Llama, Moo and an Awful Lot of Windows

Last weekend there was a workday for the Carmarthenshire Permaculture groiup at Llama and Moo’s plot in the South of the County. And, No, neither of them had really weird parents who gave them those names – they are nicknames which have stuck. Llama’s came from something on the radio which he and a group of mates were listening to and Moo’s is a shortening of her surname. They are a really lovely couple and if you also read my blog ‘Going Batty in the Woods’ you will have met them here (https://goingbattyinthewoods.wordpress.com/2022/04/07/a-last-hurrah) making gates and a shavehorse for their plot.

A few years ago they bought a gently sloping field graced with 2 dilapidated static caravans and a lot of grass on the outskirts of a large village and began the process of applying for One Plant Development Planning permission, a planning consent unique to Wales which allows for a house to be built in an area not designated for housing if the owners can demonstrate that they will build and live sustainably including obtaining a lot of their needs from their plot. You can read more about it here (https://goingbattyinwales.wordpress.com/2018/08/11/the-power-of-a-good-planning-policy). Permission was finally granted just over a year ago. Whilst they were waiting for it they did a lot of work designing what would go where, planting trees and a garden, and accumulating scrap materials with which to build a home and outbuildings. They also clad the better of the 2 caravans with wood to make it less of an eyesore and they use it as their ‘site office’ – somewhere to shelter from showers, have a cuppa or their picnic lunch, and to store materials which cannot tolerate rain. For now they are living in a house in the village until they can build their dream home.

The advantage of being near the village is that there are a number of industrial units in it and these have proved a fruitful source of waste materials. One double glazing firm must have had a contract to replace all the windows in a big building or housing estate because Llama and Moo relieved them of over a thousand UPVC framed, single glazed windows and some double glazed ones which would otherwise have gone to landfill! The best ones will go in their new home. There were several huge ones with blinds between the panes which will make a wall of windows on the South elevation. Some have been carefully split apart to glaze a huge greenhouse on the back of the wood clad static – the greenhouse frame is made of scrap wood too. And some have been joined to make raised beds – now that’s a new one on me! They have also discovered a lot of materials in skips outside houses which are being refurbished. I was quite envious – around here I rarely see a skip and if I do all that is in it is rubble!

I missed the tour because I had to walk Roo before setting off so that when we arrived she was less energetic. But I was in time for the first task which was to form a human chain and move timber from the poorer static which Llama uses as a workshop to another shed and then sort stones, which will form the base of the greeenhouse walls, from lumps of concrete block which will be saved for another job. Then it was time to stop for lunch. We always have a ‘Bring and Share’ lunch and we take our own plates, cutlery and mugs so that our hosts don’t have to provide them or wash up. It always proves to be a feast with masses to eat and time to sit and chat so a lovely social occasion.

In the afternoon we laid cardboard around newly planted Kale which is being grown primarily for seed although any poor specimens will be eaten! A group of smallholders have organised themselves to grow different types of seeds and sell them through a co-operative organisation. You can find them here (http://www.seedhub.wales) The cardboard was then covered with a layer of chipped wood – the way they use any scrap wood not worth saving and deadwood from their field. This mulch will reduce the amount of weeding required and eventually rot down and enrich the soil.

We all left at about 4pm, tired, but having had a lovely day with friends and with plenty to show for our efforts.

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.

A Sad Walk Down Memory Lane

A couple of weeks ago I had a message from the daughter of some old friends to say that her father had died. When my late husband was a vicar in Exeter in the late 80’s her mother, Margaret, was officially his secretary but actually much more like a PA . She also became a youth leader and Churchwarden so we saw a lot of her and relied on her organisational skills a great deal. Peter was quieter, less outgoing, but a brilliant drummer so he was recruited to play during services and keep us all in time when we sang. My other memory of him was of the two of us helping the treasurer count the collection when most other people had gone home but some clearing up was still going on.

St Marks Church Pinhoe Rd Exeter

John’s early days in the Parish had been plagued by the interference of the previous vicar who had retired, but still lived locally and visited some of the congregation regularly, expressing his (negative) opinions of the changes John was making. We decided that when we left we would cut ourselves off completely and give whoever came next a clear run. It was horrible to do, especially when John was diagnosed with cancer 2 years later, but we knew it was the right thing and stuck to it. Bless them, our friends in the church agreed it was for the best and never tried to involve us even though we were only a few miles away whilst our children finished at the FE college.

So almost 30 years after we left the Parish I found myself going back for the first time to attend Peter’s funeral last Monday. I knew that to do the journey there and back with the service in between was too much for one day so I booked into a hotel near the city centre for the Sunday night.

Lesson number one – the Internet made that a doddle! I could get information on all the possible choices, decide which I thought would suit me best and book it, moving only my eyes and fingers! Moments later a confirmatory email pinged into my inbox with the option to book a taxi or hire car. I had already established that travelling by train, which I would have preferred, was not an option – only one service on a Sunday and I know from experience that on Sunday evenings there are often engineering works with delays and replacement buses and that the bad weather might also close lines.

The next problem was the dogs. My son had offered to come and look after them but once the date was set realised he was unable to help. My lovely friend Lindy stepped into the breach and came to stay, even offering to stay over on the Monday night so that I had no deadline to get back.

Lesson number 2 – I have amazing family and friends who take great care of me. I am so grateful.

So off I set after lunch on Sunday with mixed feelings. It was an adventure, a challenge because of all unfamiliar things (a long drive, navigating a city which would have changed so I would not know my way but there would be some flashes of ‘Oh that’s where I am’, a hotel stay) apprehension about the impact of going back, and sadness at the loss of a friend.

I planned to use the old bridge over the Severn and stop at the Service area on the English end to have a short pit-stop. The old Bridge was closed because of the strong winds. Then I discovered that I was being diverted onto the M 49, a road of which I had never heard but which cuts the corner off the join between the M4 (South Wales to London) and M5 (North West England to Cornwall).

Lesson number 3 – Thank goodness for Satnav! I was driving straight into the setting sun and therefore couldn’t read the signs over the lanes but it knew where I should go.

I made it to Exeter just as it was getting dark and was directed down a narrow back street to a block of flats. I had put in the postcode I had copied from the internet (and probably made a mistake with one of the digits) not the name of the Hotel. I reprogrammed Satnav and spent half an hour in nose to tail traffic before reaching the right place.

Lesson number 4 – computers are only as good as the information you give them!

As I was checking in I was asked to complete a short registration form which included the question ‘In the event of an emergency evacuation would you need help to leave the hotel?’. I answered yes and explained to the lovely young man on the desk that I was perfectly mobile but might not hear the alarm when asleep without my hearing aids. He promptly transferred me to an accessible room and offered me a vibrating pad, plugged into the fire alarm system, to go under my pillow. He then showed me to the room and plugged the pad in for me assuring me that if the alarm went off someone would come and make sure I was aware of it.

Lesson number 5 – Whatever impression the news gives there are a lot of very nice people out there.

Exeter city center

In the morning, leaving my car at the hotel, I walked into the city. The old, listed buildings were still there and I began to recognise the street layout but the shops had been shuffled! It felt very odd – the same but different. I went into Boots to buy a nail file because I had broken a nail and my toiletry bag was in the car. They had NO staffed tills – and when I asked about one the girl looked at me as if I was mad then offered, reluctantly, to help me use the self-service one. Later, leaving the car park I found the pay station wanted me to scan a QR code and pay with my phone. It offered me the chance to pay with a credit card (no chance of using cash!) but kept losing the plot when I tried. Eventually I asked for help again at the reception desk and it was cheerfully given (see Lesson 5) and no it wasn’t me being past it – it played up for her too!

Lesson number 6 – I am way behind the times – and happy to stay there!

Then it was off to the Church which had changed – new chairs, a carpet, the coffee and creche areas rearranged and upgraded – but from the impression I got, not as much as it should have done in 30 years. I know I am a change junkie but both the city and the church seemed to be in a rut – tinkering but unable or unwilling to be as radical as we need to be to rise to the challenges coming down the track. I also noticed how few people were wearing masks in shops. It was as if the pandemic had gone away. Here in Wales masks are still a legal requirement in indoor public spaces and to me that is only sense.

If all that seems critical and grumpy let me assure you that meeting up with people who remembered me and welcomed me with huge smiles was brilliant. At the wake I sat with some of the old crowd and they obviously remembered me and John with fondness. The service had been taken by John’s successor, now retired, as the present vicar was on Maternity leave and it was lovely to meet him and his wife.

Lesson number 7 – A vicar on Maternity leave – Hallelujah! – the Church of England is staggering into the modern world and St Marks is in the vanguard. Something of what John did stuck!

Starcross with the mainline railway from London to cornwall running along the sea wall.

Having driven so far and explored some of Memory Lane I decided to finish the job and walked past the old Vicarage, sold off when we left, and then went to Starcross, a dormitory village on the Exe Estuary, where we moved whilst our children finished their schooling. A walk along the river’s edge was just what I needed before the long drive home. The nearer I got to Wales the more my spirits lifted and when I turned off the dual carriageway 10 miles from home I breathed a sigh of relief. Two waggy tales greeted me as I walked in and a night in my own bed was bliss.

Lesson number 8 – I loved my life in Exeter, have some wonderful memories of our time there and very few regrets, and now I love my life here. It was good to visit but it is no longer where I belong. Now if you will forgive me I have to go – there are tomatoes to pick and bottle.

PS. All images are from Google images – it takes better photos than I do! Plus all that navigating tired my phone out!

Scrap Happy May

I was reading a post by Lynn (see the link to her site below) who had been making a box using the French craft of cartonnage. I have loads of pieces of fabric and balls of yarn stored in old cardboard boxes which do the job but look scruffy. How much nicer my workroom would look if they were attractive in their own right.

I looked up cartonnage on the internet and discovered that the boxes are made to measure by cutting up very strong card, glueing the pieces together then covering them. Some of the examples were exquisite. But it would take forever to make enough for all my stuff. Not to mention the fact that give me a pot of glue and I stick everything in sight together except the thing I am trying to stick!

So ‘bastard’ cartonnage it had to be. Since the pet shop in Cardigan closed I get dental chews for the dogs delivered every 2 months from Amazon and they come in a sturdy cardboard box. In one of those unsightly boxes in the loft I found a set of curtains and some matching sheeting which were given to me for recycling by a friend who had redecorated. (They are lilac despite looking blue in the photo.) The curtain fabric would be strong for the outside and thick enough to obscure the printing on the carton, whilst the thinner sheeting would do well for the inside.

Et Voila! (well it is a French craft!)

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When I do another one I will do it slightly differently and if I am feeling brave I will use a bit of glue to hold things in place. At least the outside is reasonably tidy and, it is more sightly than when it was bare and it holds things! I had hoped to do a second improved version before writing this post but the weather is good and I have seedlings needing to be planted out!

Scrap Happy is curated by Kate and Gun. Here are the links for everyone who joins in from time to time (they may not post every time, but their blogs are still worth looking at).

Kate, Gun, Titty, Heléne, Eva, Sue, Lynn, Lynda,
Birthe, Turid, Susan, Cathy, Tracy, Jill, Claire, Jan,
Moira, Sandra, Linda, Chris, Nancy, Alys, Kerry, Claire, Jean,
Joanne, Jon, Hayley, Dawn, Gwen, Connie, Bekki, Pauline,
Sunny and Kjerstin

See you next time for more scrappy loveliness.

Blessings # 6 – Family and friends

I realised this morning that now I cannot go out I have fallen back into an old routine. For many years my late husband, John, had a severely compromised immune system from all the cancer treatment he had had so we effectively self-isolated all the time. There were trips to the GP surgery and the hospital and a weekly shopping trip where he drove me to the supermarket and waited in the car whilst I whizzed round with my shopping list and then drove me home. Family couldn’t visit because they brought ‘strange’ germs and he always ended up in hospital again. Similarly any of our friends who were not local which was the vast majority. As I indicated in my last post communication was much more difficult and with such restricted lives our conversation was hardly sparkling so gradually most of those friends drifted away.

After he died I was able to have much more contact with my family but distance was still a factor with them and I knew it would take time for relationships to adjust, settle and grow. My grandchildren hardly knew me. I realised that I was very dependent on the kindness of a few very generous neighbours.

So I decided I needed to build a new social life relatively close to home. It sounds cold-blooded put like that but as I was retired and live in a fairly isolated place the world was hardly going to beat a path to my door asking me out to play! I accepted every invitation to go to events. I joined a Welsh class knowing that many of the other students would be people who had moved to the area fairly recently. I found a yoga class, signed up for craft courses, looked for volunteering opportunities…. A lot of these things proved a waste of time either because the activity didn’t appeal or because the people I met were not particularly friendly. But little by little I found places where I felt I belonged and people who welcomed me. If you have been reading this blog for a while you will have met many of them. And those of you who read and comment are forming another circle who I enjoy ‘meeting’ and who extend my horizons.

Looking ahead to my 70th Birthday this summer and how I might celebrate it I became aware of just how many people I would love to invite to share it with me. All plans are, of course, on hold but just knowing that all those connections exist makes me feel truly blessed.

Blessing # 3 – C is for Challenges

I have a low boredom threshold! To keep doing the same things in the same way drives me nuts! It is why I have accumulated so many hobbies and activities and am having to reluctantly admit I can’t do them all. But still I need new challenges.

Sometimes the challenge is to learn a new skill or extend an old one. A month ago I found a book of knitting patterns in the library – Viking knits & Ancient Ornaments by Elsebeth Lavold. She describes a whole series of interlocking designs, gives patterns for the motifs and some very elegant garments with the motifs on them. I am a sucker for celtic knots so I borrowed the book. The yarns she suggests are not ones I can source locally and before I could go into the wool shop in Cardigan market and find an equivalent we were all told to stay home. But I was itching to see if I could cope with some new techniques and keep track of a complex sequence of cables so I picked one of the motifs and knitted a cushion cover using yarn I already had. I finished the knitting last night but have not had time yet to stitch it up. I was going to make buttonholes in the back to allow me to take it off for washing – the cats drop hairs all over my cushions so they need regular washing – but dedided to make some loops on the edge instead using a technique I adapted from the hair of the glove puppets I have been working on. read about them here if you missed them

Sometimes it is a bigger or longer one like working for the Diploma in Applied Permaculture Design. I have to write up and submit ten designs I have done. In my case these are all about designing my life so that I can live as well as possible into advanced old age. The designing is great fun but the writing it all up with detailed explanations of the choices I made is proving very tedious! Why am I doing it? It has no practical use to me since there is nothing I want to do which requires me to have it. I just wanted to prove to myself that I could, that my designing skills were good enough, my understanding of Permaculture was deep enough. And now I am too stubborn to give up! My amazing, wonderful daughter found this poster to sum it all up for me and it will form the cover of my portfolio.

diploma cover quote

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.

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Janey, Ian and I planted the hedge

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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

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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.

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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 – an update

If, like me, you rarely tick the ‘notify me’ box at the end of the comments or go back to read later ones you may well have missed the link Jasmine offered. It is a long read and not very comfortable but it is really thought provoking and, in a strange way, very empowering. It will take me time to digest it. If you are interested in pursuing the ideas I started exploring I am offering the link again here