Where did it go?

Did you notice I had not blogged for a while? Did you fantasise that I was soaking up the sun somewhere exotic? On a retreat where all access to the outside world was banned? Nope! Nothing so exciting or unusual. Just busy. You know what I mean – one minute it was early July and then the next it is October!

So where did Summer go? I actually had to check my diary!

There have been visits. I went to stay with my daughter for a weekend so we could go to IKEA for inspiration. I want to turn the old utility room into spare bedrooms. It was originally the garage so is big enough to attract a lot of ‘might come in useful one day’ clutter. 18 months ago I had a new shed built on an existing concrete slab to make a replacement utility space and am waiting for a local builder to come and fit it out for me. Meanwhile I am going through the old one getting rid of things – there is space on the shelves no as you can see in the picture! – and will eventually turn it into 2 spare bedrooms. I wanted to see what ideas I could pick up and knew that IKEA has a reputation for clever small space solutions. The nearest to here is Cardiff which is a long haul so I decided to visit my daughter and go with her to the one in Reading. To make it more of an adventure we got the bus into Basingstoke, the train to Reading and then another bus right to the door of IKEA. No navigating, no parking, we were able to look out of the windows and enjoy the journey whilst chatting as much as we liked.

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My son brought his 3 young foster children so there was an excuse to go to the beach and picnic in his camper van. And we went to a friend’s smallholding to pick damsons and see the animals. No pictures because as looked after children I am not allowed to publish their pictures.

My daughter came to stay and we visited another smallholding where I had a go at milking a goat. A bad idea that – now I want one!

And of course there were meals with friends – at their homes, in cafes and here. The deck really came into its own this summer.

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The utility room is not the only space to be de-cluttered. I am on a roll here. The house has been purged and now needs decorating (if only to get rid of the marks where I have taken down shelves!)The workshop is next.

There have been visits with the Permaculture networks which will get posts of their own in the next few weeks. And a lot happening at Dyfed Permaculture Farm Trust which I will also write about separately.

I went on a course at Stiwdio 3 in Cardigan (find out more here) to learn how to make a pair of espadrilles with the lovely Nia Denman and had a fantastic day. C & M Organics held another market – just one this year – where I spent more than I should have but got some really good plants as well as food. The Golden Thread Theater Company, normally based in Cardiff put on a performance at the Small World Theater in Cardigan which was a fascinating evening. They invite members of the audience to share very short stories of moments in their lives which the players then turn into improvised performances. The theme of the evening was ‘belonging’ which resulted in a huge range of stories and emotions. (you can find them on facebook)

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In between all those things I have tended the garden, continued to write up my Permaculture Diploma and foraged for blackberries, elderberries and sloes which I have bottled and made into jam. Now the weather has turned wet and windy, the nights are drawing in and hopefully I can get back to blogging.

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A little piece of Heaven

Last Sunday morning found me driving through the back lanes of North Pembrokeshire. The sky was that perfect blue you only get on a May Morning, the Hawthorn was starting to flower in the hedgerows and the verges were thick with wild flowers. In places the cow parsley was so thick that it was almost as if I was driving along the beach between two breaking waves. Then my first glimpse of the sea which was a stunning turquoise blue as if trying to emulate one of those posters of Greek islands!

I would not normally go to a meet-up all the way over on the West coast but I had wanted to see Brian and Dot’s place for a long time and also this was the second meeting of the newly re-launched Pembrokeshire group so I wanted to do my bit to make sure the turnout was good.

My destination was a small farm on a little back road high up above Strumble Head just West of Fishguard. Brian and Dot live in an old farmhouse which has been cleverly divided to provide two homes, one for them and one for their daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter. Stone outbuildings have been converted into three holiday cottages and a house for their son and daughter-in-law. Each resident family has their own outside space and a piece of garden for growing food though there are no fences so it feels very open and joined up. The rest of the land is managed co-operatively. And everywhere there are views across the fields to the sea. Bliss! Find out more about holidying there and see more photos here )

The turnout was good, two people brought children and there were three visiting dogs which all added to the fun. I had left my dogs at home – the rescued lurcher would have panicked and it was too hot to leave her in the car.

