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!

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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!

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.

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’.

 

The Gift Economy

I have spent a lot of time over the last few weeks picking fruit and vegetables from the garden and hedgerows and preserving it for winter. Most of the mushrooms I picked in my neighbour’s field were dried, as were some of my cooking apples (the first crop off the tree in years!), and some apples and other fruits were bottled or made into jam, some of the elderberries became Pontiack sauce to enrich casseroles, and the eating apples my friend Marie gave me from her hugely productive orchard went into the steam juicer with a cinnamon stick to make a lightly spiced juice for winter nights, whilst most of the tomatoes were roasted with slivers of garlic and a dribble of olive oil before going in the freezer. So this

Became this (plus lots of boxes in the freezer!)

 

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But I was also able to give lots of produce away. Most people had more than enough courgettes and green beans but tomatoes, mushrooms and grapes were welcome.  In the days before freezers everyone in the neighbourhood feasted when a pig was killed on a farm because with only limited means of preserving the meat it made sense to share it and, in return, be given some of a future supply. The same ethos applies to garden crops now – anything surplus is shared out. But I realised I was making choices about who got what.

It set me thinking (there is lots of time to think whilst peeling and coring apples or waiting for jam to reach setting point!) about the amazing people in Todmorden (and other places) who plant unloved or underused public spaces with edibles and invite everyone to help themselves. I think that if I was one of them I would start with a pretty rosy picture of the benefit I would be bringing to the community. I would imagine helping those elderly or disabled people no longer able to tend a garden and missing having freshly picked fruit and veg. Those parents struggling to feed their kids and relying on the food bank could have freshly plucked salad for tea. They are the deserving poor.

But what if I see that lad from the rough end of town, the one who has never wanted, let alone had, a job picking ALL the strawberries I carried water to when the weather was hot and dry? Do I tell myself that at least he wants to eat fresh food and they will be good for him or do I worry that he will simply trash them and curse him? The ?underserving? poor.

Or what about that couple with two good salaries and a big house saving a bit on the Waitrose shop – is that OK? The ‘too lazy to grow their own’.

Maybe this is why Community Supported Agriculture and Community Farms are so popular – only those who put in cash or work benefit.

But that begs the question – Those parents using the food bank may be unable to put money upfront however economically advantageous in the long run, and may not have time or energy to volunteer. And the retired or disabled folk may have the same problem. Community agriculture and Community Farms can easily become middle class enclaves however worthy the aspirations.

All this linked back in my mind to a conversation with a friend earlier in the year. We were talking about birds taking our black- and red-currants. To net or not to net was the dilemma. My choice, because I have plenty of space, was to not net but to increase the number of bushes until even the most voracious of flocks cannot eat them all! Not so easy if all you have is room for one bush I know.

It all seems to me to be part of the same questions: How generous should I be? When am I being greedy or overly self protective? At what point do I give so much stuff away I am not being properly caring towards myself? And how do I cope if my generosity feels unappreciated or even abused? Despite reading a number of books recently on our attitudes to money and possessions I have no answers to these conundrums – but I would love to hear your thoughts!

Oh Dear! Now what?

At the end of July I finished a year of recording all my expenditure in line with the categories of the One Planet Development Carbon Footprint Calculator. It was time to enter it all into the spreadsheet and get the calculated result. (you can find the calculator on the Welsh government website under Topics>Planning>Policy and guidance>One planet development practice guide. The pdfs are at the bottom of the page.) I knew I would not meet the target of 1.88 global hectares but hoped for and expected nothing worse than 2 to 2.5 times that. So it was rather a shock to get 6.72 global hectares – 3.6 times my share of the planet’s resources! How did that happen? How can I get this number down and live within my fair share? I must admit that I felt ashamed to be so greedy and also slightly panicky as to how I could improve further.

After a few deep breaths I managed to engage my brain! Although this calculator is much more searching and precise than many I have seen, it has its flaws. For instance it asks me to enter my consumption of food as money spent on the various categories. Paradoxically when I broke my wrist and did almost all my shopping in a supermarket my spending went down. So buying potatoes grown in Egypt on sand plus chemicals, using rapidly depleting underground aquifers, would give a lower score than waiting a few weeks to get organically grown ones from Pembrokeshire! I gather from Jasmine Dale that when the scheme was originally being designed there was an intention to correct this anomaly but somehow that has been lost. I do understand that it could get ridiculous with multiple categories – Potatoes organic Welsh,  Potatoes organic UK, Potatoes organic EU, Potatoes organic other, Potatoes not organic Welsh…. all with different scores per £ spent.

Secondly if John had still been alive my score would be much lower. Although food costs would roughly double and the water bill would go up a bit, the cost of running and heating the house would stay pretty much the same. Similarly the bulk of the costs of running the car would be unchanged and as we always tried to do more than one errand in each journey we would mostly travel together so the petrol cost would only increase a bit. Lowering my carbon footprint does not seem a good enough reason to start looking for a new husband!

