Ker-ching! A Penny drops!

There were some lovely comments on my last post about the blanket I was making to use up those little balls of wool that every knitter accumulates. The ‘granny squares’ are not all the same size necessitating strips and stripes and extra rounds to make them fit together and the colours are multiple and varied – yet the effect is cheerful and lively and most of you loved it as do I. Why?

Looking around my home and at the assorted handmade blankets in my cupboard I realised that the pieces I like best are the scrappy ones – the patchworks (usually fairly random) and the multicoloured. Partly this is because they will fit in with any colour scheme, adding both pattern and a hit of colour to the space. So in that sense they are very practical – change the decor? No problem!

Musing during a dog walk (as you do!) two memories from childhood came into my head.

The first concerned my childhood heroine; the woman I wanted to be like when I grew up. My Mum’s eldest, and much older, sister Aunty Nan. Nan and her husband Francis were childless (not by choice – as she said ‘In our day if it didn’t happen it didn’t happen and there was nothing you could do about it’) which meant that she had not given up work to raise her family. By the time I was old enough to remember them they were both lecturers at Alsager Teacher Training College near Newcastle-under-Lyme and lived in half a very long Nissen hut on the campus left over from World War 2. Francis headed up Rural Studies and Nan taught Craft. I found Francis slightly intimidating and when we visited he and my Dad would talk bees which they both kept. Nan would always find something crafty for me to do so that she and Mum could cook and talk. Later they bought 3 adjoining building plots where a new estate was being developed and had a bungalow built. Nan was furious that the architect would only talk to Francis even though she was the more artistic and better at design! She was even sidelined during the discussion of the kitchen! It was a beautiful home, very up to date in its furnishings and, of course, with Francis being an expert gardener, set in a fabulous garden. But what I really loved was their very early VW Dormobile.

Francis’s passion for bees meant he was not content with keeping a few hives of honey bees. He was really a thwarted academic and one of his good friends was Alan Gemmell (If you are old enough and live in the UK you may remember Professor Alan Gemmell of Keele University from Gardener’s Question Time. Prof’s passion was potatoes). So every summer he and Nan would spend the long vacation travelling Europe so he could collect wild bees and identify them. He had a cabinet of shallow drawers in his study with serried ranks of bees filed according to their latin name.

To make these expeditions easier, especially when he had exhausted Western Europe and started exploring behind the Iron Curtain, they got the Dormobile. To me it was a playhouse on wheels! And in it were blankets made by Nan on those journeys. She would take a pair of double pointed knitting needles – the short ones used for socks – and odd balls of wool so that she had some knitting to do in the evenings or while she was sitting in a field somewhere half watching Francis stalk his prey. Squares were easy to carry around or store in the van. Some were plain but lots were stripey or half and half. Sometimes the wool was thinner than she would have liked so she would use 2 colours together making a tweedy effect. Those blankets were part of the magic of the van for me. So very different from the contents of her house or of any of the other houses I knew.

The second memory was of a couple whose names I cannot remember but they were members of the Manchester and District Beekeepers Association, of which my Dad was Treasurer. The Association met once a month for most of the year. In the winter they rented a room somewhere for an evening and had ‘talks’ about bees and related subjects. But in the summer there were ‘Apiary visits’. One member would host the rest for an afternoon wherever they kept their bees. One of the more experienced members, often my father, would go through the hives explaining what they were doing, what they were looking for and why. If the bees needed extra space or a super full of honey needed to be taken away then that would be done. So winter was for theory and summer for practical. And on Apiary visits families were invited along too. There were a couple of single women who kept bees, a couple who did it jointly but most of the keepers were men. So the families consisted of wives and a few children who would sit around on deckchairs as far away from the hives as possible and chat. Everyone would take a picnic tea and once the hives were safely put back together again the beekeepers would join us and the host (or more usually the host’s wife!) would make cups of tea. It was a nice way to spend a summer afternoon and most of the gardens were delightful.

My Dad when he was young with his bees

The couple I am thinking of hosted a visit every year but not in their garden – I never knew where they lived in winter. Every summer they would decamp to a field where he kept his bees and where they had 2 old railway wagons. One was where he stored all his bee equipment and extracted his honey – a dim space which I always tried to get into at some point to enjoy its scent of wood, wax and honey. The other was where they lived with two single beds arranged in an L shape at the end furthest from the door, each covered with a multicoloured, home made blanket, a small table and 2 hard chairs and a rudimentary kitchen with a camping stove. Outside was a compost toilet and another table with a washing up bowl on it and a tap on a post behind it. The field was on a hill and there was an amazing view over the valley. I knew of no-one else who lived like that – it was like being in a story!

