Lights Out

I buy my Electricity from Octopus Energy, a firm which is committed to selling only renewable power. I mentioned in a previous post that here in the UK prices for most things are rising sharply, especially for electricity and petrol. I gather Gas is going up too but I don’t use that. So I am trying to be careful and cut my spending where I can. Therefore when I had an email from Octopus setting out a challenge to reduce my bill I was interested. They pointed out that a big reason for the increase in their prices was the global rise in gas prices. Obviously as a renewables company they don’t use gas but the National Grid have to have old gas fired power stations on stand-by for times when everyone switches appliances on at the same time – times such as early evening when workers get home, the heating goes on, the lights and TV are switched on and they make a cuppa and start to prepare a meal. Renewables can’t be controlled in the same way as the old power stations and so far battery / storage technology is not able to save the power generated on a sunny or windy day and release it when it is most needed. If those peaks of demand could be evened out it would be much more feasible to look to a totally renewable future.

So an experiment is underway. If I signed up for the challenge I would be given a series of 2 hour slots when I was asked to reduce my consumption from my average by a certain percentage. If I succeeded the power I did use would be free. This is all possible because I have a smart meter which apparently sends a reading to them every half hour. They could calculate my average use during the time slot and then set a target. Plus they could know if I had met it. It sounded like a good plan. I checked that Laura was up for it too – although she lives independently in the cabin her electricity comes through my meter so if she turned everything on while I was trying to cut usage it wouldn’t work – and she was.

The first slot was a week last Thursday. Unfortunately I forgot to turn the heating off before going out! I came home an hour in and immediately shut it down. I knew that Laura had left only her fridge/freezer connected so I expected the smart meter display to go green. It stayed orange! No appliances were on so where was it going? How was I still using almost 1Kwh? That was 19p per hour spent! I turned off all the lights and checked everywhere. My laptop and phone were on charge but they were full so presumably taking nothing or very very little. The router and its relays? No idea but I will find out. And then I realised – I have 2 bulkhead lights in the carport which are fitted with daylight sensing bulbs but no switch. That was deliberate so that no-one had to remember to switch them on and I had assumed they took very little power – but they were unnecessary. Another light in a tiny hallway between the kitchen, stairs and my workroom was also on all the time. I switched off the main switch on the consumer unit for the house thinking that the freezer and fridge would be fine for the remaining 45 minutes and sat doing stuff on my laptop (on battery) by candlelight! I have now had an email to say I missed the target of 40% reduction by 1%! Which means that next time I should succeed. And I had learned something.

The next morning I took the bulbs out of the unswitched lights and strung up fairy lights instead. They are on switched sockets so I only use them when I need them, they take almost no power, and whilst they are not as bright as the old bulbs they are good enough to see my way across the space. I am not sure how much these changes will save me but now I am on a mission to check EVERYTHING with a power supply! Obviously the big user is my heating but if you read my previous post (if you missed it you can find it here you will know I am onto that.

This Friday I was given another slot. I switched the heating off a quarter of an hour before it began and went round every socket switching off everything I could. I got down to 1 – 2 pence per hour! In the process I discovered that I had never disconnected the router on the satellite internet system because it is under my bed! One small saving for the planet – one bigger saving for this woman! I tried switching on a few things to see how much difference they made. The mobile router and its relays take about 2p per hour – not much but left on 24 /7 it is £175 a year. I feel I have to have the internet on in the day but it is no big deal to switch them off at night when I go to bed and fire it up again in the morning. Those experiments mean I used about 10 pence worth of power in the 2 hours – good news for Octopus who will give it to me free. Obviously I could play a game and use, say 58% of my average thus getting them to pay for as much as I can but someone must have pointed that out because now they are offering a choice – get what I do use free or get paid for what I DON’T use. On the basis of Friday that would pay me well.

