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!

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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!

 

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!

Mudlarks

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYesterday was wet, very wet. The rain did occasionally stop for a short time but it was as if the weather was hurriedly refilling celestial buckets ready for another deluge. Undaunted six of us gathered at Dyfed Permaculture Farm Trust to help Phil and Michelle improve the path from the main track through the Trust to the door of their cabin. At one time we think there had been a cinder path but over the years soil had formed and been deposited on it and recently it has been mud except in the driest spells. Some flat stones had gone in as stepping stones and in the worst places cord wood had been put down but everybody who walked along it trailed mud into the cabin and wellies were a must.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABy lunch time we had moved the stones and sticks and dug out a wide shallow trench. The sticks were barrowed to an area beside one of the field fences where we are creating a new hedge bank. The mud went on top. In due course hedge trees will be planted into it and as the old wood rots down it will nourish the new plants. It is also a particularly good way of turning a waste material that could be a nuisance into something valuable! Eventually we hope that instead of fencing which uses non-sustainable resources and requires maintenance and replacing we will have hedges which can be laid to give an entirely sustainable stock proof boundary.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI had noticed a plant I did not recognise growing next to the path and Alison could not identify it either so we asked Phil. It was Siberian Purslane, a perennial salad plant so we both asked permission to take a small clump for our own gardens. Both Alison and I love perennial edibles as they save so much work! The back legs just disappearing belonged to the orphan lamb which Michelle is rearing and which follows her around like a dog! One of the ducks came too to see if we had turned up anything juicy for her to eat.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALuckily for all of us Peter and Alison had brought their soup thermos and a mug of Peter’s lovely warming carrot soup thawed us all out. With quiche and salads followed by tea and cake we were refueled for the afternoon. Our bring-and-share lunches are always a feast.

Fergus, Phil and Michelle’s son, was rather miffed that we then started to move the heap of crushed building rubble which was to be the base of the path. He had been riding his bike up and down it and just got the heap suitably compacted and the slopes to his liking! We tried to be nice to him and take stones from the edges!

By just gone 2pm that first section was filled with rubble and we had formed a chain to pass the bricks from the pile to be laid out beside the path ready for Michelle to lay them tidily on sand. These bricks have been accumulated over the years thanks to Phil’s Dad who was an inveterate Womble long before anyone had ever heard of Wombles. He has collected old furniture, wood, paving slabs, bricks and all sorts of other building materials from neighbours, friends and skips in Weston-Super-Mare and brought them down to West Wales. Whenever he visits he seems to spend time using all this stuff to put up or refurbish sheds and other buildings. He must have saved the Trust a fortune! I am always amazed at what people think of as rubbish and send to landfill but which, with a little imagination, can be re-used.

Laying the bricks was really a one-person job and Michelle assured us she was happy to do it in stages when she has time. So we moved on and did the next section round the side of the cabin.

The cake I took this time was a recipe from Nigel Slater’s ‘The Christmas Chronicles’ – a lovely dark chocolate spice cake. All the chopping takes a little while but the rest is easy and quick and the cake is sumptuous.

2 teaspns ground cinnamon,2 teaspns ground ginger & 1/2 teaspn ground mace (I used nutmeg) sifted with 250g SR Flour

100g dark chocolte chopped, 80g marzipan in small dice, 200g chopped stoned dates mixed

3 balls crystallised ginger (I used the cubes and guessed the equivalent amount) and 70g candied orange peel chopped mied

200g golden syrup, 125g butter and 125g dark muscovado sugar in a pan

2 large eggs beaten with 240ml milk.

Line a small rectangular roasting tin and pre-heat the oven to 180 deg.

Melt the sugar, syrup and butter then add the orange and ginger. Bubble for one minute.

Take off the heat and add to the flour stirring with a metal soon until thoroughly mixed. Add the eggs and milk and the chocolate, marzipan and dates and mix well again. Pour into the tin and bake for 40 mins or until a skewer comes out clean. Cool in the tin.

Mr Slater says it makes 12 pieces but he is very generous – I cut mine into 20. He also says to top it with melted dark chocolate and more chopped preserved ginger but that felt unnecessary and would have made it harder to eat at a picnic type meal so I left it off.