One huge granny square!

I suppose that from those 2 experiences I came to associate blankets like the one I am working on with a simple life, being unconventional, having adventures but also with being cosy and self-sufficient. No wonder I like them so much – by making them I am constructing my very own magic carpet of the imagination, opening up possibilities of adventures and new ways of living!

Little thing # 2

I have been making an effort to continue noticing the little things which make me smile and to share them with you all.

Some of you may remember that whilst I have been unable to go out so much I have been knitting chilldren’s jumpers for the collection at Studio 3 in Cardigan. Their original goal had been to send 2020 to an organisation working with refugees who had reached Greece and were now unable to move on to other parts of Europe. Last Friday I delivered the latest one and by chance Eileen, who’s brainchild it was, was in the shop. She told me that they passed the 2020 target some time ago and sent them off. After that they decided any more would be sent to charities in Wales working with families in poverty and particularly those using the many food banks. They have now collected over a thousand for Wales and more are still being donated. The charities will add them to the parcels of gifts put together for families who otherwise would have none. I only played a small part – 5 jumpers in all – but I felt proud to have helped and proud of my community for rising to the challenge and some. A real win-win. AND I met my friend Rachel to have lunch in the cafe there – delicious food and a chance to catch up with a lovely friend. A very smiley day!

My latest gift jumper

In the garden I can see crocuses and miniature daffodils beginning to emerge in pots near the house.

On the wall of the cabin a winter flowering jasmine is in full bloom. Last year it was still fairly new and only had a few flowers but it has obviously settled in.

Piling manure onto one of the raised beds I spotted a potato. I haven’t grown any for a couple of years but the ones I missed when I harvested the last lot keep coming up. I scrabbled around and by the time I had been through all the bed I had a basket full of International Kidney spuds (Jersey Royals but they can only be called that if grown on the island of Jersey!) They are a waxy salad potato so not good for mash or roast but lovely in potato salad or stews because they keep their shape.

My cooking has had a boost recently. My last lot of books from the library included 2 by Jack Monroe, a woman who found herself living in extreme poverty and blogged about how she was managing to feed herself and her small son on very little money and the generosity of the food bank. The upshot was a book deal which lifted her our of poverty but she still campaigns tirelessly for the organisations she once relied upon. I am comfortably off and an experienced cook but her simple, cheap recipes have jolted me out of a rut.

I have been making crafty things and will blog about them later but for now they are secret in case the recipients see them here first! However I can tell you that I get a lot of help from my feline friends who never fail to make me smile – how’s this for a cuddle of cats? At least they were next to me rather than on my lap which makes sewing or knitting difficult! The bony elbow top left is Orchid who also occupies the sofa.

Lastly I read a post by Cathy which I particularly enjoyed and set me thinking about how I could include more cheery-uppy things in my life. You can read it at https://nanacathydotcom.wordpress.com/2020/11/26/touchstones/

Plan Z and counting

When I had finished writing my last post on Monday I decided to go and visit a friend who lives just up the hill. The friend who did my washing when my machine broke down at the start of lockdown and who got her student daughter to do my shopping for me. She and her husband had taken a much needed short break and gone away – if they stay something goes wrong on the farm and he goes back to work to fix it. Whilst they were gone her Dad stayed in the house to supervise her teenage kids. We had a cup of tea and caught up on news.

On Wednesday her Dad was told he had tested positive for Covid 19 and so my friend and her family should self-isolate. The chances that it was passed to her AND that she passed it to me are very small (we sat 2m apart) but I decided that the responsible thing to do was to stay away from everyone. So instead of being at my daughter’s admiring her new home and catching up with her and her children I am here.

As it happened, when I got the news there were 2 men replacing the wooden outside doors in my house with uPVC ones – not a very sustainable choice but I was sick of draughts and high heating costs! I decamped to the bedroom to keep well out of their way for the 2 days the job took and emerged only when they had retreated to their van to eat their lunch, made a sandwich and took it back upstairs. I was able to walk the dogs and to come downstairs in the evening once they had gone home but it showed me how horrid it must have been to be cooped up in a small flat for the 3 weeks of full lockdown. I did finish some sewing projects though!

A pair of slippers based on espadrille soles – they are not quite right but I can improve. 2 small fish from a pattern by Ann Wood Handmade. Some granny squares for a blanket.

