Am I working?

I have had another of those ‘several things coming together to make me think’ times. Whilst Mrs Snail and I were indulging in lunch at Studio 3 we somehow got onto the topic of retirement. I officially retired just over 8 years ago when I got my State pension and John and I decided to claim our small (in my case minuscule!) private ones as well. In terms of transitions it was barely a ripple. I had been John’s full time carer for a few years so day-to-day life didn’t change at all. The big difference was that my state pension was several times bigger than the carers allowance I had been getting and with the private pensions as well we could stop quailing at the sight of envelopes with windows in!

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A rag rug made from re-cycled fabric

Then another friend, Jasmine Dale, sent me a piece she had written for the online magazine ‘Dark Mountain’ asking me to give her feedback on the final draft before she submitted it. In order to read it in the context in which it would be published I found the site for Dark Mountain and read the ‘about’ page  and a couple of published articles – including one about work (find it here) which argued that our conventional definition which limits ‘work’ to ‘paid employment’ is too narrow and excludes voluntary, caring, intellectual or emotional work thereby discriminating against women, the disabled and the unemployed / retired. This resonated strongly with me because at present my daughter works as a Learning Support Assistant in a primary school where she spends half her time working one-to-one with children with serious long term difficulties (an 8 year old who consistently self-harms, an autistic 10 year old….) and is therefore regularly on the receiving end of physical or emotional abuse. The other half she works with children individually  or in small groups to provide support through difficult situations such as family trauma, being a young carer.. For this she is paid, once unpaid preparation time and buying bits of equipment herself are taken into account,  barely above the minimum wage. My son is a software developer managing technical projects for IT companies. In his present job the worst that can happen if he makes a mistake is that some executive’s G & T will not be waiting for him in the executive lounge at the airport during his stopover. For this he is paid monopoly money. Luckily all three of us are very well aware of how ludicrous this discrepancy is and the true value of the work each of them does.

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seedling trees found weeded out of the garden plus others grown from pips grown on for re-planting

Then I listened to a podcast of ‘Thinking Allowed : Work – what is it good for?’ (BBC radio 4 broadcast on 2nd January 2019) It covered a lot of ground but 3 things stood out for me:

Firstly that until the 1800’s the distinction between work and leisure was much less clear for most people. Work was done in or around the home and those elements which generated cash were much less distinct from those which sustained the household. It was only with the enclosures and the Industrial revolution that ‘work’ came to be seen as what was done for money outside the home whilst work inside the home was not ‘real work’.

Cooking, preserving and baking

Secondly that whilst there are benefits which accrue for having a job – pay, structure to the day, something to do, socialising with colleagues – there are, in many cases, downsides and even harm from the insecurities of temporary or zero-hours contracts, the abuse and isolation which targets can produce and the de-humanising effect of constant surveillance.

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And thirdly that in our culture idleness is demonised even though this is when we reflect, daydream or simply recuperate.

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And me? Well for most of my adult life I did work I enjoyed in teams which were very mutually supportive and whilst the pay was not great it was enough for my needs. Just as changes in management made it less rewarding in the non-financial sense, John’s health deteriorated and my hearing began to fail so I had no trouble deciding to leave. Do I work now? Is doing the Diploma in Permaculture design work? Is learning Welsh? I could quite legitimately describe myself as ‘part-time student’. Is gardening and cutting firewood work? Is volunteering work? I am as active physically, mentally and in my communities as I ever was – the difference is that I am now paid by the government whether I do these things or not. An argument for a universal basic income?

friends, family and community

What I still find difficult is to be idle! The protestant work ethic runs deep. Plus there are so many things I enjoy doing and others I would like to try. I really will have to live to over 100!

I would love to hear what you think of as ‘work’, whether you enjoy it, whether you are looking forward to or dreading retiring, have retired and are enjoying it or hating it and if any of the ideas in this post resonate with you/

PS I couldn’t think of pictures to illustrate most of these ideas so have used ones of ‘work’ I do!