Of course all this does is displace my electricity demand to a different time. In the morning I had done a load of laundry, baked bread and a cake, made a batch of soup and vacuumed the bedroom carpet – all well before the challenge started. The heating had been on and the house was warm so losing it for 2 hours was no big deal. At 6:35 I switched it on again and the smart meter went red as it recharged the tanks and pumped water round the radiators. But this is an experiment to see what is possible. Maybe there will be differential pricing in the future with one tariff when demand is low and another when it is high. Lindy’s house still has an ‘Economy 7’ meter with cheaper fuel after 7pm. So she only cooks anything which needs a long simmer or bake, or runs her washing machine and dishwasher in the evenings. She assures me that having got used to it she manages fine. The stew she cooked one night is quickly reheated in the microwave the following day when she wants to eat it. She is also using her woodstove more for long slow cooking – which I will be able to do too when mine arrives.

Octopus do have a special tariff which tracks the wholesale price of electricity every half hour. At times it is free or, even better, you get paid to use it! The downside is that at others it is much dearer than the normal price. I can choose to use appliances when it is cheap but the heating would be more tricky to control so finely so until that is sorted I will stay as I am.

In a funny kind of way I am enjoying investigating all this and although ‘1p per hour’ sounds very little it all mounts up so I will keep chipping away at the bills. It is an interesting challenge – How low can I get it?


Building Resilience

Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while will know that a few years ago I started planning to prepare for my old age. Yes, I am in my 70’s but I don’t feel old yet (well not most days!). I am planning for my 90’s and later and anticipating maybe less robust good health. But I have no wish to move to somewhere ‘sensible’, a bungalow in a village with a bus service. I like it here, I have brilliant neighbours but to stay here for the duration means planning for problems.

Amongst those problems were the things over which I have no control like pandemics and climate change. And lately two things have shown up a hole in that resilience.

The first is that here in the UK elctricity prices have soared. They are predicted to rise again in April when the Government allows companies to charge more. That will mean the price has doubled in a very short time. The problem is that although there has been a huge increase in renewable generation the National Grid still needs to have gas powered stations on stand-by for the times when demand surges – the early evening when everyone gets in from work, breakfast time when showers, kettles and toasters all go on, even the ad break in a popular Soap Opera when lots of people make a cuppa. And Gas is sold on the global market with a current shortage of supply. Several electricity supply companies have gone bust recently because the price rises to them caught them out. Their customers had to be transferred to other providers which has given headaches to both the customers (they lost a good price deal and went onto a higher tarrif) and the companies that had to accept them. The upshot is that as I have an Air Surce Heat Pump to heat my home my bills have increased dramatically even though it is a pretty efficient system. I can pay them but it means cutting back elsewhere and losing some of the fun things. Petrol prices have risen less dramatically but filling my car takes more money than it did a few months ago. And transport costs going up means food and other things go up too. What is a girl to do?

My Heat Pump works well – but at a cost!

In the long term everything will even out, gas prices will stabilise, but I cannot imagine that energy in any form will be much cheaper. Except wood which grows happily without any cost to me and which I can, and do, cut without recourse to fossil fuels.

I have a small woodstove as back up to the Heat Pump but it is not very powerful and certainly cannot heat the whole house. Time for a rethink.

The second sign of trouble has been that we have had two major storms this week and a third is forecast for tonight. The Met Office gives storms names only if they pose a threat and we have had Dudley and Eunice so far this week and Franklin has just been named and is expected tonight. Warnings are issued to help us prepare – yellow means a low risk but that damage cannot be ruled out, orange that damage is likely and red that it is pretty much inevitable. Eunice warranted a RED warning which is very rare. On Thursday I had an email from my home insurer reminding me how to make a claim, giving me my policy number to make it easier to identify myself, and telling me they had arranged for extra staff in their call center; and another from Western Power Distribution who manage the power lines telling me they had cancelled all routine work, had all their engineers on stand-by with helicopters to move them if flight was possible and they too had extra call center staff to deal with queries. They were clearly putting their contingency plans for a major incident into operation! In the event my house was perfectly safe and my garden suffered very little damage – one dying Ash tree fell but hit nothing important and one door blew off one greenhouse. This morning there were two fairly short power cuts and as I have been writing this I have had a message that there are problems with the water supply in my area. Other people fared much worse.

Apologies for the poor quality photo – it was blowing a hooley and the rain was horizontal!