After excellent coffee and a chance to chat and to meet a couple of new members we set to work. A field is being turned into a forest garden with space in the middle for a yurt. Brian and Dot had put posts in to mark where they wanted trees to plant trees and mown a circle of grass round each. Our first job was to put down a layer of cardboard on each circle and then pile mulch on top. Some of us took the sellotape and plastic labels off a large stash of boxes they had collected from local businesses whilst others laid it on the cut grass or barrowed mulch from a huge pile at the edge of the field.

Lunch was a chance to sit outside and admire the view as well as continue chatting and sharing ideas and up-coming events. Then it was back to work.

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I had to leave early because of having left the dogs at home but by then all the circles were ready for planting and work had begun on putting new trees into the old hedge to improve the shelter belt. The others stayed to get the yurt frame up ( definitely a job for several people!) and Dot very kindly took photos of that for me.

What a perfect way to spend a glorious day in May

A muted Hooray!

The BBC’s Welsh news carried a report this morning that ‘the UK Committee on Climate Change is advising that Wales should cut the numbers of sheep and cattle, plant more trees and encourage heavy industry to clean up’ (read the full article here) What’s not to like?

Weeeellll?

Whilst some smallholders of my acquaintance keep sheep and poultry primarily as pets not many of them keep cows. Cows, at least on any commercial scale, involve getting up at silly o’clock every morning, seven days a week, bank holidays and Christmas included, to do the milking. And repeating the procedure in the late afternoon meaning that even a day out has to be a short one. At the large organic dairy farm up the road Charlie, the manager, milks over 200 cows every day except between Christmas and Easter-ish time when the cows are dry because they are pregnant. At the moment he is calving (regular checks, helping any cows which are struggling to deliver their calf and frequent visits from the vet for the problem cases) AND milking the cows who have had their calves AND feeding the calves which are old enough to be taken off their mothers. He cares about his cows but he does it because it is a job, it keeps a roof over his family’s head and food on the table. Even if only one or two cows are kept, as Michelle and Phil do at Dyfed Permaculture Farm Trust (links at the bottom of this post) going on holiday is a logistic nightmare

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Sheep are just as demanding. At lambing time shepherds sleep in their clothes and patrol at frequent intervals day and night ready to intervene if a sheep is distressed. And there is hoof trimming, fly-strike prevention (Flies lay their eggs in the mucky wool at the rear end of a sheep, the eggs hatch and the maggots eat the flesh into sores. Regular trimming of the wool and vigilance are needed to prevent it) and then there is shearing…

Like most of us farmers get satisfaction from doing a job they are good at and of course there are compensations but for most it is as stressful as any other type of self-employment and physically grueling. Farming is not for whimps!

So reducing numbers of livestock would help them right? Would you be happy to take a pay cut even if it meant working less hard? No, I thought not.

The Government seems to be taking the Marie Antoinette approach ‘Let them eat cake’. Or rather ‘Let them diversify’

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That often means tourism. Not every farmhouse is easily adaptable to B&B. Not every farm has a set of picturesque outbuildings ripe for conversion to holiday cottages and not every farmer makes a good host. Even if you enjoy welcoming people into your home and have the right infrastructure it is hard work and a precarious business. And it has implications for the community. Until Pemberton’s Chocolate Farm closed I regularly encountered drivers who were quite unable to reverse to a passing place along these single track lanes. So instead of them going back 100 yards I would reverse a quarter of a mile. An irritation for me but no joke if you are in a tractor with a trailer behind waiting whilst they panic and weave their way slowly back, or are a courier driver with an algorithm imposing deadlines on you that take no account of such things (townies all, those algorithms!) More importantly some villages on the coast have become ghost towns in Winter – they might as well put up a ‘Closed’ sticker on the ‘Welcome to..’ sign on the road in.

