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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Permaculture Principles 4 – Every element should support more than one function and every function should be supported by more than one elemnent

I will have to try and think of a pithier way of putting that! Though doubtless others have tried and I have no reason to suppose I am better at pithy than they were.

Permaculture is about designing efficient, resilient systems. The efficiency comes from elements which earn their keep or their space in our cupboards. Probably all of us have been given gadgets such as waffle makers, sandwich toasters as gifts and found that we do not eat many waffles or toasted sandwiches! So they sit in the cupboard getting an occasional outing until we decide they can reasonably be got rid of. A wooden spoon or sharp knife on the other hand…  Resilience is characterised by elastic in the system – if there is a failure at any one point there will always be a ‘Plan B’. Think of a road layout. If there is one road from A to B and it gets blocked no traffic can move but if that road is part of a network then everyone can divert around the blockage. The diversion may be less direct or convenient but it is still possible to get from A to B.

I have been rather forcibly reminded of this principle recently. Over a month ago my broadband connection failed (Why it has been down so long is another story) and I have discovered just how dependent I have become on that one element. Partly that dependency has arisen because of where I live and the lack of infrastructure in the remoter, rural parts of the UK; but I had also failed to notice how many things in my life were becoming wi-fi dependent. That one element supports many functions; the problem is that too many functions were supported by only that element!

The most obvious is communication. Because my hearing is poor I find emails easier than even a special phone. So I have been visiting my friends Jeni and Rob most days to collect emails and reply to anything urgent. Lovely to see them but…. I have also been using the free connections in the Library and at the Welsh class when I am in Cardigan but neither of those is secure. I know one of my neighbours uses a mobile phone connection in preference to a landline one but I get no signal at home so a smart phone is not a good use of money.

I also do research for my Permaculture Diploma online, use the web-based resources for the Welsh course including listening again to audio tapes, bank for myself and in my role as treasurer at Dyfed Permaculture Farm Trust, read the news, check the weather forecast, play games and do puzzles, manage my electricity account, listen to radio as podcasts and occasionally watch TV, join Skype meetings, keep up with friends on social media, shop for things I cannot get locally and, of course,  write this blog.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor some of these there are alternatives. I can phone people if I need to, Radio reception is poor at home because I am right down in the valley but it is good enough to listen to a news bulletin. One of my bank accounts is available by going into the Cardigan branch. The hardest to access have been the Welsh course, Skype meetings and this blog. The audio on the first 2 is anti-social and headphones plus hearing aids is not a good mix! Blog writing has to be done online and takes time.

Well – lesson learned! Even if my broadband is restored tomorrow when the 5th Openreach engineer has a go, I need to have a better back-up plan so I have asked my very tech-savvy son to come over when he can and review the whole system with me. He already has some ideas using gadgets and gizmos I have never heard of. I anticipate a cash boost for Amazon (no local shop is likely to have all we need). Watch this space!

 

Going Batty in London

Yesterday was a wonderful, exciting, proud day out in London that took me right out of my usual world and into that of wealth and privilege. My amazing eldest grandchild, Shorna, graduated with First Class Honours in International events Management and Mandarin from Regent’s University.

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My Son, Hassan, and daughter-in-Law, Narju, very generously invited me and the other Grandma to join them and Shorna’s brother, Sean for the day of the ceremony. Sadly the requested visa for the other grandma to come from Bangladesh did not come through so it was just the 5 of us. Because they have recently taken in 3 new foster children and I have 2 dogs it seemed wiser for me to stay with my daughter who would be happy to feed and walk them after work so I did not have to rush back. A relative of Narju looked after the children after school so they, too could relax and enjoy the day to the full.

So it was off to Waterloo on the train then by underground to King’s Cross where we all met up. A short walk to the Regent’s canal brought us to our lunch venue. Then back on the tube system to Regent’s University which is an independent (private) University in Regent’s Park itself. Shorna went off to collect her academic gown, hood and mortar board whilst we enjoyed the courtyard garden and took our own informal photos until we all got so hot we had to retreat indoors to have the official photographs taken.

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The ceremony itself was held in St Marylebone Parish Church just outside the park.

 

 

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Amazingly I managed to catch the moment she shook the Chancellor’s hand without getting too many heads in the way. We were sitting up on the top tier of the balcony so actually had quite a good view!

Then there were very welcome drinks and canapes on the College lawn and we managed to get a table under the shade of the trees.