Whether you believe in climate change (I do) or not it is clear that extreme weather events are becoming more common. Which means power cuts will become more common. Understandably when there is widespread disruption to the electricity network the first jobs tackled are those which get most people reconnected. In this remote rural place we are at the end of the queue. I have a couple of advantages – Because I am old and disabled I am perceived as vulnerable (I can hear you laughing – I do too!) but they can deal with that by passing my details to Social Services or the Red Cross to check on me and provide help if I need it. My big scret weapon is cows. My neighbour at the dairy farm up the hill milks over 200 cows twice a day and no way can that be done by hand. So if the power goes off it is an emergency and, to be fair, Western Power always get them reconnected quickly even if it means bringing in a generator or other temporary equipment. And that usually means I get power too. But at present in a power cut I have no heating and no means of cooking.

So I have decided to invest in a bigger wood burner in my sitting room. Which means having the old liner in the chimney removed and a new one put in. Apparantly the old one will be coming to the end of its life and it is better to have all the disruption in one go. It has taken me weeks to decide on the best stove and firm and it will be May before it can be installed. I was dismayed that most of the firms I contacted just told me to choose a fire and then they would fit it for a fixed fee. Their advice on how big the new stove should be seemed to be plucked out of thin air. It was Mr Snail who pointed out that for most people these stoves are nice accessories for the sitting room, lit on Christmas Day and maybe other high days and holidays, nice to have in a power cut but very much an adjunct to the central heating. How it looks is then the crucial factor in the choice. Only one firm understood that I wanted to use one as my main heat source. And I wanted to be able to boil a kettle or simmer a stew on it on a regular basis. My Heat Pump will still be there and will be maintained. In very cold weather the fire may not provide enough heat to keep the chill off the bedroom or kitchen and I may want to supplement it with the radiators. Or if I am too ill to cut wood or keep the fire going I need another heat source. But for the most part I will heat my home on free wood and do some cooking with it too. That should reduce my elctricity bills to a more manageable level and restore my capacity to have money for fun.

A permaculture principle is ‘Every function should be supported by more than one element and every element should serve more than one function’. That is a definition of resilience. I am getting there.

Who know’s?

I came across a post on Facebook recently – sorry I can’t remember where it originated or who posted it so I can’t acknowledge it properly. The gist was that when we read about, or watch a film about, someone travelling back in time the essential feature is that a small thing they change back then makes a big difference to the present when they return. On the other hand we all tell ourselves that the small things we do now are irrelevant to solving the big issues.

Maybe not every small action does make a big difference but how can we know which ones will and which one’s wont?

Today I went to a meet-up at the home of a couple who are members of one of the Permaculture groups I belong to. I chatted to P who was widowed suddenly a couple of years ago and who told me shortly afterwards that she looked to me as a source of strength because I had been widowed some time before and had made a new life for myself. I never saw myself in that light before. Now I offer other bereaved people support and empathy more consciously. Today she told me she is moving house and how sad she will be to ‘leave S behind’ but also excited at a fresh start.

The I spoke to L, a psychotherapist and yoga teacher about her experience of doing both those roles on Zoom during the pandemic. To C a former Climate scientist, now smallholder, about the strengths and limitations of climate modelling and the book his wife (another, still practicing, climate scientist) is writing on the subject. To a couple who recently moved to Wales and are now planting a garden and converting an outbuilding so they can work from home more. I was able to point them in the direction of resources they may find useful and invited them to come and see my garden in the hope that they can learn from some of my mistakes as well as my successes. To B who I met at Coppicewood College when he was a student and I was a regular volunteer and who is planting trees on his site which produce nuts and fruit. He has been thinking about a business making fruit syrups and I suggested he consider fruit vinegars – I will send him the recipe. And to the hosts who I know listened to me a while back talking about rewriting my will and setting up Lasting Powers of Attorney, took some of the ideas and used them. There were others I would have loved to chat with but time ran out.

Part of our hosts’ garden

When I came home I read a post from Jean who blogs as ‘one small stitch’ ( in which she wondered if her making and mending made any difference when the challenges of Climate Change are so huge. I imagine we all wonder that at times. Should we be doing more? if so what?

