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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

2020 Whether I am ready or not – I’m not!

A number of my friends in the blogosphere have been posting about their goals for 2020. It has set me thuinking about mine.

Well I said a while back that I want to redecorate the house. I did it shortly after my husband died as we had not got round to it as a joint project. But 9 years on it is looking shabby, not helped by two dogs and three cats trailing in mess and rubbing against the walls and furniture. I got one wall in the sitting room done and a small area of the kitchen turned into a blackboard before Christmas but that was all. So finishing the job could be my first goal. As usual I only remembered to take a photo of the change after I had started!

Orchid, the lurcher, believes the sofa is entirely for her benefit. She would like to take over the comfy chair as well but I have drawn the line at that. She finds it necessary to ‘nest’ before settling down and as the sofa is old she has shredded the covers on the seat cushions. I know I have the skill and equipment to make new covers so that can be goal 2.

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If I am repainting the kitchen I need to move everything off the shelves and out of the cupboards so I might as well take the opportunity to put it all back in different places and make it more efficient. And in the process I will have a clear out of stuff I no longer use and maybe buy a couple of gadgets I have had my eye on. So that would be my third goal.

I planned to finish my Diploma in Applied Permaculture Design over the Christmas and New Year break with a view to it being marked and finished by the Spring. But I sent the first 5 designs for interim assessment at the beginning of November and apart from an acknowledgement that they arrived have heard nothing since. What better excuse could I have to put off the tedious job of writing up the last 5? However I guess I should really have it as goal 4.

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Outside there are all the usual jobs; cut firwood, grow veggies, keep the place reasonably tidy…. But I would like to finish clearing along the top boundary where the willow we planted 20 odd years ago for coppicing as firewood grew and then died before we got round to cutting it. I will replace it with a shelter belt of trees which produce fruit or berries, not so much as food for me as food for wildlife. Where does that bring me? Oh yes goal 5.

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Ages ago I had a building put up on an existing concrete slab with the intention of moving the utility room into it. It needs to have the walls and ceiling insulated, electricity supply put in, plumbing done, shelves put up.. I am hoping a builder is coming soon but I will have to supervise, buy a new freezer and transfer all my jars of preserves and little used kitchen equipment across.At present I use the old garage for laundry and as a food store but it is too big and attracts clutter. Once it has been cleared out I could turn it into two extra bedrooms for when family stay. So that would be Goal 6.

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I also have the wood for a compost loo for the veg patch.It is in the car port and in the way. Errrr Goal 7.

My daughter and her husband are divorcing so she will be moving soon. As she works full time and is doing an Open University Degree in her spare time I have offered to do any decorating and to be there to let tradesmen and deliveries in. She lives about 4 hours drive away so that will take up some time. I am up to Goal 8

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There are friends I have not seen for ages. My spinning wheel and wood turning lathe gather dust. The patchwork cushion covers are falling apart and need replacing. When did I last make myself some clothes instead of buying them? I keep thinking of walking some sections of the Coast Path. I haven’t been to the theatre, cinema or a concert for too long.

Who am I kidding? It would be lovely to do any, let alone all, these things. If I am not careful the pressure to get everything done will destroy my pleasure in them.

So my goal for 2020 is to get to the end of the year well and happy having achieved some progress on some of those things and to have had a lot of fun. Oh and to celebrate my 70th birthday in style!

I hope you will keep me company on the way and share the fun with me.

A blooming lovely day

When you have spent every penny you can lay your hands on buying 30 odd acres of land in Pembrokeshire what do you do to start making a living from it as soon as possible? That was the dilemma facing Linda and Steve when they put in a sealed bid at auction on part of the old Picton Castle Estate and found, somewhat to their surprise, that they had been successful. Half was woodland which needed taking back into management and half was pasture but there were no buildings so not only could they not live on site, they could not keep livestock easily either.

The answer they came up with was flowers. Linda had trained as a landscape architect and grower and Steve had toured as a musician teaching himself photography as he traveled the world. Both were good at using social media to promote their work. Flowers can be grown in a single year, need regular attention but not live-in care, and arranging them, which Linda is very good at, adds value. With Steve’s photographic skills to showcase the results they had the skill set they needed to make a success of the enterprise.