 

We rounded off the day with a meal at Yalla Yalla, a Lebanese restaurant which is a family favourite and parted company at Oxford Circus tube station to get our trains home. I love my life as a Welsh peasant but it is nice to experience how the other half live occasionally!

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Regular readers will have noticed that I have not posted for a while. I lost my broadband connection over a month ago and so far 3 engineers from Openreach have failed to get it working again! Another is coming next Monday to have another go. But as I am now at my daughters for a few days I can log in and write some posts about the nice things which have been happening. Please keep following and reading!

Going to Town

I grew up on the edge of Prestwich in Greater Manchester, in a modest, semi-detached house in a cul-de-sac near one of the entrances to Heaton Park. Everyday shopping was done on foot in one of two small parades of shops – one at each end of the bigger road the cul-de-sac adjoined. Between them they supported a butcher, grocer, greengrocer, hardware shop, haberdashery, newsagent, chemist, post office and a bank. ‘Going to Town’ was a trip to Manchester itself. A major, day long expedition planned by my mother with military precision. ‘The list’ which had been growing as she noticed things she needed, was re-written according to the shop where she expected to find things and in the correct order to visit them. Since being out all day meant having a mid-day meal in a cafe the route had to deliver us to a suitable one early enough to beat the rush but late enough for them to be serving meals rather than just morning coffee. When we went on the bus we had to go after the rush hour but once we had a car we left earlier to get a parking place (always on the street in those days) before the commuters filled them all. , meaning of course that we arrived before the shops opened and so started at the furthest point from where we parked to use the time. Definitely not an outing to be undertaken lightly or often!

 

I still use local shops as much as possible and am lucky enough to have a choice of independent butchers, market gardens and small supermarkets within a few miles. ‘Going to Town’ means Carmarthen, Cardigan which are about the same distance (20 miles) from home or Haverfordwest which is slightly further, with occasional forays to Newcastle Emlyn or Narberth.  Mostly I go to Cardigan which has fewer chain-stores and more independent shops and where there is a fantastic haberdashery in the lower market – a must for someone like me who knits, crochets and sews. It is also where the Welsh class I go to is located meaning I can combine journeys.

 

Its Welsh name, Aberteifi, describes it – the mouth of the River Teifi and it was once an important port. The railway line which used to serve the town closed a long time ago but the route is now a footpath that runs next to the river through the Teifi Marshes Nature reserve and on to the village of Cilgerran. From there other pathways continue along the river, past the disused slate quarries and eventually to Llechryd.

 

If I fancy a view of the sea rather than the river a short drive through the village of St Dogmaels brings me to the long sandy beach and dune system at Poppit. Either turns a shopping trip from a chore into a treat for me and the dogs. It beats Manchester any day!

A feast of growing and growing a feast

Regular readers may have noticed that it is a while since I published a post. After a particularly cold and wet winter that felt as if it would never end it did – spectacularly! We have had a long spell of lovely warm dry weather. So I have been spending every available moment in the garden.

When, a few years after we moved in, we bought the steep slope behind the house from our lovely neighbour we had it terraced. But that meant the new veg garden was just compacted stone so we built raised beds and filled them with any bio-degradable material we could get. As anyone who has a compost heap knows a mountain of material breaks down into a little hump. So every year we added loads more. Until John was too ill and I was too busy looking after him. When I got back to the garden after he died the beds were very low again and by the time I had pulled out the worst of the really nasty weeds like bindweed and nettles, lower still. Luckily I had access to chipped wood from a local firm so I covered the annual weeds with cardboard then filled the beds with that – and it rotted down and I refilled them – and… This year the stash of material is already well rotted so hopefully from now on it will not go down much more. However I still had to do some barrowing up the hill before planting out seedlings and doing some direct sowing. But at last the bulk of the filling, planting and sowing are done. Which is just as well as this morning normal service was resumed with showers. Actually I am quite pleased because watering so many small things was quite a lot of work and the water butts were getting low. I should explain that I chose to go on water meter so that I would be more aware of my usage (which worked) and I do all the watering with cans from butts which collect rainwater from the roofs of the greenhouses and sheds.

Anyway things are growing and trees and shrubs are in bloom so it all looks much better.

 

By way of a change and some company I spent last Sunday at Dyfed Permaculture Farm Trust where we weeded one of the forest garden beds. We left some ‘weeds’ which are liked by bees but grubbed up the creeping buttercup and nettles. It was such a lovely day we had lunch outside around the firepit in front of the yurt. Michelle accidentally dug up some Babbington’s leeks, a perennial leek and offered them to me rather than put them back.