But Jean’s posts, like those of all the bloggers I follow, inspire me in so many ways. To make things and mend things, to think about the World and see it through different eyes, to go on learning and trying new things, to recognise the kindness and generosity of human beings to each other.

I have no idea which, if any, of those encounters I had today will change the world in the slightest. I have no idea if any of you reading this will find it useful or encouraging. I will never be a powerful politician or run a global company (for which may the world be truly thankful – I am not cut out for either role). I will go on doing what I CAN do – making the small changes I am capable of, making and mending, gardening and wooding, reading and writing, reaching out to others through blogging and meeting and offering them the help and support I can. I may be a ‘daft old bat’ but we are all connected, each of you to me and through me to the people I spoke to today, and in our various communities and conversations, urging each other on, our combined small acts might, just might, change the future.

From Mountain Goats to Busy Bees

Only a few weeks ago Laura and I were finishing the main tree work for this year tackling the trickiest jobs which I had left until last so that we built up our skills on the easiest first. We cut some trees growing right on the edge of the high, vertical bank behind the greenhouses just before snow came.

The two which are still growing out of the bank are too far down to be reached from above and as I do not want them to regrow we will cut them from stepladders behind the greenhouses later.

Then we laid a hedge in an almost equally awkward place!

By the time we had done that we were joking that we were fully qualified as Mountain Goats!

But now spring has started to appear. The snowdrops and daffodils are out in several parts of the garden.

The wild garlic is reappearing on the path by the stream

The crown of early rhubarb is leafing.

I made a bird box over winter and hung it opposite the end of the deck so I can watch it from the house. I have seen blue tits investigating it – will they move in?

The black elder near it is breaking bud and living up to its name.

And in the greenhouses the 2 apricot trees and the peach are in full bloom.


It is too early for many insects to be flying so to ensure a good set of fruit one of us must tickle each of these flowers with a soft brush every day. So now we are no longer Mountain Goats but Busy Bees!

Little Things

Last time I posted I was feeling rather glum as I had been limiting myself to essential trips and then Wales went into National Lockdown just as I would have been able to go out again! At least ours was only two and a half weeks whereas England has just started a four week one. I can go out on Tuesday! And I will – I have an appointment to have my hair cut and plan to do some other errands whilst in town.

After writing that last post I decided I needed to get things in perspective. I am not ill, frightened or hungry. I have plenty of friends and can email or message them. So I took myself off to one of my favourite spots for a good talking to! It is in the woods I rent from my neighbour. There is a small clearing next to the stream and on the hill above it a huge Oak tree which most have been part of a hedge once upon a time as there is a noticeable bank running down the hill to the stream – an old field boundary. The stream chatters away as it rushes to the sea and the tree stands majestic and solid. Both have seen it all before; pestilence, famines, wars (I am told that the Home Guard trained by shooting across the stream into the hillside opposite during World War 2) as well as good things like the farms thriving, children playing, lovers meeting. I tell them my worries and grumbles and I can almost hear them telling me to stop whingeing!

But (isn’t there always a but!) the path from my garden into the woods had become overgrown with brambles so I had to take a pair of secateurs with me and cut them back. As I did so I uncovered a tiny nest – I assume a wren’s. Two tiny birds did all that work to build a home and raise their chicks. They don’t care who wins the American election, who gets Covid 19, whether I am happy or sad. They just get on with their lives and do what their instincts tell them.

The cup is just 2.5 inches (6.5cm) across and beautifully woven

I realised that I needed to stop fretting about things I can’t change and focus on the little things that bring me joy. So as well as that nest…

I finished a jumper for the collection at Studio 3. This is plainer than I usually do and to the pattern they provide. That makes 5 I have done for them to different designs. I have enough yarn in my stash for at least one more which I will try to get done before the end of the year. A group of refugees have recently been moved to a disused army base not far from here causing quite a lot of controversy – some protesters unhappy with the decision especially as it all happened suddenly with very little consultation, and some people organising to try to help and support them. What must it be like to be dumped in the middle of nowhere with hardly any resources in the middle of lockdown? I know my jumpers will go to a different group but if knitting helps people worse off than me I will knit!