See more wonderful pictures on their website here

The obvious place to site a flower garden was near the hard-standing where the access track ends. But this was a bit exposed for growing. So using poles and brash from the woods they built a ‘dead hedge’; posts driven into the ground at intervals and twiggy branches roughly woven through them. That gave shelter in the short term but will slowly rot away. So either side of the ‘dead’ hedge they planted a live one. Over time the rotting wood will be replaced by the living which it will feed as it goes. The double row will make it strong and dense and if any of the shrubs fail there will not be a gap. Even the gates are works of art!

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Inside this boundary are a polytunnel for propagating plants and to grow a few more delicate blooms and houses and runs for chickens, ducks and guinea fowl which are allowed out to keep slugs and other pests under control.

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Weddings have proved to be the biggest part of the business. Sometimes Linda is asked to do all the arrangements and bouquets, sometimes just the trickiest bits with the families buying buckets of flowers and doing the simpler stuff themselves. The couple now have a barn designed to keep flowers cool and fresh until they can be arranged and delivered and with space to dry some for winter use. And of course it provides somewhere to store all the paraphernalia Linda needs to make her designs. These days much of the business comes from one bride recommending her to another.

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And the rest of the land? Well there is a young orchard where we helped fill ‘eyelid’ swales to help the trees keep their roots moist in dry summers. I had come across the idea of swales before. They are ditches dug almost but not quite level to collect water and channel it around the site very slowly preventing it running off before plants have a chance to use it. In drier areas of the world they make the difference between being able to grow things and not. Here in West Wales where rainfall is high, the problem is more often how to get rid of water quickly without it scouring the land! However Steve and Linda had noticed that some of their land, including the orchard, drained quickly and decided that digging a short ditch uphill from each tree and filling it with large logs then smaller brash and topping it with turf would provide a ‘sponge’ that would hold water. A sort or personalised drinking trough! As the logs rot away they will feed the trees just as the dead hedge will feed the live one and when the fruit trees are well established they should be able to fend for themselves more.

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A stand of Sweet chestnut trees has been planted and each year Steve brings another section of the old woodland into management. He has just learnt how to make charcoal in on old-fashioned kiln to make good use of the wood he is extracting. Unmanaged woodland rarely yields wood suitable for milling into planks and firewood is so much work to cut, chop and deliver that it makes little profit so charcoal is a better option.

The pasture is allowed to grow long and then cut for hay by a farming neighbour. He beds his sheep on it in the lambing sheds then returns it, nicely enriched with sheep dung, to be composted along with garden waste and chipped brash. The huge heaps are turned with a small JCB! Once worked most goes onto the flower beds to grow the next crop but some is diverted to a pumpkin patch where Halloween lanterns were ripening nicely when I visited!

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At present Steve and Linda live in nearby Haverforwest with Linda’s young grandson who was orphaned when her daughter died tragically young. They hope to get planning permission soon to build a new home on their own land to reduce their travelling and to make charcoal burning easier – the kiln takes all day to load and then needs to be monitored closely overnight. Steve has already given a great deal of thought to the best way to design and construct it so that it is both beautiful and efficient to run!

The woodland Farm is a fantastic example of how using the principles of Permaculture it is possible to create a thriving business and make a decent livelihood from an unpromising piece of land whilst at the same time creating a haven for wildlife.

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Scrap Happy August – a gate

It was too wet to work outside and I was struggling to think of something useful for Rob to do under cover when it occurred to me to offer to teach him how to make things out of green wood by us making a gate together. The one to the veg patch was an old one made out of slate lath and whilst it did the job it was not as beautiful or interesting as I wanted it to be.

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When we cut firewood last winter we had stacked some straight logs on the North side of the greenhouse where they would stay cool and slightly damp as material for just such a project.

We selected some pieces that would give us the right lengths and split them with the fro. Half rounds for the frame and eighths for the slats. (And yes the fro is the origin of ‘to and fro’)

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The side axe cleaned them all up a bit and roughly shaped the tenons on each end of the top and bottom rails. More detailed shaping was done with the drawknife on the shave horse.

The only powered tool we used was an electric drill to cut 2 holes for each mortice in the side uprights (which were then chiselled out to make oval holes) and pilot holes for the nails that hold the slats in place. I have since bought an augur bit for cutting the mortices by hand. The skill is in cutting the joints so they all go together smoothly even though the wood is curved and twisted!