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Plan B is ‘Added value’. Make your milk into yoghurt or ice-cream, get your fleeces spun and sell the wool or, better still, knit or weave it and sell your crafts, sell your meat direct to the customer on-line. Animals were traditionally sold through the marts and not every farmer can, or wants to, become an entrepreneur. And as for on-line, unless there is serious investment in good broadband for rural areas, dream on sunshine. Read about my switch to a satellite based system (here) Compared with the speeds and reliability on my landline it is fabulous but pathetic compared to the service my son gets in Luton.

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my internet satellite dish

So unless the drive to reduce livestock numbers is associated with increased farm payments, or increased prices for the food they produce, or investment in alternative employment and infrastructure, the result will be even more rural poverty and homelessness.

Secondly, what about those fields which will no longer have animals in them? Left to their own devices they will become massive bramble patches with a few chest high docks and nettles thrown in. Not what the tourists pay to come and see. Give them a few decades and they will transition through scrub woodland (mainly blackthorn round here) to woodland. Of course they could be planted with trees to shorten the process. The Government could fund that and pay farmers ‘rent’ for the land. They could call it a ‘carbon sequestration services payment’. Mmm can’t see it happening somehow, not in the long term. And sitting at home living, effectively, on benefit would not be good for the mental health of the farmers. They could be encouraged to manage the woodland but that is a very different skill set from farming and one they would have to learn. Even if they did where would the market be for all that extra firewood, coppice product and timber? What would they live on until the trees were big enough to be harvested? Questions, questions, questions and a shortage of answers.

Thirdly those animals currently supply the food chain. Unless the population as a whole reduces its consumption of dairy produce, eggs and meat, the shortfall will be cheerfully filled by the supermarkets importing more. There would be no reduction in global carbon emissions because no overall reduction in animal numbers. But the animals would probably be reared to lower welfare standards according to the expert I heard on the food programme (listen to it here) Wales could feel virtuous by ‘off-shoring’ the problem.

If only life was simple!

I will welcome comments, arguments, or questions whether you agree with me or take a different view, but please keep them respectful, thoughtful and evidence based.

My pictures are supplemented by ones from my good friend Michelle Laine of Scythe Cymru – find out more about her and her family’s low impact lives here and on facebook here The picture of farm cottages for holidays is from google images.

A Little Bit of Magic

Regular readers will know that I belong to both the Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire Permaculture groups and am a regular at their meetings. (You can read about previous visits here here,here,and here

Last Sunday I was the host. The sun shone so we were all able to sit out on the new deck (more about that here). With 16 adults and two small children it felt comfortably full but not a squash. After cups of tea and coffee plus cake (my nickname is Sue cake!) and a chance to meet up and chat we spent a few moments remembering one of our group who had just died suddenly and sending loving thoughts to his wife. Linda from The Woodland Farm (the woodland farm)had brought a beautiful bunch of her flowers and I lit a candle for him.

Then I explained my how I was going about the designs for my Diploma in Permaculture Design which focuses around planning how I can continue to thrive into advanced old age despite living in such a rural place. We toured the garden so they could see how I had begun to implement those plans and the changes since their previous visit.

Everybody brings something to share for lunch and it was laid out on my kitchen table. What a spread! Almost all the dishes had been grown or made at home – beautiful salads, home made breads, fermented veg from Phil and his partner Lauren at Parc y Dderwenfind them on facebook here. Most people also remembered to bring their own plate, mug and cutlery so there was hardly any washing up for me to do later.

Usually everyone helps the host with a job in the afternoon – a chance to have a lot of hands and, in my case, some younger muscle on one of those big jobs which are daunting for one person on their own. This time I decided that what the garden needed most was appreciating! I work on it but do not make enough time to just sit and enjoy it. So I invited everyone to wander, sit, enjoy and chat. I am so glad I did because watching them relax and find pleasure in what I have created was hugely rewarding – a little bit of magic indeed!