 

Lessons in Patience

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy mate Martin’s mate Adrian delivered some wood yesterday. Well a lot of wood if I am honest. All cut to order from local woodlands. It should have arrived 10 days or more ago but there was snow which put everyone behindhand. Then rain. Then a problem with his vehicle. So yesterday it finally arrived. But this week Martin, who will be using it, is away working in London so it will be a week on wednesday before anything can begin.

I was starting to let myself stress about the delays and be grumpy. Then I realised how daft that was not least because this project has been donkeys years in the making. What difference does a couple of weeks make now I have found the solution to such a long conundrum?

When we moved here 23 years ago there was a rickety porch attached to the house over the original front door. About 6 feet square it had been built of whatever reclaimed material was left lying around. Quaint, Quirky but very rickety. Too small to be much use – 2 upright chairs and it was crowded – it became a dumping ground for stuff that would not be ruined by damp. Every now and again we would have an ‘idea for the porch’ conversation but nothing really appealed and we just left it to rot.

IMGP0055The best idea was to replace it with a conservatory but the space is quite narrow with a steep bank beyond so we would have had to build up to give a base. It is also South facing and we were advised that it would be too hot in summer so instead we built one on the West end of the house which is also more private. Eventually we had the porch knocked down and a concrete slab laid all along the South front.

Then, sadly after John had died, I bought a long thin greenhouse and had that put up to shelter the house. It has proved a good space. I grow herbs for the kitchen and the most delicate fruits – peaches and figs – in there and sit out on spring and autumn days when it is too cold to be in the wind but lovely behind the glass. But the 2 big doors lead nowhere and to get from there to the garden involves coming back into the house and then out again. It is a cul-de-sac of a space. And cleaning the outside of the glass or replacing broken panes involves teetering on the narrow ledge before the land falls way.

I tried planting the slope with shrubs to give colour and texture on the bank but it was not very successful. Partly that was because nasty perennial weeds – you know the ones brambles, nettles bindweed.. – colonised the ground and got their roots down into the stone just below the surface where I could not dig them out. Any attempt to mulch around the shrubs just resulted in stuff washing down onto the path below.

A visit to my friends Jono and Pam provided the inspiration I needed. They had built a huge deck out over a similar slope in their garden and I fell in love with it! With their permission I had a really good look at how it had been constructed, made notes and drawings  and took lots of photos. The construction is quite simple but as I thought about it I realised that it was more than I could do on my own. Managing long heavy timbers, getting everything upright and level single handedly was more than I am capable of. Then Martin mentioned a job he was working on with a local garden landscaper and I realised that he would have all the skills and knowledge to do the job. He used to work in London running a playground for children with special needs and built much of the equipment there. That is where he will be next week because he still goes back to maintain the old stuff and build new. And he works for his landscaper friend when there is a wooden structure in the design. It took very little persuading to get him to agree to build my deck and once Marie and Rose had cleared the bank and put down old carpet to stop the weeds coming back (my wrist was in plaster so I could do very little!), he came to look at the space and gave me  a fantastic design suggestion.

Jono and Pam’s deck has an outdoor kitchen underneath with a firepit outside it. But I could not think of a use for the space under mine so Martin suggested a split level deck which would match the contour of the slope. We will work out the exact dimensions by eye as we go along but I am really excited at the prospect of turning a problem area into a useful one. Watch this space for progress reports!

Going Round in Circles

When I was a little girl my Mum’s oldest sister, Aunty Nan, and her husband Uncle Francis bought a large building plot in the village of Alsager in Cheshire. They both worked as lecturers at the local Teacher Training College and had been living on campus in half a converted Nissan Hut. Even before they started building their new home Francis, who taught Rural Studies, began to construct and plant a garden. Looking back it must have been really hard for him to live in that hut with no outside space to call his own.

We visited them fairly regularly and once the new bungalow was completed I fell in love with the garden. There was a large and very deep pond which had been dug for some purpose when the land was still a field and which Francis incorporated into the garden and a huge weeping willow hanging over it which made a tunnel to hide in. A pump fed water to the top of an artificial stream which nonetheless looked very natural. A shrubbery between the house and the road was another place to hide – even though no-one was looking for me! But what I liked most was that I could spend hours exploring the network of paths and finding different ways to go from place to place. Of course Francis had designed them to allow himself easy access to each place he needed to work but because they interconnected they made an interesting challenge for a young explorer.