So why is this post called plan Z? Well a friend of my daughter asked a colleague of hers for some information my daughter needed and outlined what had been happening for her over the summer. His response was to ask if she was writing a soap opera script! He didn’t know that my son’s brother in law had almost died of Covid, that Rob (who lived in the cabin in the garden in return for helping me in the garden and woods) left suddenly leaving me with no help over the summer, that Laura moved in to replace him a month ago (she is delightful and a great help), that Matt came to fit out the utility room because it was work he could do without needing to be indoors and he needed to earn, that now I need to self-isolate…..And each of those has resulted in me revising my plans.

Some of you may have noticed that I have said very little about the Diploma in Permaculture Design I embarked on a couple of years ago. That is because I have given up, another change of plan. I intended to design ways to stay alive, well, active and living here into advanced old age and write up the designs as my portfolio. I really enjoyed doing the thinking and planning. The last stage of implementation is to turn the old garage and its loft space into habitable rooms including a shower room, all with wheelchair accessibility in mind just in case I need one and that is well underway. Meanwhile they will be additional bedrooms when family visit. I am really pleased with the results of it all. Lockdown was a good test of the strategies I had put in place to increase my resilience and I survived very well. However the writing up nearly drove me nuts. It took ages and each tutor I spoke too had their own pet ideas about how it should be laid out. I could have spent a lot of time cutting and pasting and editing, dotting every ‘i’ and crossing every ‘t’ but decided that the things it would enable me to do were too few to justify the work. One of my tasks over winter when hopefully life will be less fraught, is to decide what, if anything, I do next. Somehow I doubt if I will be bored! Plan Z+1 coming to a blog post near you soon!

Between then and what will be

I have been feeling very unsettled, grumpy-grumbly in a vague unfocussed sort of way, fraught with unfinished to-do lists and a sense of time running out.

Rob moving out of the cabin early in lockdown left me with no help in the garden over the summer. Not that he would have been much help had he stayed. The death of a close friend and serious ill health of two close family members hit his fragile mental health hard and his usual slowness became almost catatonic. Now it is Autumn; Laura has moved in and will, I think, be a huge asset. She is intelligent, keen to learn and cheerful. But for now she has to be given time to learn where things are and how to do the tasks that need attention. That means I have to work alongside her, explaining and teaching and our speed is slow.

It is also the time when I pick wild fruit and preserve it. The time when there is an abundance of fresh produce in the shops to make chutneys and pickles. Having swapped my big chest freezer for a less capacious upright one I can no longer stash it all away until I have more time (that mythical ‘more time’!) – it has to be bottled or jammed or whatever at once.

At the same time restrictions have been easing and we all want to meet up again – I am greedy for the company and sociability. And at the same time I am alert to the risks – another juggling act. We have started to have workdays and meetings at Dyfed Permaculture Farm Trust, a very delayed AGM – where my treasurer’s report felt like something from another lifetime – and resuming work on the roundhouse we are building. They have thrown up another dilemma for me. We are able to meet outdoors but with everyone 2 meters apart I am a long way from anyone on the opposite side of the circle. I should have had new hearing aids in the spring but of course the hospital stopped doing hearing tests. So I struggle to keep up with the discussion, often mis-hear and find the effort exhausting. Now we must all wear masks indoors, a ruling I think is sensible since masks remind us to be careful in other ways too, but it makes voices muffled and I can’t lipread or see expressions so well. I have decided that for now I will not go to indoor events involving more than 2 or 3 people and decide about outdoor ones on a case by case basis. None of this is anybody’s fault but it is frustrating and wearing.

Whilst all these practical things are demanding my attention I have been challenged by some books I have been reading. Three are memoirs written by women who chose to scratch a living in remote rural areas. Three very different personalities and stories but thought provoking. The fourth is an academic work, ‘Sitopia’, about the centrality of food to life, politics and culture and how the world might be different if we recognised that more overtly. I had already been reflecting on the plans and projects I have been working on to prepare me and this place for my older age. So now my head is full of ideas and words which roll around and, like a snowball running downhill, accumulate more and more, getting bigger and bigger. But I can’t seem to get them organised into coherent strings or know what to do with them. I will just have to wait for them to reach the bottom and the ball to break apart. Maybe then I will be able to make sense of it! Meanwhile I am wary of sharing much of it because in this mood I am likely to put it badly. Which means using energy to both contain it all and manage my impatience with not being able to organise it into something that makes sense! Another problem when meeting friends and a block to writing blog posts.

For all these reasons blogging has taken a back seat. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading other people’s posts and my apologies for the shortness of my comments.