My grateful thanks to Brian for taking photos whilst I was too busy to manage a camera and to Phil for the picture of my mindmap.

Nature is amazing

Each year I save tree seeds when I can. Mostly these are from fruit I am given or buy to eat although last year I picked up acorns that had fallen on a nearby lane and that I spotted on one of my dog walks. So by late autumn I had acorns, apple pips (mostly from fruit given me by Marie at Over the Rainbow), plum apricot, peach and cherry stones, and rowan berries from the young tree I planted a couple of years ago. I also had some bright red cherries from the tree in my daughter’s garden which are so horribly sour and bitter they are inedible but even the birds turn their beaks up at them so the tree is very ornamental! All these I put into peat or sand in recycled plastic cartons and stored in the fridge to chill over winter.

A couple of weeks ago I retrieved them to begin putting them into trays of compost in the greenhouse to see what would grow. Last year I got quite a few apples, a cherry and a sweet chestnut so I was quite hopeful that something would come of them.

To my amazement when I opened the first pot, which was Apricot stones in dry sand, there were several which had germinated! Only 2 look good enough to survive but even so! Years ago my late husband ate an apricot and found the stone had split and the seed was beginning to grow so he potted it up and later planted it in the greenhouse. It fruited well but because of his poor health he didn’t prune it well enough or consistently enough and it grew too big so had to be taken out. Maybe I can be more successful now that I have more greenhouse space and am able to prune every year. I looked in the second pot labelled Apricot and found that in that one I had used damp peat – no sign of germination there. Maybe they were a different variety of apricot or from a different orchard but I was curious as to whether it was the sand / peat that made the difference.

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Then I opened the pots of apples – some of the ones with damp compost had germinated whilst the ones with sand had not! Again I cannot be sure that any will survive but again my interest was piqued. Was the difference between the two types of tree significant or just chance?

Sadly nothing else was showing signs of life but then nothing germinated in the fridge last year. They are all now in good compost in trays and I will wait and see. I have made a note to myself to be more methodical next year about splitting batches and experimenting with different media to store them in. I still have so much to learn about gardening! One of the permaculture principles i ‘Observe and Interact’ so that is what I shall do – but in a more organised way than usual!

What a Weekend!

My last post was about what counted as ‘work’ – especially for people like me who are supposedly retired but who expend just as much energy as ever being productive. Whereas most people in paid employment breathe a sigh of relief when Friday afternoon comes round and they can have a weekend ‘off’, for me, quite often, the weekends are the busiest part of the week and the sigh comes on Monday morning! Last weekend was a case in point.

On Saturday there was a workday at Dyfed Permculture Farm Trust which is one of the groups I support so off I went. But not by the direct route! I had arranged with my friend Martin, who re-furbishes old tools and sells them through the Eco shop in Cardigan, to buy some new bowsaw blades. As he staffs the shop on Saturday morning that was the best time to collect them. Another quick stop in Newcastle Emlyn was needed to buy cream and yoghurt to go with the apple and mincemeat crumble I had made as my contribution to lunch so I finally arrived just before everyone else stopped for a tea break.

The job for the day was to put everything back into the barn kitchen after it had been given a massive make-over. The barn is used by Phil and Michelle to store the hay they make by hand and various bits of equipment. And like most sheds and barns it also becomes the home of lots of ‘might come in useful’ things that are given to the Trust. It is available as a venue to hire for courses and events, and people camping in the fields use it too. The kitchen had been kitted out over the years with a motley collection of old furniture, pans, crockery and cutlery plus an elderly but still functional gas stove. And over the years ‘stuff’ had accumulated. As far as I know no-one ever suffered any ill-effects from eating in there and most of what I ate was prepared off-site and brought to be shared but let’s just say I decided not to take a ‘before’ photo!

The new kitchen – almost tidied!

