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.

Advertisement

News!

I have been thinking for a while of doing another blog about my woodland adventures. Today I published the first post on ‘Going Batty in the Woods’. You might want to take a look! There will be some cross posting particularly for scrap happy but mostly this blog will stick to my musings and more ladylike pursuits! https://goingbattyinthewoods.wordpress.com/2021/08/25/getting-ready-1/

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.

Apricot
Peach

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?

Scrap Happy September

I have been quiet for a while – more about which in another post – but I have not been idle. An Afternoon in the workshop with some poles purloined from the pile of wood felled but not cut up and a throne emerged. Shame I have no crown or courtiers let alone peasants to do all the work but maybe it’s a start!

Scrap Happy is a group effort curated by Kate and Gun on the 15th of each month. We post about things we have made entirely from scrap. Not everyone posts every time but all the blogs are well worth a visit – follow the links below for inspiration on how to do a lot with a little.

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

Magnificent May

I decided it was time to take a walk around my garden and enjoy it instead of just working in it!

Along the roadside the wild cow parsley is doing an excellent job of hiding the taty remains of the daffodils.

IMG_20200510_114644050_HDR

Outside the conservatory a pot of aquilegia is flowering

IMG_20200510_114745999

On the way up the hill to the veg patch I pass a rhododendron

IMG_20200510_114056082

At the top is a copper beech tree. As a child living on the edge of Manchester we would often go into Heaton Park where there was a huge copper beech which I loved. So we planted one here.

IMG_20200510_114105805_HDR

In the greenhouse most of the apricots I so lovingly fertilised with a brush fell off! But the peaches are hanging on so here’s hoping.

IMG_20200510_114445759

In another part of the greenhouse nasturtiums overwintered and are flowering again. I love them for their beauty but also eat the leaves and flowers in salads

IMG_20200510_114222688

In the veg beds I couldn’t bear to pull up these forget-me-nots and the peas don’t seeem to mind!

IMG_20200510_114246031

This apple tree is extra special because I grafted it myself. (The less said about the others which didn’t take the better!)

IMG_20200510_114339679

If I carry on into the woods the bluebells are flowering.

IMG_20200510_092753823

I am so lucky to have all this.

Blessings # 23 – W is for Woodland and Wild

I enjoy working in my garden. I enjoy eating what I grow, the flowers that bloom, sitting on my deck with a cup of coffee but the most magical areas are the pieces of woodland. If I get fraught and frazzled I take a walk through the veg patch and past the soft fruit into the rough, self-seeded woodland area and then through a gap in an old hedgebank into the planted woodland which I rent from the neighbouring farm. Apart from cutting back any brambles which grow across the path those spaces require no work. They are always peaceful and quiet. Although the planted section was only put in just over 20 years ago there are some much older trees which must have been in hedges when even this very steep slope was grazed. There is something about the solidity and calmness of trees which I find settles me. I walk down to the stream where there is a small clearing and sit there watching the stream tumbling over stones and burbling its song and all the worries fall into perspective. In a few weeks time it will be carpeted with bluebells!

I like trees and woodland so much that I am planting more. The field on the opposite side of the stream from my garden is abandoned. The farmer who owns it has effectively retired but refuses to either sell up or to rent out his grazing. Ungrazed for about 12 years the grass is getting very coarse and brambles and blackthorn are creeping in from the edges. I keep pulling tiny seedling trees out of my veg beds and decided that instead of just putting them on the compost heap I would pot them up and then plant them out on the field. It wants to become a wood so I will help it! I also grew some apples from pips (you can read about that experiment here) – rather a lot of them! So they are going over there too. I have no idea whteher they will fruit, whether the fruit will be nice to eat or sour, but if they fruit at all and I don’t want the apples the birds will enjoy them.

IMG_20200417_120548825

I have also started to clear along my top, North boundary where John planted hundreds of willow cuttings. Most of them took and grew for a few years but they were left too long and most have fallen over and died. The soil is very thin so I am planting trees in pots with the bottoms cut out. That way they start in good compost but can send roots down into the stonier soil as they grow. That’s the plan anyway.