One day soon it will all click into place again, my sense of joy will be restored and normal blogging will be resumed.

A road to?

In the days when farms were small and only had a few cows, moving them across one or two fields to get to the area they were to graze did very little damage to the land. Now that herds are 100+ strong they can make a terrible mess of a gateway so it is quite common for farmers to put down a few loads of stone around the gates. They may also fence off the edge of the fields and lay down stone tracks so that it is easier to direct the cows to the right field after milking. Open the gate from the track to the field you want grazed then drive the cows from the yard onto the track and the job is done. They will amble along and one man can manage them on his own.

So it was no great surprise to see a gateway on one of our regular walks with newly laid stone in it. Even when I saw the digger still working I assumed it was one of these narrow cow tracks being laid. But when, a few days later, I saw that the digger had disappeared over the hill leaving a beautifully laid wide road behind it my curiosity got the better of me! I knew that as long as I didn’t go through a gate I would not meet any livestock and the dogs were on leads as always when we are off my property, so I began to walk the new road.

I presume the rectangular hole is a silage pit (for those not in the know silage is the modern alternative to hay. Grass is cut but not left to dry. Instead it is trailered to a barn or pit, dumped, compressed by driving a tractor over it repeatedly, covered with a huge plastic sheet, old tyres are put on top to weight it down and the grass ferments – think sauerkraut. By winter it is ready to be fed to the cows who love it) so presumably whoever owns the fields is going to use them for winter feed and needs to be able to move tractors around easily.

I have often sat at temporary traffic lights watching a new piece of road being constructed. Somewhere on the site is a cluster of portacabins to provide office space, storage and restrooms with a potaloo ot two standing alongside. There is usually a contingent of engineers, identifiable by their suit trousers visible between their hi-vis jackets (often rather clean for people on site) and their wellies. They have high tech equipment like digital theodolites and laser levels or clipboards and rolls of maps. The line and gradient of the road is marked with posts and crossbars. Buzzing around are diggers and dumpers moving earth from here to there until the contours of the ground exactly match the markers.

This road has been constructed by one man in a digger and, it seems, one small dumper truck and a roller. No tech, no measuring. Just years of experience and a good ‘eye’. I found myself in awe of his skill!

Retreating

When I was working (many moons ago!) one of my colleagues told me that she went on retreat in a local convent two or three times a year. I was intrigued and she tried to explain to me what it was she found so useful from the experience. I kind of understood intellectually but struggled to imagine how it might feel.

Walking the dogs this morning I started to connect my experience of lockdown (which is still pretty much in force here in Wales) with going on retreat. I haven’t followed the horarium of a monastic day but a rhythm has developed which includes work (housework, gardening, decorating, time in the workshop); socialising via the internet; reading; and times to be quiet (yoga, dog walks and crafting in the evening). I have been less secluded from the world than on a retreat but because I live alone apart from my pets there has been a lot of silence. My dogs ensure I go out for walks, my cats give me cuddles and they all entertain me, but great conversationalists they aren’t! So I have spent more time alone with my thoughts and have had fewer means of distracting myself than usual. No longer can I find something to justify a quick trip to the shops or arrange to meet a friend for coffee.

In the early weeks it was fine. I did what I always do and kept busy. I had already planned to do some decorating and bought the paint. There were seeds to sow, veg beds to clear and planting out to do. The weather was glorious. My head was full of lists, plans and ideas. I finished my library books. I noticed that I then chose old favourites to read. Books of short chapters with gentle, amusing tales – Deric Longden and his cats, Jeanine McMullen and her small country living, Peter Mayle in Provence. I needed to be occupied but couldn’t settle to anything demanding. Knitting simple jumpers for charity was fine, complex patterns were beyond me.

Then matters in my daughter’s marriage came to a head and she decided she needed to get out whatever the long term consequences. She has the support of an amazing group of friends who helped her find a house to rent and enough furniture and equipment to live in it in reasonable comfort as well as giving her emotional support and encouragement. Apart from being one of the guarantors that her rent will be paid despite her low income, there was nothing for me to do practically. But emotionally my head was full to the brim! It was weird being unable to follow my instinct and rush to her aid. She was coping well, had all the support and help she needed and I would have been putting myself at risk for no good reason. I could commiserate, encourage and send love by Whatsapp from the safety of home. A hard but excellent lesson in sitting on my hands!