 

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2018 Goes out with a bang, 2019 comes in with a splutter!

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Dom and Beccy moving in

Some of you will remember that from summer 2017 I spent a year getting the cabin in the garden renovated so that it could be lived in all year round. Last October Dom, who had just finished his degree in film, and who knew of me through his Great aunt, a good friend of mine, moved in to live there rent free in return for helping me in the garden and woods two days a week. Unfortunately he quickly realised that it was too remote for him especially with limited broadband and no mobile signal, and left again.

I put the word out to friends and the Permaculture networks that I was looking for someone else and sure enough several people got in touch. They all loved the cabin and surroundings but for each of them there was an insurmountable practical problem. Then the last one to turn it down asked if he could pass my phone number to a friend who wanted to move back to the area. He did and this time it all worked out. So a few days later Rob moved in and to my delight immediately started to make it into a home for himself.

The cabin with Rob’s windchimes, pots of plants and garden furniture outside.

Strangely, although we have lived in the same area we know very few people in common although there are ‘friends of friends’ connections. It soon became apparent that Rob loves tidying or, as he puts it un-muddling muddles! – and as I am very good at muddling this could work out well! One of the first jobs we tackled together was to tidy the workshop so he could put his lathe in there and he was very good at sorting the wood stacks out and getting everything to fit more neatly.

Neatly stacked wood and Rob setting up his lathe and tools

The following week I met my friend Jan aka Mrs Snail of ‘The Snail of Happiness’ (find her blog here) for lunch at Studio 3 in Cardigan. It only opened at the start of December with a gallery, small shop of handmade craft items, workshop space and cafe but even so we got the last available table. We enjoyed a lovely meal and long catch-up (although they were busy no-one was hurrying us – in fact whilst I went to the counter to order more tea for us both a waitress came to clear our plates and stayed chatting!) The timetable of workshops for the week was on a blackboard and we both saw several we fancied so it was no surprise when Jan’s husband gave her a day on bookmaking in March for her birthday and she suggested I go too.

Later that week I met up with Martin, who built the deck for me, and his partner Gill at Crowes, another cafe in town which was new to me – excellent coffee and the food, all organic and vegetarian, looked good too. Then it was lunch on the Saturday before Christmas at the home of some lovely friends, Dom’s Great aunt and her husband. My son, being Muslim, does not celebrate Christmas but as it is a day when no-one is working he cooks a huge roast dinner for his family, now 7 strong with the foster children, and his brother-in-laws’s family who live down the road plus anyone else they know will be glad of the company. My daughter was in Exmouth at her Father-in-law’s as it was the first Christmas since her Mother-in-law died. I was happy to spend the day alone but my lovely friends Jeni and Rob who I see often and live nearby gave such a warm invitation that I joined them for roast goose from their own flock.

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Jeni and Rob’s lovely old cob cottage on their smallholding

img_20190106_145618693Then Carrie arrived on the 27th to spend some time with me. I had taken the Christmas decorations out of the loft and decided that I needed better shelving in there but could not decide whether to buy racking or find the studs in the walls and put up homemade shelves. She had bought some fairly cheap plastic shelving for her own home and been surprised how sturdy it was. We went online, bought it and cleared everything out of the loft. It was delivered next day so we put it together and put everything back. I could not believe how much more space there was! It helped that I put a very old DVD recorder to go to the recycling center, found 3 old laptops and asked Hassan to remove the hard drives, check them for photos I might want to keep and destroy them, and there were 2 boxes of books put there so I could retrieve them if I found I needed to –  but as that was 2 years ago they are en route to the charity shops!

Thanks to all the help there is space to start a new compost heap, filled beds ready for planting in a greenhouse, a pergola for the vine and the hedge is complete.