IMG_20200417_121148222

I will never see these new woods in their full glory – they are a blessing paid forward. I have so many blessins it only seems fair to ensure some for those who follow me.

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.

IMG_20200315_114238040

Janey, Ian and I planted the hedge

IMG_20200315_114106976

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

IMG_20200315_114001409_HDR

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.

IMG_20200318_123131229

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.

Beginnings

Last weekend I went to visit my friends Jeni and Rob to celebrate Imbolc. None of us are pagans or druids, Jeni is a retired vicar who still takes services occasionally to fill gaps in rostas whilst Rob and I are ‘don’t knows’. It is rather that they keep poultry, sheep, pigs and, have just got some bees as well as growing veg as I do. So both households experience shifts in activities and energies as the year turns. Celebrating the eight old festivals encourages us to stop and reflect with each other on our plans, successes and failures. It is also an excuse to spend an evening together sharing a meal and a glass or two of something nice.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Jeni and Rob live in a beautiful, tiny cob cottage

Imbolc is the precursor of the Christian candlemass – a point where the increasing day length is properly noticeable and the first green shoots are emerging. The first flowers of spring, the snowdrops, are coming into bloom to cheer us up even though winter is not yet over – there is a sign that spring will come. Actually this year the snowdrops were beaten by the first primroses and I have crocus out and daffodils showing fat buds. Maybe with climate change we will have to rethink our symbols if not our ceremonies!

In the same vein whilst winter is a time to cwtch in (A welsh phrase from cwtch = hug or a feeling of being hugged) by the fire and dream and plan, now is the time to start taking first steps to make those dreams come true. Having chosen the things we want to grow / achieve we must start to germinate the seeds. So we sat around the fire and shared what new projects we had chosen to spend our time and energy on this year.

My new project this year (just to add to all the unfinished ones from previous years!) is to explore the local footpaths. Every day I walk my dogs along the local lanes which are mostly single track with high banks either side and whilst traffic is very light a significant proportion of what there is is big lorries such as milk tankers or massive tractors which often are trailing equally large machinery. The dogs and I squeeze onto narrow verges or run to the nearest gateway. The proximity, noise and exhaust fumes are unpleasant. It would be so nice to have some off-road walks we could do.

IMG_20200208_124713441

This may look like a useable path but after wading across the stream in the foreground I found that the old gate is tied to the posts with barbed wire.

When we first moved here 25 years ago a neighbour who was then in her 60’s told us that as a girl she had walked to school in the next village along footpaths and bridleways through the woods and along the stream. At that time there was a network of such paths connecting the various farms and cottages and other children joined her as she walked so that a whole gaggle of them arrived at school together. Of course in the intervening years rural depopulation meant that there were fewer people living here, houses became derelict, farms were coalesced into bigger units, and the people who remained got cars. A group of us tried to help her do the walk again but found it blocked – as the paths had fallen into disuse and stiles collapsed the route was blocked with brambles, nettles and then fences. What farmer would build a stile no-one ever used when a continuous fence is so much cheaper?

IMG_20200208_125055741

This cottage was lived in when we first came here but was condemned as ‘unfit for habitation’ about 20 years ago

A check on the council website has shown me that these paths are, however, still public rights of way. So I have made an appointment to see the relevant council official to ask for advice and help in getting them opened up again. Jeni told me I was not alone – two local landowners she knows want to re-create a path that runs through their properties but that will be easier since between them they own all the land involved. I have no idea how successful I will be at persuading my neighbours to help but I will have a go. Watch this space!

Getting Physical

Last week I decided it was time to start cutting trees to refill the woodshed. Rob, who helps me with the garden wanted to use his chainsaw; I wanted to do the felling by hand with an axe. “But the chainsaw is quicker and easier” he argued. I am not sure about the easier because I have hardly ever used one but he is certainly right about it being quicker. I am the boss so it happened my way. I have been musing on why it is that I am so reluctant to let him do it his way and the more I thought about it the more layers I found to my pleasure in doing the job the old fashioned way.