Rumbling in the background has been concern for my son’s brother in law who has been in intensive care on a ventilator and a lung machine since early April with Covid 19. It began to seem that whilst he could technically be kept alive indefinitely the decision might have to be taken to let him die. This weekend he finally improved, was brought out of his induced coma and is being taken off the machines.

Now that the dramas are easing my mood is shifting again. There are still projects I want to do and I find myself almost hoping restrictions aren’t eased too much too soon – not just because of concerns about a ‘second wave’ but because I don’t want to be faced with responsibility for making choices about how much time I spend on my own here getting on with things and how much I go out and about or entertain visitors. I have been surprised how much I have got done when there are no distractions. I have quite enjoyed the solitude. Yesterday I picked up a book on garden design I planned to re-read back in March and a philosophy book the librarian picked out for me on my last visit, also in March. Both had lain on the chest in the sitting room untouched, reproaching me for my laziness. Once I started on them I found I was enjoying them both. The garden one requires me to stop and think about applying the ideas and the philosophy one needs digesting so I read a little bit of each in turn!

I am lucky. I have a loving family, good friends, kind neighbours, a comfortable home, a garden I enjoy, a secure income which is enough for my needs. Even so I have found lockdown hard at times. There have been times of loneliness, worry, frustration. I have learned things about myself. Some have been good things; my resilience and ability to pick myself up when I am feeling down, my ability to cope with extended solitude. Others less so; my need to be always busy, my impatience, my bossiness. And some are just interesting; how much I have to learn about gardening, how my reading choices changed.

I am looking forward to being able to see friends again, to have a hug, to go to the library, to shop for things I want to see and feel before I buy. But I am also grateful for the experience of confinement. I have had no temptation to do an online search for retreat houses (of whatever religious persuasion) but I am beginning to understand better why some people do.

We all know the steps – but we don’t have to dance

Spoiler alert 1: This post has no pictures

Spoiler alert 2: I have been debating whether today is a good day to write this post which is a little close to home at present (my daughter is extricating herself from an emotionally abusive husband) and on what would have been my husband’s birthday so I am a bit off balance. Will I make it too sharp or wrap it up so carefully it is impenetrable? If I get it wrong please forgive me but let me know – I need to learn! The issue has been on my mind and writing will help me think.

Like all of you I was shocked and upset by the death of George Floyd at the hands of a white policeman. I have felt your bewilderment and outrage in the posts you have written and the comments on them. Like you I deplore the discrimination and injustices, the inequalities and deprivations that are endemic in our societies and the cultural normalising and acceptance of them – the shrug of the shoulders and the ‘that’s life’ response. What I am not is surprised.

Many moons ago, in what feels like a different life on a different planet, I worked as a trainer for Relate, the UK charity which provides couple therapy. Inevitably part of that was helping trainee counsellors work with abusive relationships. Based on the work of Karpman (google it if you want the theory) we looked at the three roles which are there in all the fairy stories and myths we grew up with.

The wicked stepmother, evil fairy, bad witch, possessive husband, (the ABUSER who can be either gender) drives away, puts to sleep, incarcerates in a tower, the hapless princess, daughter, seal who has shed her skin (the VICTIM – almost always female) until the handsome prince, fairy godmother, brave daughter willing to undergo trials, comes along (the RESCUER) and they all live happily ever after. These stories resonate with us from an early age because they are based on inequalities of power and as small children we know all about feelings of powerlessness, however loving and secure our childhoods are, because as little people we are vulnerable and at the mercy of our caregivers.

The less happy side of the theory is the corollary – we are all capable of playing all three roles. Before you click off this post let me emphasise that I am not saying you are capable of murder! I don’t know about you but I have certainly been fleetingly tempted but I have resisted that temptation as, I assume, have you. I am much more likely to use my power to rescue. That is why I was drawn to counselling as I later came to realise. I am a compulsive caretaker!

But the roles are not stable and if we get caught in the ‘dance’, for which we all know the steps, we move seamlessly between the roles. The abuser sees the prince as an interfering busybody who doesn’t understand the situation and, in an abuse of might, is carrying off his property. The knight in shining armour does nothing in the stories to raise the hapless princess’s self esteem or sense of her own power unless it is that of her beauty and golden hair (not reliable long term sources of power as us crones know only too well!) If his ‘rescuing’ fails and ‘happy ever after’ doesn’t materialise or his armour proves creaky and tarnished he can soon be perceived by the victim as just another abuser. It is the fate of peacekeeping forces the world over – sent in to rescue the underdog they are turned on by both sides in the conflict and feel, with some justification, victimised by everybody.