Hassan and Sean arrived the next day in time for Marie and Rose’s, now annual, visit to help in the garden on the Sunday. You can read about their efforts last year ( A Day of Visitors). Sean was too full of cold to do anything but huddle on the sofa with a supply of tissues but Marie and Rose emptied two compost bins and filled up the beds in one of the greenhouses,  Carrie and Rob cut up a huge pile of brash into kindling and Carrie also kept us supplied with tea and coffee. Hassan went in the workshop and prepared timbers for a pergola on the toolshed and I took some panes of glass out of the walls between the greenhouses to improve airflow. My daughter-in-law Narju had made a big vegan curry and sent it with her menfolk, Carrie boiled rice to go with it and Rose had brought apple tarts for pudding – a feast. After lunch we all carried some of the wood for the pergola up the hill and Rob helped Hassan to put it together with the rest of us holding things in place as needed. Marie and Rose planted seedling trees where there were gaps in a hedge I had planted on the edge of the veg patch using seedlings I had weeded out and saved in pots. Carrie and I finished the last bits of brash and then we all had tea and cake. I am always surprised how much gets done when a few of us work together and how much fun it is.

On New Year’s Day Hassan took Sean, now feeling better, back to Swansea and drove Carrie home before finally getting back to his own family late evening. Unfortunately they left Sean’s cold behind and I spent a couple of days unable to do much apart from cough and sneeze! I suspect that after such a busy, if enjoyable, couple of weeks my body was telling me to stop. I am still coughing sometimes but feeling fine and rested so on with 2019!

A Merry Start to Christmas

Those of you who have been following this blog for  while will remember that over the summer Chris, Matt and their family who run C & M organics started holding markets on Saturday mornings. They were a way of providing a space for new food producers in the area to sell their wares and meet potential customers even if they had not reached a size where it was sensible to obtain proper ‘Organic’ status. If you missed the post you can read about it here

When Autumn came around there was less to sell and the market stopped but a collective decision was made to hold a Christmas one with craftspeople invited to join in as well. So last Saturday two marquees were in place on the yard, heaters on full blast, Christmas music on low, a table set with activities to keep children amused, two pigmy goats for us all to coo over, plenty of food and drink to consume and lots of beautiful things to buy. I think we were all wondering what the turnout would be like. Weekends in December are always busy for people with visiting and being visited, general preparations and, of course, lots of special events. To make matters worse the weather forecast was awful and it rained hard all morning. But  in fact within an hour of the start things were beginning to buzz and by lunchtime the marquees were heaving, the car park was full and people were leaving their cars in lay-bys and walking the rest of the way. Everyone was smiling, chatting, eating, drinking mulled wine (or a non-alcoholic version), spending and having a great time. There was an amazing feeling of a community having formed and come together to celebrate – whether the Winter Solstice, Christmas or just the turning of the year people wanted to meet and mark it in the company of their  local friends.

Three days later in the Welsh class two people who are very involved in their local areas were saying that one of the problems they face is the lack of young people. In villages where the majority of the residents are elderly it is hard to find anyone with the energy to organise events or to do jobs like maintaining the  public spaces. It made me realise how many young people and families were at the market and what a difference they make to the collective energy level. And one of the factors attracting them is that there is a growing group of One Planet Developements (read more here)  – Lammas ( read about the eco-village here here) came first and others have come to use the policy but where they can access the support of others on the same path. A number of us who are older, particularly Chris and Matt,  have welcomed them and supported them in whatever ways we can and between us something very special has happened. What a privilege to be part of it!

Bamboo

Many years ago my husband took a fancy to having some bamboo in the garden. In his quest for self-reliance it seemed a good idea to grow his own canes and maybe some bamboo shoots to eat too? He mentioned this idea to a local couple who told him they needed to move a clump of bamboo which was ‘in the wrong place’ and he could dig up a few pieces if he liked. So off we went, spades and forks in hand, to get some free plants. What was not to like?

