for on-line, unless there is serious investment in good broadband for rural areas, dream on sunshine. Read about my switch to a satellite based system (here) Compared with the speeds and reliability on my landline it is fabulous but pathetic compared to the service my son gets in Luton.

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my internet satellite dish

So unless the drive to reduce livestock numbers is associated with increased farm payments, or increased prices for the food they produce, or investment in alternative employment and infrastructure, the result will be even more rural poverty and homelessness.

Secondly, what about those fields which will no longer have animals in them? Left to their own devices they will become massive bramble patches with a few chest high docks and nettles thrown in. Not what the tourists pay to come and see. Give them a few decades and they will transition through scrub woodland (mainly blackthorn round here) to woodland. Of course they could be planted with trees to shorten the process. The Government could fund that and pay farmers ‘rent’ for the land. They could call it a ‘carbon sequestration services payment’. Mmm can’t see it happening somehow, not in the long term. And sitting at home living, effectively, on benefit would not be good for the mental health of the farmers. They could be encouraged to manage the woodland but that is a very different skill set from farming and one they would have to learn. Even if they did where would the market be for all that extra firewood, coppice product and timber? What would they live on until the trees were big enough to be harvested? Questions, questions, questions and a shortage of answers.

Thirdly those animals currently supply the food chain. Unless the population as a whole reduces its consumption of dairy produce, eggs and meat, the shortfall will be cheerfully filled by the supermarkets importing more. There would be no reduction in global carbon emissions because no overall reduction in animal numbers. But the animals would probably be reared to lower welfare standards according to the expert I heard on the food programme (listen to it here) Wales could feel virtuous by ‘off-shoring’ the problem.

If only life was simple!

I will welcome comments, arguments, or questions whether you agree with me or take a different view, but please keep them respectful, thoughtful and evidence based.

My pictures are supplemented by ones from my good friend Michelle Laine of Scythe Cymru – find out more about her and her family’s low impact lives here and on facebook here The picture of farm cottages for holidays is from google images.