We all feel vulnerable at times because we all are vulnerable in some ways. I am a strong, resilient, self reliant, older, white woman. But, during this pandemic and lockdown especially, I have been very grateful for the network of support, both practical and emotional I have been able to draw on. If I was young, black or from an ethnic minority, disadvantaged, gay, homeless, jobless, under parented, I would find my ‘tribe’ even more crucial. I might feel much better if we were armed and organised. And because the victim is stereotypically female in our patriarchal society it is very hard for men to own their vulnerability and even more so to admit that they are unable, or choose not to, fight back and protect themselves. To be a non-aggressive, vulnerable male requires vast maturity and huge courage. Policeman and women can feel vulnerable too – they are peacekeepers after all – between warring parts of society.

So I can use theory to understand how these things happen out there, safely away from me. Me? Abusive? Never! Well not often. But the real breakthrough for me came when I acknowledged that I too can abuse. Not by murder or any other ‘arrestable offence’ but much more subtly. I am blessed with intelligence, a sharp wit and a way with words. I can use those words as weapons to cut people to the quick. Just ask anyone who has caught the rough edge of my tongue. I can use my intelligence to out-argue, run rings round, others in a way that diminishes their self-esteem. I can do those things unwittingly or with malice aforethought (usually aforethought in the depths of a sleepless night when I am full of fury). I would like to say that only the unwitting passes my guard but to my shame that would be a lie. Sometimes I ‘open gob without engaging brain’ and sometimes I deliberately speak to wound and even (thankfully only occasionally) enjoy it.

Which does not excuse, could never excuse, killing someone, institutionalised racism or any of the other evils apparent in the George Floyd murder. I too have signed a petition and I salute those of you who have protested peacefully. I offer this post because to solve a problem we must, I think, first understand it. We start from a poisonous legacy of colonialism and slavery overlaid by (growing) inequalities and twisted by the failure of our political and economic system to make good on its promises. The policeman who killed George Floyd and the colleagues who looked on without interfering must face justice. Equally they must not be scapegoats for the system which created them and allowed them to operate freely and with an expectation of impunity.

I wish I had answers. I wish I had the power to change the world. I wish that if I had that power I could be sure I would always use it wisely, fairly and for the good of all.

What I can do is call out injustice wherever I see it. I can use my vote. I can spread kindness, empathy and compassion as freely and widely as I can.

But there is one more thing. This event caused the furore it has because a witness filmed it, and the press and social media published it. Whatever the faults of facebook et.al. they allow ordinary people to publish things the establishment would rather remained hidden. A free and fearless press, from those young reporters who sit through endless boring council meetings sniffing out nepotism, shady deals, collusions and wastes of money, to the old warhorses who interview politicians on primetime TV, is the best protection for our democracy. So when I can go shopping I will buy a local and a national paper even if their main use will be to light the fire and I will continue to pay my TV licence fee, even though I have no TV, in order to feel justified in accessing public radio.

Thank you for reading this long and not very cheerful post. Please join the conversation so we can all find a way forward – I am looking forward to seeing any comments.

 

Encounters

One of the things which has surprised and pleased me about this long period of lockdown is how walking the dogs has ensured I still get social interactions. And because we are all deprived of our usual opportunities to chat everyone seems more willing to stop, stroll over to the gate and have a natter.

A few weeks ago I saw a farmer checking his fences before turning some calves into a field. I didn’t recognise him, though as we talked I realised I had seen him driving his cattle lorry meany times. He recognised me though. I doubt if he knows my name but, like many people round here he knows ‘the woman with the dogs’! We talked for ages and I was able to ask him who owned which fields, something which will be useful when I am able to restart my project to open up local footpaths. Since then he waves to me whenever he passes me in his lorry – not just the hand raised in acknowledgement wave but a proper hand moving from side to side wave.

Last week it was another farmer moving sheep. Meeting a few sheep is not unusual. They are consumate escape artists and when put into a new field will rootle around the fence looking for ways out. It is one of the reasons I always keep the dogs on leads – Roo sees sheep and her inherent herding instinct makes her want to round them up whilst Orchid is a sight hound and thinks ‘dinner’. If they managed to collaborate there would be carnage! This time though it was not a few – the flock was filling the lane for quite a long way. So I waited at the crossroads to see which way they were going in order to get out of the way. The quad bike leading the flock speeded up to block the routes the sheep were not supposed to take. The driver proved to be a lad of about 8 or 9 who clearly knew how to drive! He blocked the lane straight ahead, his Dad asked me to stop them turning left and went down the right turn to open the field gate and stop them going too far. To my relief and delight both dogs just watched quietly and I was even able to get my phone out and take a picture. Behind the sheep were a landrover and car ensuring none got left behind and tooting periodically to keep them moving.