We should have turned round when we saw the clump. Having cut it back to the ground our neighbours had tried to dig it up and failed so had built a bonfire on top of it. And still it was putting up new shoots! Undeterred John managed to prise up 3 shoots with tiny bits of root on them, all the while assuring me that he would keep them well in check and wouldn’t they look good as a screen between the drive and the path to the veg patch? I let myself be persuaded.

Back home he put out three old tyres on the bank then dug planting holes with a crowbar (The terracing had not long been finished so they were going into compacted stone), added compost and plants and waited to see how they fared. All three took but the poor conditions gave them a slow start so we were lulled into a false sense of security. Just as John became too ill to do much in the garden they got going properly and started to take over the whole bank – as a limbering up exercise for their ultimate goal of world domination. By the time he died they were popping up all over the place – through the  potentilla, under the bird cherry and giving the crab apple a really hard time.

So every year I have to spend a day cutting them down to size. At least the tyres give me an edge to work to! Even quite small stems are too tough and too bendy for the scythe and they quickly blunt it so each one has to be cut to ground level with secateurs or loppers, a tedious job and hard on the knees and back. Last year I cut everything off one root and that has slowed its height but not its spread! And every scrap has to be disposed of carefully. Even the smallest root will take (hence our original success) and where I dumped the bits in a hedge one year there is now another clump – luckily where it is competing with trees, out of the way in a wild section, and I can ignore it!

And those bamboo shoots for a stirfry? I spoke to someone who grew bamboo for that purpose and was told that whilst they are technically edible we should have chosen a named variety developed for eating. He also said that I would really need to mark them as they emerge and cut them on the correct day. There are easier ways to fill my belly and I grow a big enough range of edibles not to need them for variety.

I do keep the taller, stronger pieces as garden canes. Once I have peeled off the sheathes where the side shoots develop, a job I can do under cover, I put them in the roofs and eaves of the greenhouses to dry out. The tops, side shoots, small canes and the sheathes all dry out on the floor of the lean-to greenhouse which is concrete so they cannot root. Once they are dry I will break them up for kindling – as you can see they will light a fair few fires!

There are some other good points in their favour. They do make a good screen and I love their elegant shape and rustling sound. They are such thugs that even brambles don’t grow through their roots and the bindweed has so far declined to try. Of the three the bamboo are the by far the most decorative so they can stay. For now.

 

Beam me up, Kevin!

If you have been following this blog for a while you may remember that over the summer I was without an internet connection for several weeks. It transpired that a fault with the line was repaired but the engineer forgot to reset something in the exchange, then the exchange connection failed but BT Openreach insisted it must be my router (for those of you not from the UK we have a weird system here as a result of the sell off of utilities by the government in the 80’s. The phone network was sold to BT who hived off the lines and exchanges to a subsidiary they named Openreach. They allow a number of telecoms providers to use the system but faults have to be repaired by Openreach engineer. As you can imagine this results in all sorts of problems with Openreach taking the default position that all faults are due to the provider or the householder.) The phone co-op sent me a new router, blissfully unaware that, by chance, it was a faulty one! By the time it was all sorted out I was on first name terms with everyone in their Tech support team !

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI was lucky enough to have good friends Jeni and Rob who generously allowed me to drive over every day and use their connection to collect emails and do anything like on-line banking which required a secure private connection. I was also able to get online at the Cardigan and Carmarthen libraries, and in breaks during the Welsh class since Cardigan castle has a public wi-fi network.

However I have trained everyone to use email rather than the phone as my hearing makes phone calls hard work so being without a connection at home was a pain. My amazing son donned his shining armour, mounted his charger and came to the rescue! He is a software developer so knew about the alternatives to a landline connection.

Plan A was to use a mobile signal. I knew that to make a mobile call I had to climb up to the top of the garden and although visitors sometimes get a signal on their phones on whichever network they use it is only occasional.  But maybe if I had a small mast on top of the house or one of the buildings in the garden…? He had also discovered that the Welsh Government had a scheme whereby households with a poor landline connection which was not scheduled to be upgraded, and no mobile signal could get a grant to enable them to put in a mast or satellite dish. We filled in the forms and commissioned a survey. But despite the maps showing I should get a decent data signal all the chap could find was a weak voice one right at the top of my land and no data signal anywhere. Everyone else in the valley can get a connection but I am right at the bottom and in the shadow of the hills.