Last year we all agreed that it was time to do something about it and we asked Matt Douglas, who has lived at and around the Trust land on and off over the years so is well known to us, to strip out the old furniture and build us a new kitchen in the space. Matt is an artist who supplements his income by doing jobs like the kitchen in return for somewhere to live,  plus some pay if he works more than part time. He had already done a great job for us on a caravan which leaked and needed upgrading. One workday last autumn we emptied all the cupboards and sent loads of junk to the re-cycling centre so that he could start work. Then, using mostly a collection of old doors we had been given and other salvaged timber he made a partition to close off the kitchen from the rest of the barn and designed and built us new kitchen cupboards and worktops in the space. He was amazingly creative in finding ways to make something out of stuff that had mainly been destined for skips! I should perhaps explain that Phil’s Dad was a womble before anyone had heard of wombles! He collects materials that other people are throwing away, brings them to the Trust and spends his visits using them to help Phil and Michelle.

A new volunteer, Lindy, offered to wash up the crockery, pans and cutlery before it went away and it took most of the day! We re-homed almost everything and sent the rest to the recycling centre – we must have been even more ruthless this time! We also dug under the hay stack to find an old rayburn that we had been given and moved it roughly into place in the kitchen ready for it to be renovated and installed.

In the gardens

Sunday involved a trip to the National Botanic Gardens of Wales with the Carmarthenshire Permaculture group to hear about the next phase of their ‘Growing the Future’ project. Phase 1 was about encouraging more people to grow their own food and there is still work happening with schools on that front plus a demonstration garden run by Peter and Alison who administrate the permaculture group. Phase 2 is work identifying the best ways to attract and provide for, pollinators in gardens. Three PhD students are running experiments and hope to produce a wildflower seed mix tailored to Wales. Because Peter is also very interested in local history he told us about another ambitious project in the Gardens to restore as much of the landscape to how it was when the estate was bought by a wealthy gentleman in the Regency period and laid out as parkland with seven lakes, most of which had been lost.

The Growing the future garden

I left there after another delicious shared lunch because it was also Hen Galan, Old New Year’s Day and the traditional time for Rob, Jeni and I to wassail our apple trees. Rob S who has come to live in the cabin and I went over to Llanfach and we blessed the trees there with toast soaked in cider, recited a traditional rhyme then banged pans with wooden spoons to scare away the evil spirits. Then it was back here to bless my trees. As well as an orchard right at the top of my land, there are other trees scattered around as I try to establish where they do best, so we just did the one on the drive as a representative. Then it was indoors to eat the supper I had prepared, drink cider and wine and generally have a lovely evening in good company. No photos because it was too dark outside!

A really enjoyable and interesting weekend spending time with old friends and making new ones. But a quiet Monday was very welcome!

Apple and mincemeat and crumble

This recipe for mincemeat came from ‘the crafty cook’ who had a slot on Classic fm years ago – so long ago the weights are imperial!  It contains no fat, is easy to make and can be used straight away or stored. I have made it most years since. I layered it in the crumble I made with apples I had bottled from Marie’s orchard.

Mincemeat

2lb eating apples grated

1lb sultanas

1lb raisins

8oz currants

8oz mixed peel

4oz soft brown sugar

grated rind and juice 1 orange

1/2 teaspn allspice

1/2 teaspn nutmeg

1/2 teaspn cinnamon

1/2 pt cloudy apple juice

Mix everything together in a big pan and simmer for 1/2 hour. Meanwhile sterilise and warm some jars. Pot the mincemeat and screw on the lids.

Crumble topping (the cheat’s way)

by weight – I used 3oz for each part because it was a big dish but any spare keeps in the fridge for a week or two or in the freezer for ages so if you make too much do not worry – you have some for another day

2 parts plain flour

1 part semolina

1 part porridge oats

1 part demerera sugar

1 part butter

Melt the butter and combine well with everything else.

Put a layer of apples in an ovenproof dish, spoon a layer of mincemeat on top then put a layer of crumble over that. Bake for about 30 mins at 180 – 200 deg until nicely brown on top and everything is hot and cooked through. Exact timing depends on the size of your dish!

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!