Another alarmingly big chunk went on the dogs and cats. Even excluding the ‘contributions’ to the rescue charity for Sally and Connor and the one-off cost of having Connor neutered (he was too young for him to have been done already) they are costing me about £11.50 per week. I buy the cheapest food by the sack from the farmers’ Co-op but on the advice of the vet when I got Orchid from the rescue charity, they get a dentastix each night and Roo gets through quite a lot of squeaky balls! I know that there are people who disapprove of pets and I can understand their logic. However the original reason for having cats was to keep vermin like rats and mice under control. No I probably do not need 3 of them for that (though they keep finding plenty). And the dogs keep me healthy and connected to the neighbours as I explained in my first post on this blog (read it here Walking the dogs) And all 5 of them keep me company, make me laugh and give me cuddles.

It was those ‘unquantifiable’ outcomes, the ‘soft’ benefits which both Jasmine and Jan Martin (a.k.a. Mrs Snail – read her blog here) reminded me needed to be ‘offset’ against my consumption. I am building soil fertility  in the garden, increasing the amount and diversity of habitat, planting trees, building community, volunteering for charities (which is how some of the petrol is used), passing on what I learn through the networks and I belong to…..

Then I read an interesting piece by Paul Jennings who lives only a few miles away. He points out that my plot and my lifestyle are embedded within a wider system which is not, at the moment, designed to be helpful to me achieving my goal. If there was a public transport system that was close enough I would use it. When I am offered a lift or can give one I do. If I could use a taxi (the nearest taxi firm is, I believe, based in Cardigan 19 miles away) I would. But in the system as it is I need a car. And so on. You can read his excellent piece here.

None of that leaves me complacent about my high score. It was an interesting exercise and gave me some useful information. I need to go on thinking about how I could do better but to focus too narrowly on that one criterion could lead me to make some unethical choices.

Is it better to buy a jumper made of synthetic fiber from the charity shop or to knit one from locally produced wool? The former makes use of something that has already been made, supports a charity, encourages volunteering, helps prevent an empty shop on the high street, but I may think ‘easy come, easy go’ and not take much care of it, it sheds microfibres into the environment, will never rot down … The latter supports local farmers, a local haberdashery shop, encourages me to be creative, I will probably look after it because I know how long it took to make, it is environmentally friendly, will rot when I finally put it on the compost heap…

I do not think there is A right answer to any of these conundrums. Hopefully wrestling with them will do both my brain and the planet some good!

 

 

Friends and family

Despite being without an Internet connection for 8 weeks of it I have had a fantastic summer.

It all started with the celebration of the new fields at Dyfed Permaculture Trust (find out more here The consequence of reading books)

 

 

The usual workdays and network get-togethers have been enhanced by the lovely sunny weather. There has been chance to catch up with friends. Some have come here and we have made the most of the new deck. Other times I have visited them or we have gone out for lunch together as Jan (Mrs Snail who blogs as ‘The Snail of Happiness’) did last week in Tresaith.

 

Then there were the regular workdays and gatherings.

My eldest Grandchild, Shorna’s graduation (read about it here Going Batty in London) was followed by her younger brother Sean getting the A level grades he needed for a place at Swansea University (read about my joining them for the open day here All Change) and now my daughter’s eldest, Sam, has done well enough in his GCSEs to go on to College where he hopes to do a music course. His younger sister Georgia had no exams this year thank goodness!

But the other big family event was that I met my new foster grandchildren for the first time. My son and his wife have been fostering for a few years now but until this year had teenagers for relatively short placements or, on one occasion, teenagers and a younger sibling for a while. This time they were asked to take another sibling group but these are aged 5 up to 8 and will, all being well, be with them until they are adults. They are delightful children but have lived in cities all their lives with parents who were too lacking in resources (internal and external) to do much more than provide basic care for them. (They also have 2 other siblings who are both disabled and have gone to separate placements where they have the undivided attention of very experienced and trained carers.) Hassan brought them to visit me for a few days to give them some of the experiences they had missed out on. And because my daughter Carrie was planning to come at about the same time he picked her up on the way – it was good to have her help and expertise with little ones. My skills with small children are rather rusty! Between us we gave them a whole string of firsts.

Roo and Orchid were the first dogs they had actually stroked, let alone played with, but Roo soon had them throwing her ball for her! We all visited Jeni so they could meet sheep, pigs, hens, ducks, geese and more dogs! They picked blackberries and ate some straight from the hedge, picked tomatoes with Jeni and with me, and ate French beans they had helped collect. We went to the beach and made sandcastles, went in the sea, looked into rock pools, ate ice cream cones and had Fish and Chips for tea in a cafe. We played in the castle at Newcastle Emlyn. Carrie helped them make a cake, then made them some playdough and picked leaves to press into it to make patterns. Hassan helped them make paper aeroplanes and they flew them off the deck. And two of the nights they slept in tents in the garden. Such simple pleasures but ones that many urban children in struggling families miss out on. It was such a privilege to be able to give them those experiences – ones that I suspect they will remember for the rest of their lives.

I hope you had a good summer too. Please blog about it or share a highlight or two as a comment – I would love to hear about it.