That left a satellite system and he assured us that as I had previously been able to get TV through a satellite I would be OK. I would have to pay £45 to top up the grant but that was about the same as changing provider and opting for a new, factory set, router which seemed reasonable. The monthly charge is comparable with the landline. We sent a new quote to the government and waited for them to decide if I qualified. It took them a few weeks of thinking but they concluded that I did and a couple of weeks after receiving the approval letter a lovely man called Kevin came and put up a dish, lined it up with the satellite, installed a modem and got me connected. He even connected an extra piece my son, Hassan, had bought to give me wi-fi as well as an ethernet connection, made sure that my laptop and iPad had connected properly and checked that the speed was as needed for the grant before he left.

Screenshot (1)So now I get 12 Mb/sec instead of 2 or 3 on a good day as as I used to. Using it for Skype is a bit odd since there is a slight lag whilst the speech goes out into space and back again – I will have to start using 2-way radio protocol and saying ‘over’ when I have finished speaking! But overall it is faster, more reliable and involves no more wrangling with Openreach ever! Well until the landline for the phone goes wrong!

Thank you Hassan, Richard at Bentley Walker and Kevin for beaming me up.

Starting in the middle

In order to write up my various projects for my Permaculture Diploma I have been going back through my books to remind myself of the structures and principles. And something has struck me. Although it is not explicit, there is an assumption that the site is essentially bare. The same seems to be true for most Permaculture Design Courses. Given the origins of Permaculture this is perhaps not surprising and I suspect that current teachers and writers, understandably pick up the assumption and, because it is not explicit, do not notice it so carry it on. But it has consequences.

blogOPD1Firstly it explains why so many people who have done a course feel impelled to go and buy a field! I say impelled because some of them may have perfectly satisfactory lives in a town somewhere but ‘How to use Permaculture to improve your life in an office job and a three bed terraced house in Anytown’ doesn’t seem quite right.

Others, of course, did the course precisely because they want to move to the country and earn a living from a piece of land. For them One Planet Developement planning policy is a way to get a home and smallholding with very little capital and Permaculture is the ideal design system to make it work. Read more about OPD here The downside is that existing smallholdings are often bought up by larger farms and the house sold off with just a smallish garden to retirees or as a second home. Or they become hobby farms or somewhere to keep the ponies for the children. One working smallholding is replaced by one somewhere else plus an incoming household which further changes the demographics and the income profile of the community. Does it matter? I cannot be sure but my instinct tells me that it does.

I have to say I envy OPD people for being able to start from scratch. We moved here before that policy was in place and in order to have a house that did not have near neighbours but did have a large garden we had to buy an existing one. We had thought very carefully and made a list of things we wanted – this house was the best we could get. We were free to replace the rotten windows and to reconfigure the inside but the outside had to remain essentially the same. Would we have designed a house to this footprint? NO!! Originally two cottages it is long and thin which means it has a large surface area for the volume and that makes it expensive to heat. Would we have built a different design on that footprint? YES!! For example although the windows are larger than the original ones would have been, probably due to building regulations when it was renovated from derelict in the 70’s, they are smaller than we would have chosen given that the house faces due South and could get better solar gain. Would we have built on the same spot? Yes. Which brings me to my second thought about permaculture as taught and written about. The lack of emphasis given to ‘futureproofing’ (I say that with the benefit of hindsight – it never occurred to us at the time as I will explain!)