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By the end of the day it was all put together. The only money spent was on a pair of new hinges. Not a bad result for a load of firewood!

Scrap Happy is curated by Kate and we all share our projects on the 15th of the month. You can see all the posts by using these links.

Kate, Gun, Titti, Heléne, Eva, Sue, Nanette, Lynn, Lynda,
Birthe, Turid, Susan, Cathy, Debbierose, Tracy, Jill, Claire, Jan,
Moira, Sandra, Linda, Chris, Nancy, Alys, Kerry, Claire, Jean,
Joanne, Jon, Hayley, Dawn, Gwen, Connie, Bekki, Pauline and Sue L (me!)

Send for Reinforcements!

Each year I aim to cut trees on a different part of the garden to provide fuel for future winters. Following the tradition of coppicing I cut right to ground level which allows the roots to throw up new shoots and after 5 – 7 years they are ready to harvest again. By this means I am always cutting fairly slender stems which are fine on my small woodstove and easy to handle. In addition I cut some of the bigger trees around the place to bring them into the same management system. Hopefully it will not be many more years before all the big ones have been brought into coppicing – before I am too doddery to manage to fell a large tree safely!

This year my chosen plot was the second half of the bank below the vegetable patch. I did the first half 2 years ago but last year was unable to finish the job because of my broken wrist. I also decided to lay the ones right on the bottom edge as a hedge – it made me feel safer!Because I did not cut much last year stocks are lower than I would like and with Rob in the cabin needing his stove alight all day in the winter it is important to cut a lot this year.


This are bank will look like the photo on the right in 2 years time

I had made a start and when Rob arrived to we finished the job quite quickly between us especially as he has, and is happy to use, a chainsaw whilst I stick to handtools. Then we moved on to clear the trees which were growing out of the stream bank. I had been wanting to get them down for some time but as they were growing out over the stream they were very difficult to do with an axe. Rob donned wellies and cut them whilst I stayed on the bank to take away the debris. It made an amazing difference to the light! unfortunately it also makes the garden less private for now but once the new shoots grow all will be well and the new growth can be managed more easily.

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One tree, though, defeated us. It was an Ash which had been cut back at some point in the past. The result was a massive trunk leaning over the stream with a tall, not insignificant diameter stem rising from it but also twisting and leaning. Neither of us could work out which way it wanted to fall and there was no way we could get a rope high enough to guide it without climbing it. What we needed was a tree surgeon. So Rob rang his friend Richard and asked him to come and help.

As tree surgery is Richard’s profession I would have to pay him so I decided to ask him to do some other trees whilst he was on site. I had left several on the bottom edge of the bank where I had cut 2 years ago. They were too big to be laid, too close to the edge for me to feel safe swinging an axe and were leaning out over the car port and the lower greenhouse, so whilst I knew where they would fall it was where I really did not want them going!

Richard came, looked and promised to be back the following Tuesday. Luckily Rob used to work for another tree surgeon and has all the necessary certificates to act as groundsman so by having Richard here on a day when Rob works for me there was no need for me to pay for another man to come and help. The weather that day was foul! Sleet, snow, rain and very cold. I had set off to the Welsh class and turned back when the snow started to settle (I don’t mind being snowed in but object to being snowed out!) Nevertheless the two R’s got on with the job telling me politely but firmly to stay out of the way – as an amateur I was simply another risk. Because of that the photos are rather ‘long distance’ and it was too cold to stand around waiting for the perfect shot. The last tree came down as the light started to go. By the last hour they were willing to let me help shift brash away as they were running out of time, getting tired and only had a few small ones on the bank below the veg patch to do.

Because Rob and I can clear up the brash piles and carry the useful wood to the shed at our leisure the brief to Richard was to just get everything down and tidied as much as was necessary for safety. So on Wednesday we spent the day sorting out the tops from the big Ash by the stream. We haven’t started on the pile on the veg patch yet! And there was no way we could carry all the usable stuff to the woodshed until we have sawn and stacked what is already in there. I have made a start on that but it is going to be a l-o-o-o-n-g job! But there is a very real primitive satisfaction from seeing a well stocked woodstore.

Unfortunately Richard recognised that a lot of my Ash trees have chalara which is apparently now endemic in Wales. I cam manage the existing trees and if they fall there will be no catastrophic damage now the leaning ones have gone. The dilemma is to do with planting more. I have been saving seedlings which come up in the veg patch and replanting them in woodland areas but maybe this is a waste of time since they are likely to be infected too. Maybe I should only replant hazel, sycamore and oak but there are a lot fewer of those and what if some of the deedlings are a resistant strain? Thought needed!

Many Hands

Having volunteered at Dyfed Permaculture Farm Trust and with the Pembrokeshire Permies at Rhiw Las the previous weekend it was my turn on the 11th to host some of the Carmarthenshire group. So 10 adults and a toddler came to see my place and help me with some jobs where extra hands and muscle power would be useful.

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We gathered in the wooden cabin in the garden which I am in the process of upgrading to make it more useful. It is some way from finished but with the small woodburner lit and an improvised kitchen it was a good place to gather to talk and share lunch.

In the morning I explained the theme for my Diploma in Permaculture design (planning for 2050 – more posts on that to follow) which I am just starting then took them on a brief tour of the garden. Some had been before and were interested to see progress, particularly how things they had worked on in the past had worked out. Others were new to the group so there were lots of questions and picking up of tips and ideas. I rarely go to someone else’s patch without learning something new and am very happy to share my experiences (and mistakes) with others. Grape vines seemed to be of particular interest this time.

It was a chilly day with occasional wintry showers so we were all very pleased that Peter and Alison had brought soup to share for lunch! With Chris’s bread rolls, some quiches, salads and tasty nibbles followed by 3 – yes 3! – types of cake and more tea and coffee, we were well set up for the afternoon. My daughter Carrie and grand-daughter Georgia were here for the weekend and Georgia had made 2 of the cakes on Saturday afternoon whilst I got the cabin ready and found the tools we would need for the jobs in the afternoon. They also took charge of making drinks and washing up which was a great help to me as it left me free to talk and organise the activities.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJust after lunch there was a shower so we spent a short time thinking about a problem area in the garden, the muddy and shady ‘Cinderella’ patch behind the house. The advice to concentrate on drainage plus ideas of how I might achieve that so it is less wet were very useful. There may even be another visit to make it happen! They also encouraged me to stop worrying about it and just let it be a rough grass area for now.

Then when the sun came out again we divided into 2 groups to tackle the jobs I had chosen.

One group created an area of hard standing outside the French doors of the cabin as a sitting area. I had made a frame the right size from timber left over from building a new outbuilding. I had a roll of mulch material bought donkey’s years ago which was more than enough to line the base. Then all the off-cuts of blocks from the building work were barrowed down the path and put in, followed by stones which I had dug out of 2 ponds I am in the process of making on the veg patch. Left over sand made the surface level and slates broken when the flue for the woodburner in the cabin was installed were smashed as a top layer. Unfortunately there were not enough to finish the job. I had hoped to use only waste stuff but maybe I will have to buy a small amount of slate waste to finish it! It would have taken me a long time to do the same work especially as I could only carry about half as much stuff in the barrow on each journey as the younger ones.

The other team cleared the path from the veg patch to the boundary where my garden meets the woodland I rent from my neighbour. Then the cut away brambles and low branches to make a path through the woods that follows the top boundary for a spell before sloping down to the stream and returning to join the path past the woodstore and workshop to the house. To my surprise and delight they managed to get all the way round, arriving back just as the last of the slate was put down. Now I can take the dogs for a circular walk round the garden and wood which should mean I get to know both more intimately. Observation is key to Permaculture design as I explain here Permaculture Principles 1 – Observe

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Melting Moments

More tea, cake and biscuits and they even had enough energy to walk up the hill to the farm where they had parked (there is very little space here to park without being in the way) and they were still smiling!

MELTING MOMENTS (from a Bero flour booklet circa 1971 hence the imperial weights!))

Cream 8oz butter with 6oz caster sugar. Work in 10oz SR flour and about 2 teaspoons vanilla extract. Form the mixture into walnut sized balls and dip these into first water then either rolled oats or dessicated coconut (I used oats). Place on a greased baking sheet well spaced (they spread), flatten slightly and put a small piece of glace cherry in the middle of each. \bake at 325 – 350 deg F (about 175deg C) for 15 – 20 mins. Allow to cool slightly and firm up before transferring to a wire rack to finish cooling.