A couple of days ago I found this little fellow in the car port. I have seen newts in the garden before but it is nice to know they are still around. Once I had taken the photograph I moved him to a safer spot. I know there is a lot more wildlife here than I know about – they keep well hidden. What a priviledge to share my space with so many other creatures.

I was weeding the bank next to the deck and found these dahlias. They were facing away from the house and as I hadn’t staked them were hanging down below behind their pot. They have taken a battering in the wind and rain but add a splash of colour to the kitchen table. I have never succeeded with dahlias before but will definitely grow them next year to brighten up the Autumn (and next year I will stake them!)

I also came across what, at first sight, looked to be a HUGE toad but turned out to be my son’s drone. Over a year ago he was here and playing with it (He’s moved on from the radio controlled car he had as a child!) and it got caught in the big Ash tree next to the deck. We tried all sorts of things to get it down but to no avail. It must have eventually blown down and landed under some self-seeded raspberry canes where it hid. Finding it reminded me of spending time with him, his 3 small foster children and my daughter, who took the opportunity of lift to come with them. That brought a big grin to my face!

What is making you smile at the moment?

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!

Topsy Turvy Turning

One of the consequences of having friends from a wide range of backgrounds and beliefs is the number of festivals and greetings that pop up in my social media feeds. Just as Lockdown began my children wished me Happy Mothers Day, some of my friends later wished me Happy Easter, my son sent greetings for Ide Mubarak, and this week it has been Fathers Day from families and Happy Solstice from the earthier contingent. The Summer Solstice always reminds me of my Dad who loved to try to be the first person to say ‘The nights are drawing in now’ – a game he played with the man next door.

What was really weird this year was that it actually felt very autumnal around the longest day. March, April and May were day after day of hot sunny weather and virtually no rain. It felt like summer, the gardens baked and the grass went brown. Local farmers got the first cut of silage in early but then the grass didn’t grow back. The stream at the bottom of my garden reduced to a trickle. In many ways it was a blessing because we were all able to get outside in our gardens or go for walks along the lanes. We saw each other and had socially distanced chats. So much easier than being stuck indoors.

Then it all ended with thunderstorms, gales and torrential rain followed by days and days of heavy grey cloud, those days when it is either raining, has just rained or is about to rain.

So as I walked the dogs in the early part of this week the signs of high summer were all around. The council have cut the verges and the bottom of the hedges so the daffodils, bluebells, pink campion, stichwort and cow parsley have all gone though hopefully they will have set plenty of seed for next year. The lush growth makes visibility round bends poor and once the flowers have gone and there has been time for seeds to drop it needs to be cut back. But higher up the hedges the elders are in full bloom, there are dog roses, honeysuckle, bramble flowers and spires of foxgloves. It looks as if it will be a good year for elderberries and I am grateful because my strawberries and raspberries have been very poor. They were too dry to swell the fruit.

Walking with a jumper on and thick socks in my boots but seeing those flowers felt surreal. But today dawned clear and sunny so maybe summer is back for a while at least. I don’t think I will put my woolies away just yet. It is a funny sort of year.

Just procrastinating!

If I were a baby I would be described as frettful ot fractious today! I lost track of how many times I woke up last night. Each time I was too hot and had to throw the duvet off, then, of course, got cold and pulled it back over me. But I really don’t think it was heat that woke me. I reckon I started to wake up and as my metabolism cranked into life I got hot. What actually caused my waking I have no idea. Anyway I woke up rather later than usual, grumpy with everything and nothing and feeling tired. Not cross enough to have a good rant, bellow or bawl but a lot of mutter and whine and wail.

The weather is in the same mood. Occasional flashes of sun but mostly grey and dreary. We could do with soem rain and whilst I was walking the dogs it started to spit – big fat drops too – but it stopped before the polka dots on the tarmac had time to join up. So lots of nuisance value but no use.