We bought a house set back into a steep slope, south facing, with a fairly level garden a few feet below it next to the stream and a steep bank between.  Once the large self sown trees had been cleared from the garden we had a clear space to work with. So whilst in the house we were constrained by what was already there, the garden was the blank canvas we preferred. It provided a nice view from the windows and, once we had arranged a path to drop gently down across the slope it was easy to move loads up or down.  Then we had the chance to buy more land behind the house and beyond it. It was so steep we had it terraced but it was another blank canvas. Except that the position of the house was fixed. Since it took 2 years to get the terracing done we had plenty of time to think about what went where but it boiled down to ‘least worst’ options. If the veg patch was by the stream that meant we did not have the sitting area in the nicest place. Whilst the renovations were ongoing the workshop needed to be at house level so the veg ended up on the higher terrace. I curse that decision every time I push a bag of compost up the hill!

And now that the house is finished and John has died, the workshop is only used occasionally but to knock it down, make a veg patch there then build a new workshop higher up seems too much work for the gain. It would, though help with water collection. I can collect huge amounts of rainwater from the roofs of the house and the sheds but need most higher up where there are only the greenhouses and a small shed to collect from. We designed for two fit people in their 40’s both with part time jobs and part time on the holding; Now I am nearing 70, retired but not wanting to work full time on the land and looking at how I can adapt this place to suit me when I am 100.  That is what my Diploma is about. But I often think rather ruefully that ‘If I was going there I wouldn’t start from here’! Why is there nowhere to buy hindsight?

 

 

 

Home Sweet Home

This last few weeks have been even busier than usual with two big projects being finished and a third is now on the home straight and has also been taking up time. Plus I have had a stream of very welcome visitors.

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The entrance is tucked away and looks out onto a bank up to the drive

The biggest project has been the refurbishment of the cabin in the garden. We had it built in 1995, just after we moved in to give ourselves a refuge from the renovations and also a place to see work clients where we didn’t have to apologise for the mess! Once we stopped working from home we turned it into a Holiday Let and later used it as extra bedrooms when family or friends came to stay. Now that the grandchildren are older and more independent there are fewer times when we all get together here and it gets less use.

Last year I decided that it was no longer earning its keep and I needed to use it differently. It was structurally sound and a nice space to be in but cosmetically tired and the large, single glazed windows made it hard to heat. Because it had been designed to give us two work rooms plus a loo and a kitchenette for making tea or coffee, the rooms were small. They were also quite dark, partly because the trees and shrubs planted around it had grown up and partly because, out of consideration for our neighbour’s privacy we had all the big windows put on the North facing side but as the cottage next door was now derelict there was no good reason to leave them there.

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I decided it was time for a redesign that would not alter the structure too much but so that it could be used as somewhere for volunteers to live whilst helping me with the garden or as a Holiday Let again. I chose to keep one room as a bedroom and the shower room did not need any changes. The rest of the space I had knocked into one living area.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA To improve light the double doors on the NE wall were moved to the SW wall and replaced with a half wall and new window. I wanted all the windows to be double glazed but the doors were too thin to take the extra thickness. Dan, the builder, came up with the idea of using architrave on each face to hold the new panes in place and strengthen the doors to take the increased weight. The Carmarthenshire Permaculture group made the small sitting space outside when they visited. Read more  here Many Hands

He also installed a small wood stove to provide heating and a focal point. The result was a lovely airy, light filled but still cosy space with a view over the meadow to the stream and woods.

I re-decorated and my son helped me install the kitchen I had designed and constructed. Then it was the fun part collecting up and refurbishing spare furniture – a sofa from the conservatory, a table and chairs I had been using outside, spare rugs and throws…

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Dom and Beccy optimistic at first

A relative of one of my friends asked to come and live there and moved in. Unfortunately he soon realised that life in the middle of nowhere was not for him. With no mobile signal and poorer broadband than he was used to he found it hard to keep occupied after dark but had no car to go out. So after less than a week he left again. I am hoping that  I will soon find someone to whom the peace and quiet, plus low connectivity to the modern world, will actually be an advantage and who will be happy to live there rent free in return for working in the garden and woods a couple of days a week. Then it really will be someone’s ‘Home sweet home’.