I always wanted a garden with paths like that but small suburban gardens do not lend themselves to lots of paths or you end up with tiny spaces for the plants! Even in the big space here there was, for a long time, only a figure of 8. The top loop went from the drive to the veg patch with a spur to the Orchard, then through the soft fruit and the woodland back to the sheds and behind the house to the drive. The other loop went down to the cabin, then to the stream garden and back up. Boring!

Then a year or so ago I had a digger in to clear the stream garden and the excess earth was used to make 2 new paths, one up to the sheds and the other along the stream to join up with the top loop at the edge of the woodland. Now there were choices. And a couple of weeks ago the Carmarthenshire Parmaculture Group cleared a path through the woodland I rent from my neighbour to extend the top loop. (read about it here Many Hands) A little more work by me clearing the overgrown section of the top loop and Yes! I have a network! Now there are choices and I can walk the dogs different circular routes making them longer or shorter as the whim takes me. It has taken over 50 years but my childhood dream has come true.

 

All Change

Last weekend made me feel very old! My son, Hassan, came to visit me with his son, my 2nd grandchild Sean who is 18 and in the throes of applying to Universities. Hassan had told me before Christmas that he intended coming for a weekend in February and when Sean was invited to an Open Day at Swansea University that fixed the date. Sadly it did not coincide with the visit of my daughter, Carrie and her daughter Georgia the previous weekend but it was still very enjoyable.

Swansea Bay CampusThey arrived on Friday night having taken my daughter-in-law, Narju to stay with an Aunty of hers who happens to live in Swansea town. Narju is a town person, finds my place difficult to cope with and being scared of dogs does not help! This way she was able to relax and enjoy the weekend. Then on Saturday I went with them to see the University just out of interest. I expected to go to the campus in Singleton Park where I worked for a term covering maternity leave and which is next to the Hospital where my late husband had much of his treatment. It was only as we sailed past in the car that I discovered there is a whole new campus out along the bay towards Port Talbot and that that is where Sean will be based if he chooses to come to Wales.

It seems that BP had a redundant storage facility right on the seafront. When it closed they cleaned up the land and gave it to the University which was becoming rather constrained on its old site with nowhere to expand into. The upshot is that the new campus only opened 3 years ago with the faculties of Engineering and Business (which includes finance and economics) in the vanguard. A building for Computer Sciences, which is what Sean is interested in, is nearing completion and another for Law is taking shape, whilst even more student accommodation blocks are being added.

50 years ago I started at Keele University studying Maths and Biology with Computer Science as one of my subsidiary subjects. THE computer occupied a whole air conditioned room in a small building at the back of the campus. We were allowed in once to see it but thereafter submitted our hand written programmes to a white coated attendant who turned them into punch cards. These were run on the machine and the result returned to us – usually an error code! It could do simple calculations (when we ironed out all the errors!) and nothing else. It had less capacity than a small, hand held calculator does these days. Word processing, digital media, email, the internet, let alone wi-fi were unheard of. As students, the lowest of the low, if we had a complicated, repetitive calculation to do in biology, for instance to determine if a set of results was statistically significant, we were given a choice of log tables or a machine which had rotors which you set for one number and then you turned the handle, counting carefully as you did so, to multiply by the other. Those were the days! On Saturday we listened to a small section of a lecture given to first year students and I was glad it was Sean not me thinking of studying now!

Part way through the afternoon there was an earth tremor and as a precaution we were asked to leave the lecture hall and go to the assembly point until security staff had checked the building. There cannot be many Universities where that means standing around on the beach! Everything was handled very professionally with regular updates on the cause of the tremor (an earthquake a few miles away) and how long we might expect to be outside. Once we were allowed back in, the rest of the afternoon was compressed but there were plenty of staff and students on had to answer questions afterwards if anyone had things they still wanted to know. Tomorrow he goes to an Open Day at Lancaster and then it is decision time. Guess where I am hoping he will choose!

So just as Sean’s older sister, Shorna, graduates with a first class degree (no pressure then Sean!) in Events Management and Chinese and starts her first full time job in London, he leaves home. My next grandchild in order of appearance, Sam, my daughter’s firstborn, will go to FE college this next year and only Georgia will still be in school. It’s a good thing chitting the seed potatoes I bought today will be the same as last year, and the one before that! All this change is making me feel my age and I am clinging to the stable things in life.