I made the mistake of picking litter whilst I was out. I have noticed lots of empty cans, crisp packets and bits of plastic in the verges and now the grass is growing strongly they will soon be hidden. Then the machines will come along and cut the verges and hedges chewing all this rubbish into small pieces as they go. With everything still visible and very little traffic because of lockdown now seemed the ideal time to do something about the problem. I ordered one of those gadgets for picking things up if you can’t bend down easily because managing 2 dogs, a bucket to put the rubbish in and bending down for it is tricky. Within a quarter of a mile my bucket was full! Some of it was stuff that had fallen off cars, tractors and farm machinery – rubber from a tyre, a huge metal nut – some must have been dropped when the bins were collected but a lot was just stuff discarded fron vehicles. There was noticeably more in lay-bys and where vehicles turn into fields or through junctions. I could just see the culprits cramming the last bit of food into their mouths in order to have both hands properly free to haul the steering wheel round hard, and throwing the wrapper out of the window. It did nothing for my mood.


So now I have to decide what to do with the rest of the day. I could do some sewing but in this mood there is a serious risk I will make a pigs ear of it and then be even crosser! I need something that is absorbing but not tricky or precise. Should I go in the garden and risk getting damp if not wet? I could take my bad mood out on some weeds. Or go in the workshop and find some wood for a new nameboard at the gate? The plywood I used for the old one is delaminating and the paint is fading and peeling. Or I could rub down the upright chair I bought for £3.50 in the house clearance place and an old chest of drawers that used to live in the kitchen ready to paint them. Unless it rains soon I need to transfer water from the reserve tank to the water butts but the syphon is too short – I could cut a stub of copper pipe to join on a piece of hosepipe. I could go through the seedling trees I have outside and pot some up to go in gaps in my new hedges or plant some in the field opposite. Housework? Tidying up would probably make me feel a bit better when it was done but not whilst doing it!

Maybe I’ll just make another pot of coffee, mooch around and see where I end up. Sometimes being focussed and decisive is just too much like hard work!

In praise of hedges

I spent Sunday at a field just outside Fishguard on the North West coast of Pembrokeshire. One of the members of the Permaculture group has just bought it with the intention of creating a small nature reserve with a wild flower meadow, lots of trees and shrubs, a couple of ponds and somewhere to sit and enjoy it all. He has had the ponds dug and is waiting to see what sets up home there. Some trees have been planted but one of our tasks was to plant more and in particular to put in a double row of saplings along the track leading to the field to grow into a hedge.


Janey, Ian and I planted the hedge


Brian and Denise stripped patches of turf off the area where the wildflower meadow will be and strewed meadow hay full of seeds on the bare ground


our base camp!

Around here most of the farmers have their hedges cut back almost to the ground every autumn using a flail on a tractor. The flail, for those of you who have never encounteed one, is a cutting head like an old fashioned push along lawn mower – a collection of sharp blades spiralling round a central axle

hedge cutting

The result is a hedge which is neither use nor ornament!

No use to keep stock in, no use for birds to nest in or small animals to hide in and producing no fruit or berries. I look at the ugly, mangled stems and feel so sorry for the plants.

Many years ago, before tractors and such like machinery became ubiquitous, farm workers spent days and days in the winter keeping the hedges in good order. It was cold, hard, skilled work and I can quite understand why they would much prefer to sit in a warm cab letting red diesel power through the job! I suspect that it will also be cheaper to do it that way.

Since I have the time and have learnt the skill I lay my hedges the old-fashioned way. My trusty billhook does most of the work. I use it to sharpen posts which I knock in with a lump hammer. The stems are then partly severed, bent down then woven round the posts. I have a bowsaw (or a pruning saw to get into small gaps) to take out any stems too big to weave in or which are surplus to requirements (some of the multi stem hazels are just too dense). Those cut stems are set aside. The thicker bottoms make posts and the brash can be woven in where the gaps between trees are too big or the trees too weedy as ‘dead hedge’ to fill the space and provide cover for the new saplings I put in to thicken the hedge up.

I don’t have livestock but the resulting boundaries are very effective at keeping my elderly lurcher, Orchid, from wandering off in pursuit of interesting smells. As the trees put out new branches and the whole tangle gets thicker, wider, denser, they will provide a safe place for small creatures and food for them too.