IMG_20200508_110529369

Today I went to C&M to buy fresh veg and met Phil and Lauren who have bought some land and obtained planning permission under ‘One Planet Developement’ (you can read more about this policy, unique to Wales, here) for a house and market garden. They make sauerkrauts to sell and hope to be able to grow most of the ingredients themselves. The house is almost finished and they were beaming from ear to ear because tonight they will sleep there for the first time!

On the way home I saw a new neighbour outside his house. He lives abroad and has bought his place here for his retirement. When his children’s school closed and he realised lockdown was about to start he flew over so they were not confined to an appartment with no outdoor space. I had felt unable to call and introduce myself because of the restrictions and this was the first time I had been passing whilst he was outside. Another long conversation about his plans and the frustration of trying to get furniture and equipment during lockdown.

So though I live alone and am isolating I am not socially isolated. Thank you dogs!

Lessons from Lockdown

When our children were babies my husband worked for a while as an Audit Assistant with the local Council. It was a small Council and Audit got various jobs that didn’t really belong to any department or took up slack when other departments were unusually busy. One day he was asked to review the insurance for all the Council vehicles before it was renewed. ‘Just think of the worst accident you can imagine and make sure we would be OK’ was the instruction from his boss. His scenario involved a bin lorry, failed brakes, a steep hill between busy shops and with the Council Offices at the bottom.

More importantly it made him think about our lives. What could go wrong? What would the consequences be? Did we have the ‘insurance’ to cope? From then on he was known for his ‘belt, braces and a bit of baler twine just in case’ approach. That seemingly trivial task at work became a foundation stone for our lives. We didn’t become fearful or paranoid, just determined to think about our resilience and try always to have plan ‘B’.

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Soft fruit gives a lot of yield for little effort

We agreed that we would try to accumulate useful practical skills going as far back down the process as possible and to do so using only the most basic equipment. I knew how to sew but learned how to mend, do patchwork using recycled fabric, sew by hand as well as machine, relearned how to knit and crochet, then to spin and to dye using natural ingredients (I am not very good at either but know enough that I could become competent). John added DIY and building to his ‘O’level woodwork then did a weekend course in blacksmithing. We learned to garden and to cook with what was available rather than starting with a recipe and buying the ingredients. Foraging increased the range of foodstuffs we could use. Preserving kept summer foods for winter use. We kept poultry and pigs for meat and eggs.

The spinning wheel I have been lent and the workshop

I hope I am not giving the impression that I live (or have lived) some buccolic idyll of self sufficiency. Complete self sufficiency is a myth. It is also part of the ‘I’m all right Jack’ bunker mentality of the survivalists. I happily accept gifts from neighbours, shop from local farms and buy staples like flour and sugar from the supermarket. I enjoy eating bananas and lemons that will not grow in the UK. I heat my home predominantly with electricity and since heat is needed mainly when the sun is not shining I need the National grid to take surplus power when I have it and sell me some when I need it. I use more than I generate so I am dependent on other suppliers particularly over winter. I prefer to use hand tools but am realistic about the efficiency of powered ones. And so on.


Allowing kales to self seed looks messy but gives me an early crop for no work. Small ones for salad and big ones to cook.

The last few weeks has been the first big test of that resilience for a long time. I have coped pretty well. Not pefectly so there are things I need to think about but on the whole well enough. I am of course lucky to be retired – my income is not dependent on me being able to work. I don’t have young children to care for and school or entertain. Having a mortgage free home in the country with a large garden has been a great blessing and is partly down to luck and partly to hard work and choices. Food in the garden, hedgerows to forage in, preserves and a well stocked freezer mean I have had plenty to eat and gardening, crafting, dogs and a home to look after have given me plenty to do.


Workdays and permaculture groups have made me lots of friends

Getting to know my neighbours, building a wider community by joining in things and volunteering means I have had plenty of offers of help with things like shopping and lots of electronic contact with others. My washing machine stopped working with a smell of hot rubber and some expensive noises just after lockdown started. I could have ordered a new one online for home delivery but I suspect it can be repaired and I know a very competent man who will come and look at it – but not at the moment. My neighbour has been doing my washing each week since and has been pleased to help me since she was becoming embarassed about asking me to drive her children to clubs when she had two of them needing to go in opposite directions at the same time. Of course I have missed being able to go out and meet friends for coffee, walks on the beach, visitors coming here, workdays… but I haven’t been lonely or felt vulnerable.

So where could I do better? I didn’t have enough pet food to see me through even the original 3 week lockdown. I buy dog and cat food in sacks from the farmers co-op but in future I need to have an unopened sack of each as well as the one I am using. That means I also need to make sure there is space for them in the new utility room. I can adjust my diet to suit what is growing but it is harder to do that for the animals! I also went to the vets and got some more of the pain relief medicine Orchid needs. I was a bit over cautious there as the bottle will finally run out tomorrow but even so I need to keep a better supply in future.


C&M have closed the trust shop but between 10am and 2pm Thursday, Friday and Saturday they are open to take orders called through the window. They put everything requested together in a box which is put outside the door for the customer to pick up.

I have been going to C&M for fresh fruit and veg, butter and cheese. I decided a few years ago that potatoes, onions and carrots were not worth growing. Potatoes because I always miss some when I dig them up and get ‘volunteers’ the next year which outcompete the things I am trying to grow, onions because they came out the same size as the sets that went in and carrots because the local carrot root flies get them all. This year I have been able to get some manure to improve my veg patch and am planting lots of leeks instead of onions. I had intended growing some potatoes in pots which I could empty completely when I harvested them but missed the seed potatoes. Butter and cheese I can start keeping in the freezer. So I just need to tweak my growing and storing. On the other hand by shopping there I have been supporting a local business – a balance to be struck.


preserves have been a boon

The other thing I have needed to buy is milk. I have been thinking about that gap for a while and had a go at milking a goat at a friend’s place a while back. Going back into livestock isn’t something to do on a whim or for an unusual event but I do need to have another think.

Of course if this goes on for much longer I will run out of other things, there will be other breakages and breakdowns. My hair needs cutting and since I had it cut short I no longer have slides and clips to keep it out of my eyes. A dental appointment has been postponed. A former neighbour died and I was unable to go to the funeral – it should have been a ‘standing room only’ affair but must have been very small instead – not a fitting send-off for a very popular and respected man.

Sometime fairly soon lockdown will be eased if not lifted and I will be very glad. I will enjoy a trip into Cardigan to have a coffee, meet friends, go to the library, buy some more knitting yarn and restock at the supermarket. I will get my hair cut, my tooth filled and my washing machine repaired. But I owe a huge debt of gratitude to that imaginary bin lorry!

A lot of lemons

My neighbour Beccy sent a message ‘Can you use up some lemons?’ Expecting 3 or 4 I said yes – and got half a carrier bag of them! It seems another neighbour had bought a whole box intending to do something creative with the children whilst the schools are shut. But she was widowed earlier this year and wasn’t able to summon up the energy to actually do it. Beccy was chatting to her in the garden, heard this tale and rescued the fruit some of which was beginning to go mouldy. She ditched the worst ones but still had more than she could use up so gave me half.

Luckily another neighbour had just given me some duck eggs and I missed the seville oranges in January so was low on marmalade. I made a batch of hummus and a lemon drizzle cake (of which not much remains for some reason) then used a kilo to make some marmalade. The last 4 made lemon cheese. It is a recipe of my mother’s which I suspect was a wartme one. It has less butter than proper lemon curd but tastes just as nice.

Lemon drizzle cake

6oz softened butter
6oz castor sugar
2 large eggs
1 1/2 oz ground almonds
4 1/2 oz self raising flour
grated zest and juice 1 lemon
2 – 3 tablespoons milk

Juice of 2 lemons

Cream the butter and sugar with the lemon zest, add the beaten eggs a little at a time then the lemon juice, fold in the flour, add the milk to give a dropping consistency. Bake in a lined 2lb loaf tin for 40 – 50 mins at 170 deg.

About 10 minutes before the cake is done put the drizzle ingredients in a small pan and heat gently to dissolve the sugar.

When the cake comes out of the oven prick it all over with a skewer and pour the hot drizzle over it. Leave to cool in the tine.

LEMON CHEESE

Grated rind and juice of 2 lemons
8oz sugar
2 eggs beaten
good knob of butter

Put the rind, juice and sugar in a pan and heat slowly stirring frequently until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture hot. Beat the eggs in a bowl or jug. Pour the hot liquid SLOWLY onto the eggs whisking all the time (think mayonnaise but not quite as slow!) Return the mixture to the pan and heat slowly still stirring all the time until it thickens. Remove from the heat and stir in the butter. Pot into sterilised jars and seal at once.