Perhaps fortunately for someone going deaf I enjoy being quiet. I love being in the garden and it being peaceful, being able to enjoy the birdsong, the wind in the trees. The noise of machinery irritates me even at a distance and to me the whine of a chainsaw is particularly unpleasant. It also smells bad and the smell impregnates my clothes, skin, hair so that I feel dirty even if I have not actually been operating the machine. So much of the sensual pleasure I get from being outside is taken away.

IMG_20190313_155022257_HDR Special trousers, helmet, visor, ear defenders and gloves shut a chainsaw operator off from the world around.

Even Rob tells me that the chainsaw drives the work. I have no idea why, but once it is started up whoever is using it goes hammer and tongs at the job. Once the tree is felled the branches have to be cut off and then the smaller branches until the brash is quite small and will decompose fairly quickly (a process called snedding) and the temptation is to use the chainsaw for that as well, get it out of the way quickly and on to the next tree. Often the speed and the bulk of the chainsaw means that this is done quite roughly leaving snags protruding.

IMG_20200126_104047344God snedding leaves a clean pole

IMG_20200126_104056487 but sloppy work leaves snags like this one.

By contrast the energy needed to use an axe means that it is normal to stop periodically to have a breather, take a look at how the cut is going, adjust position to get a different angle, notice what is going on nearby. And since the only protective clothing needed is a good pair of workboots with steel toecaps, I can move and stretch, hear the birds, see the flowers. Large branches are taken off with the axe or a bowsaw whilst smaller ones are cut with a billhook. If the tools are sharp and the worker reasonably skilled the cut is clean against the main stem which makes them easier to stack or carry. I have time to look at each piece and assess whether it would be useful for making something or best put for burning.

I treasure my axe. It is a thing of beauty. Hand forged in Sweden by Gransfors with an Ash handle which I treat with boiled linseed oil every year, it is a Rolls Royce of axes. One of the lightest they do, it is technically a limbing axe for chopping off branches but it suits my height, weight and strength. I could use fewer cuts to do the job if I used a heavier one but I am in no rush and the heavier ones make me tire more quickly. The details may have changed but it would be instantly recognised by a stone age person – a tool design which has stood the test of centuries.

IMG_20200126_103929454

Learning to use it was not something I found easy. As a girl born in 1950 I was not expected to master manly skills like woodwork, engines or, in fact, anything physically demanding other than housework. My father was a woodwork teacher but although he taught me the names of all his tools, where to find them in his shed and what they were used for, my job was to fetch them and then hand them to him to use. It never occured to either of us that I might have a go with them. Luckily for me when I did the Woodland skills course at Coppicewood College Martin Aughton took me under his wing and with enormous patience insisted that I could and would learn. In the end his persistence paid off. I am still not as accurate as I would like to be but that is because I don’t get enough practice. It would be so easy to let Rob get his chainsaw out and just tidy up after him but that would feel like a cop-out – I would be saying ‘this is hard to get right so I won’t bother’. Having finally understood what I am aiming to do and what it feels like when I succeed I am not going to give up now.

I also rejoice in the fact that I can be this physically active at my age; that I still have the strength to do manual work. To use the axe or billhook efficiently I have to use my whole body not just the realtively puny arm muscles. The power comes from the big muscles in the thighs and backside moving the torso and out through the arms. Thanks to Rose Thorn’s brilliant yoga teaching I now have pretty good balance so I can safely make big, powerful movements even on an awkward slope. And she has also helped me to feel the different muscle groups working. Feeling my power is exhilarating. And as long as I keep relaxed (helped by stopping, breathing, checking myself for tension) I can work for several hours without feeling stiff next morning.

Why would I give all that joy up for the sake of speed?