This winter Rob has cleared old dead willows (the remains of some planting my husband did many years ago) from a section of the top boundary, coppiced the living trees and laid the hedges north and East of the orchard. I have almost finished the one on the southern edge of the orchard, cleared the brambles under the apple trees and trained the old loganberry.

There are saplings ready to plant out between the hedge and the top fence. I have chosen species which will provide fruit or nuts for the wildlife – apples (from pips), hazel, holly and hawthorn which I have weeded out of veg beds and rowan which I have bought. Hopefully in a few years time there will be a narrow strip of productive woodland that joins the much bigger wood that I rent beyond my Western boundary and the smaller one to the East.

Even though quite a lot of the material cut out has been used to dead hedge, there are still piles of wood to go for firewood. Many a small farm produced all its fuel from the hedges.


An entirely natural and sustainable boundary, a resource for wildlife and a source of fuel – what’s not to like?!

I am looking forward to going back to Howard’s field in a few years time and helping to lay that new hedge as part of his wider plan for a small patch of biodiversity in a green desert of farmland.

What if?

I have just finished reading ‘From What is to What if’ by Rob Hopkins, one of the founders of the Transition Town movement. It got me thinking. It got me shouting ‘YES!’ out loud. And as I walked the dogs, which is when ideas tend to coalesce into new patterns, I began to make connections.

The central thesis of the book is that our collective failure to deal with the problems of our time – climate change, extreme weather events, mass migration of people – both refugees and economic migrants, inequality everywhere, breakdown of trust in the political process and the rise of extremism… is all largely down to a failure of imagination. We cannot imagine, or dare to believe, that the problems can be solved.

He goes on to explore why this inability to imagine might have come about. In particular he castigates modern education (not teachers please note) which is target driven and, since Victorian times, has been designed to turn out competent but compliant workers – no imagination required. In fact on an assembly line or working through a script in a call centre imagination can be a definite disadvantage. I was reminded of two incidents from my past.

The first was when both my husband and I were working as fairly new teachers in a Secondary chool in mid-Wales 46 years ago. A colleague joked that teaching was ‘casting imitation pearls before real swine’. Without pausing for a nano-second and without looking at each other we both said ‘They are only real swine because they know an imitation when they see one!’ THEN we looked at each other and knew we had to find other careers! I still think we were right! Most of us delivered unimaginative lessons most of the time, were unpopular with colleagues if we got the children excited (percieved as unruly) and children who were creative were described as disruptive.

The second was a few years later at a party. I was talking to the consultant in charge of a kidney dialysis unit who told me that his ideal patient for home dialysis was a teacher or police officer. They were taught the procedure and would then follow it to the letter. The patients who caused him grief were the ones who were sure that they could see a better way to set everything up and tried it their way. Disaster usually followed.

The book is not all doom and gloom. He also relates how he and others in groups have been enabled to imagine a better way of livng and to believe that it might just be possible to create it. The results have included Transition Towns (begun in Totnes, Devon, UK) and Incredible Edible pictured above (begun in Todmorden, Lancashire, UK) each of which began with a few people asking themselves that ‘What if…’ question.

So far so good.

What happened next was that I made a connection between this idea and ideas from my training as a couples counsellor. Faced with an unhappy relationship clients had 3 options (no-one ever came up with a fourth!) Like it, Lump it or Leave it. Since the situation wasn’t working ‘Like it’ meant changing it into one that was at least likeable and hopefully really enjoyable. ‘Lump it’ was to stay as they were but probably grumble about it to their friends and family and anyone else who would listen. ‘Leave it’ meant just that – separate. Or leave in spirit if not in body – through alcohol, drugs, gambling, depression or other mental illness, becoming physically ill, having an affair or by living sparately under the same roof. Of the three ‘Lump it’ was the least risky. Nobody had to DO anything, the other 2 options were still available in the future if needed, and neither partner had to take responsibility for what was going on; though the ‘leave it in spirit and lump it in body’ ran a close second. What linked this with Rob Hopkins ideas for me was that ‘Lump it’ required no imagination. No need to imagine how our relationship might work better or how I/we might be able to make that happen. Nor any need to imagine life post-separation.