I am trying to increase the number of edible perrenials and self-seeders I have because they take much less work and come earlier. On Monday a friend came over for lunch and I picked small leaf lime, hawthorn, vine leaves, buckler leaf sorrel, jack-by-the-hedge, orpine, wild garlic, chives, chive flowers, oregano, corn salad and purslane with a few early leaves of newly sown chard and beetroot to make a big bowl of salad to go with hard boiled eggs from Jeni’s ducks and some home-made cheese scones. Delicious!

 

A Not-much-workday in Laugharne!

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Last Sunday a group of us gathered in the hills high above Laugharne, a small town famous for being once the home of Dylan Thomas and inspiration for Under Milkwood, and as the setting for the the recent S4C & BBC 2 drama series ‘Un Bore Mercher’ / ‘Keeping Faith’. We were visiting Peter and Alison who organise the Carmarthenshire network and who live in a Passive House on a large plot which was carved from a farm which is run by Alison’s brother. They have glorious views but it is very windy up there so tree planting has been important. They do make a positive out of the problem by having a wind turbine!

Four years ago their son, who lives with them, planted an area of woodland for coppicing on the far side of a ploughed field where it would not affect the wind flow over the turbine. He had chosen a wide variety of species for 3 different rotation lengths giving a  range of material in the future. He had cut back most of the trees in the short rotation area over the winter and our task was to chop up what he had cut and lay it down around the trees as mulch. The trees had been quite small so with 8 adults and 4 children the job did not take long.

Then it was time for the usual shared lunch. We were supposed to barrow compost in the afternoon but it was such a glorious day that we helped plant out a few seedlings and then enjoyed wandering through the gardens. Peter and Alison have each created a forest garden and as I had seen Peter’s very recently walked with Alison through hers. A lovely way to spend a sunny afternoon!

My contribution was scones. With no eggs or milk this recipe is suitable for vegans if made with dairy free spread. However gluten free flour does not work in it for me.

1 lb / 500g self-raising flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

4 oz / 250 g butter or dairy free spread

4 oz / 250g sugar

a generous handful sultanas (optional)

chopped candied peel (optional)

fizzy lemonade OR lemon juice and sparkling water

 

Rub the butter into the dry ingredients, add the fruit if using, then mix to a soft but not sticky dough with the lemonade or a good squirt of lemon juice and the water. Turn onto a floured board and roll or pat to 1.5 – 2 cm thick and cut into rounds. Gather up left over dough and make more until all is used but do not knead or work it too much – be gentle. Place the rounds on a baking sheet and bake at 200 deg for 12 – 15 mins until lightly golden. Cool on a rack.

The consequence of reading books

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA couple of years ago Mark Boyle, Guardian columnist and author of ‘The Moneyless Man and ‘Drinking Molatov Cocktails with Ghandi’, put into words a discomfort I had been feeling for a while. When John died I claimed the life insurance originally intended to pay off our mortgage. In the event it we had paid down the mortgage every time we had a windfall or an extra piece of work and no longer had a debt. Unsure what to do with the money I contacted an ethical investment firm and let them take care of it. It did rather well. Suspiciously well. Mark Boyle’s books made me look more closely. Ethical is a vague term – some of the money was invested in property funds. There was no reason to think this was unethical was there? Then I thought again. Were these buildings constructed using the most sustainable designs and materials? Maintained to the same high standards? Were the tenants vetted to ensure they were running ethical companies? Hmmm. I decided it was time to stop being lazy and shuffling the responsibility onto someone else’s shoulders. But what should I do with a sum of money which, by my standards, was quite large? I waited for an answer to present itself.

My first 2 attempts to buy pieces of woodland came to naught. Then, last year, the farmer who owned some land adjoining Dyfed Permaculture Farm Trust let it be known that he was having a bungalow built on one corner of his land, retiring and selling the house and fields. If the Trust wanted to buy all or part of the land he would be happy to sell to them. The Trust did want to buy 2 fields because it would improve the balance of grazing fields to old hay meadows, but it did not have the money or the capacity to raise funds in time. So I offered to buy them on the understanding that the Trust would look after them and finance any fencing and so on that needed doing, in return for being charged only a peppercorn rent.

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My money is no longer earning interest in money terms but I am happy it is being put to good use and I am enjoying the interest I am taking in the land and its progress. The dividing hedge has already been planted with fruit trees and bushes during a workday (see a post about this here More than just a hedge) and new fencing is being put up to allow the hedges to be protected from grazing so that they grow thicker and fuller. Eventually they will be laid to give a good stock-proof barrier that is natural and sustainable. With less intensive stocking wild flowers are beginning to emerge

 

IMG_0240Last Saturday we had the Trust AGM and once the business part was over we had a celebration of the new fields. The furthest one had been called Cae Cornel (Corner field) because ofits shape and the nearer one Cae Gwaelod (Bottom field) because it was furthest from the farmhouse and the lowest. But in terms of the Trust land it was middle-ish. So I renamed them Cae herc (lopsided field) its older name found on old maps, and Cae Novello after the lady who, with her husband, sold it to us.

Led my the inimitable Pamela Gaunt, storyteller, celebrant and psychotherapist, in her dragon costume, and Dafydd, partner of one of our neighbours, with his bagpipes, we sang our way round the fields washing our feet in the water of the West, playing natural percussion instruments in the earth of the North, blowing bubbles in the air of the East and lighting candles in the fire of the South. Then repaired to the barn for tea and cake! A lovely afternoon! Thank you Mark Boyle!

Permaculture Principles 3- Obtain a Yield

I have mentioned my Mum before in these posts. She trained as a Domestic Science teacher during the second World War – the end of an era when the object of Domestic Science in schools was to train girls (only girls) to be good housewives and mothers and / or good servants. It had not been uncommon for Secondary Modern schools in particular (grammar school girls would be employing the servants!) to have a small flat where girls could learn to clean, wash and iron clothes, bath a baby and light the sitting room fire; as well as a separate Cookery room where they learned to cook. I have this amazing (if grainy) photo of the cookery room she worked in as a teacher in a school near Bolton, Lancashire in 1941.

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Thus when she left teaching to get married she prided herself on her housewifely skills and kept the house immaculate. Things she did daily are lucky to get done here weekly, her monthly jobs are my attempt at spring cleaning and so on. In many ways it was an example of Parkinson’s first law that work expands to fill the time available. Her justification for all this activity was that she wanted the place to look nice if someone came round. However she was so locked into her regime of chores that her only outings were to the shops. She belonged to no groups or clubs until I was well into my teens when she started going to an evening class in cake decorating. As a result there were very few visitors to the house – one next door neighbour came for a cup of tea quite often and relatives or old friends came occasionally but always by arrangement as they lived to far away to just call. And all that cleaning and polishing meant the house never felt homely or welcoming and everyone was afraid of making a mess or spilling something.  And to be honest any impending visit caused so much work and worry and baking that Mum too was happier not to see people.

So what has all that got to do with obtaining a yield? Well the idea of this principle is not to waste time and energy doing something just for the sake of it.

Of course what is wasting time for me might not be for you and vice versa and we will each value different yields differently. When I go to a meeting of one of the Permaculture groups it is not because I want to ‘earn’ a visit to my place and the work that will get done but because I enjoy the socialising and learning and get ideas for my own place. Most of the ‘yield’ is intangible but nonetheless real to me but someone else might think I am stupid to give my labour for free getting  wet and muddy into the bargain.

Another thing both my Mum and my dad were keen on was being sensible and that very lower middle class idea of ‘deferred gratification’. So I dutifully went to University and for want of any better idea became, to their relief,  a teacher. A nice steady job with a salary and prospects and with a pension at the end. John and I got married, bought a house with a mortgage, acquired wills and insurance policies. Actually I quite enjoyed teaching most of the time (though I was a bit creative and whacky for some of my colleagues even then! None of the other Maths teachers illustrated their lessons on fractions with chocolate cakes or used mind reading to introduce algebra!)). blog260418-2But having fun, experimenting, taking risks, chasing dreams were very low on the agenda and I regret that now. The yield was always ‘later’, when the children are older, when they leave home, when the mortgage is paid off, when you retire… H.E. Bates puts it rather well in ‘The Darling Buds of May’ “The word pension made Pop laugh…. ‘You mean sit on your backside for forty years and then collect four pounds a week that’s worth only two and and ‘ll only buy half as much anyway?'” I am not suggesting here that pensions are a bad idea – I have 2 very small private ones that top-up my state one and I am relieved that I own my home; I am grateful for the security those things give me. But I wish there had been more balance, more ‘yield’ of fun and adventure whilst I was young enough to take risks and bounce back if they failed as well as ensuring a ‘yield’ of security now.

Meanwhile writing this blog records events, gives me pleasure in writing the posts, has taught me new skills such as taking and loading photos and the comments are allowing me to meet a new group of people. A good investment – I am obtaining a yield.