The more I thought about it the more it seemed that the same 3 options face us in the case of each of the global issue I menbtioned above. The outworking is slightly different. Like it again means taking responsibility for my part in the problem and doing something about it. Hold that thought for later! Lump it means acknowledging it is there but remaining helpless – What can I do? Me using paper straws / reusable shopping bags / getting a smaller car / making a donation to a refugee charity… is not going to make much difference so why bother. I am helpless and ‘THEY’ out to do something. Leave it becomes denying there is a problem, or blaming it on others, or the survivalist approach – concrete bunkers full of bottled water and tins of beans.

The Establishment here in the UK and probably in most of the rest of the world is pretty firmly in the Lump it camp. Many fine sounding declarations of a ‘Global Emergency’ but a complete terror at the idea of actually doing something radical. Back to Rob Hopkins – a collective failure to imagine a better world. Not helped by some pretty trenchant vested interests. There are exceptions. The Council for the city of Preston in Lancashire UK (Coincidentally the place where my mother grew up), decided to spend its money with local suppliers. As it is responsible for schools, emergency services, Social Services, highway maintenance (everything from major roads to pavements and street cleaning) that is a lot of buying power. Instead of the money going into tax havens via global corporations it supported local firms and small employers with dramatic results for the well being of the area. (Read more about the Preston Model here)

Just as I was pulling all these ideas together I listened to an episode of the BBC radio 4 series ‘The Life Scientific’ in which Prof. Jim Al-Khlili interviews a leading scientist about their work and how they came to be doing it. The guest in this particular episode was a leading Climate scientist, Myles Allen, who (amongst lots of other interesting things) described talking to a group of engineers from one of the world’s major oil producers. He asked if it would be possible for them to make their industry carbon neutral – to sequester as much carbon from the atmosphere as was produced in the whole extraction, transportation, refining and use of their products. The senior staff looked uncomfortable but the younger ones assured him it was perfectly possible – as long as all the other companies had to do the same. If one company went it alone they would commit business suicide. There would, of course, be consequences including much more expensive petrol and petrochemical products. Which is part of what scares governments and makes them even more likely to play ‘After you, no after you, No you go first…’

So where does that leave me? Well I like a good grumble as much as the next person but I have never really been in the ‘Lump it’ camp. Hiding under a duvet of alcohol or mental illness doesn’t appeal either. And as for living in a suvivalist bunker! On my own I would go crazy and as part of a group, even if they were my nearest and dearest, I would probably murder one of them within days if not weeks. No, it has to be the ‘Like it by changing it’ camp for me!

But what does that mean in practice?

In the political arena I would be a disaster. My favourite question is ‘Why Not?’ I see ‘black and white’ / ‘either or’ thinking as generally unhelpful and tend to the ‘both and’ / ‘shades of grey’ persuasion. I lack the personal ambition and ruthlessness to get any real clout, and despite the views of the current line-up of US Presidential hopefuls I think 70 is too old to be in charge! By the same reasoning I have left it too late to be a Captain of Industry or top Civil Servant. So global, or even National change is not within my scope. In the UK’s ‘first past the post’ system for elections my vote is worthless and I have never thought petitions do much good.

So what can I do? What could any of us do?

Well, even though my thinking carefully about the things I buy, driving less, consuming less stuff, re-using and recycling whatever I can, making puppets for children in Sierra Leone…. is not going to make a big difference in the grand scheme of things, it will make SOME. And as the Tesco adverts say ‘Every little helps!’ By connecting with other people who are making the same effort we can support and encourage each other and maybe, just maybe, demonstrate to others that it isn’t a recipe for drudgery – all worthiness, going without, and eating a lot of lentils (Dont get me wrong lentils can be delicous but they do have an image problem). I can continue to build my own resilience by looking after my health and learning new skills (and learning new skills is good for my cognitive health too). More importantly I can work to build my local community so that we help each other, share resources and skills, look out for each other, inspire each other. That is how all those imaginative initiatives like Transition Towns and Incredible Edibles started after all.

I hope that all makes sense and I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas.