A little piece of Heaven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a perfect way to spend a glorious day in May

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Scrappy Storage of Possible Scrap

A month or so ago I wrote a post about making things. (read it here if you missed it) and my good friend Mrs Snail suggested I join a group of crafty bloggers who post monthly about things made from scraps. It is all curated by Kate who blogs as Tall Tales from Chiconia. You can find her blog (here ) with links to all the other happy scrappers. So this is my first post specifically on using up rubbish creatively.

Every few years I get this strange urge to have a good clear-out, a massive de-clutter; and I withdraw from groups I no longer feel such a bond to making more time in my life. Then of course I acquire more stuff, get involved in new things until the next time! After a couple of limbering up exercises with my daughter helping me to purge the loft and the collection of slides my husband had taken (if I don’t recognise the person or place why keep them?) I started on the house.

Three walls of the sitting room were lined floor to ceiling with shelves of books and more overflowed into the spare room. An old parish chest had been full of them for ten years or so. I took down all the ones I thought I would never read again. There weren’t many left! Which made me lose my nerve. What if I was being too ruthless? Many were old and out of print so if I changed my mind they would not be easy to replace. I started to carry them up to the loft – filling up all the space we had cleared. But the piles started to wobble, putting them in boxes just gave me tottering piles of boxes instead!

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Then I had a brainwave. My friend Jeni and I had bought compost for our gardens in a large enough quantity for it to be delivered – on two pallets, which were still in the carport waiting for a use to be found for them. A quick check proved that a pallet was exactly the right size to fit into an alcove in my studio – perfect. Lurking in a shed was a stack of terracotta cylinders. They are made to stack as the inside of a chimney when a house is built. Why we bought them is lost in the mists of time but they have come in handy for a number of projects. Even so there were 8 left. 4 pairs lifted the pallet to just the point where the sloping ceiling meets the wall. Non-fiction went underneath with the stacks holding each other up, fiction and theology went on top (the juxtaposition was entirely subconscious I promise!)

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Problem solved! If they are still there in a couple of years time I will start taking them to the charity shops. Then I can either use the shelf for storing something else (the clutter will be building again by then I know) or dismantle it and use the pieces for something else entirely.

A muted Hooray!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If only life was simple!

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

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

A Quick Update on Trees from Seed

If you have been following this blog for a while you may remember I posted about growing trees from seed (read it again here). None of the Apricots which had germinated in the fridge survived but 3 more sprouted after I put them in compost in the greenhouse and they seem to be thriving. And a cherry picked from a tree in my daughter’s garden has germinated too. The fruit on her tree are so bitter that they are inedible and even the birds leave them alone! It is therefore very ornamental with spring blossom and beautiful crimson fruit which hangs there for ages.

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What has been really impressive is the apple pips. I have no idea how many I had saved but so far I have pricked out 138 plants, no that is not a typo! And there are lots more still in the trays but ready to go into pots. These are, of course, unknown crosses so there is no way of knowing whether they will be crabs, cider, cooker, eater or just horrible. Not all will survive but they will fill quite a lot of space and as I have chalara on the Ash trees they will be welcome.

Getting creative

I love making things but haven’t posted about the creative side of me for a while. It was only when I was reviewing some photos that I realised how many things I had made recently.

The first was a blanket for my grandson Sean. Since he started at Swansea University (read about him here )he has been saying that he is sometimes cold in his room. I suspect that he has been sitting still for too long late at night – hopefully studying but probably gaming on his computer! He had been taking his duvet cover off and wrapping himself up in that so I thought I would make him a blanket. He is young, male, only recently domesticated and there is not much space for him to store things in his room in Halls. So I used synthetic double knitting in boy colours! And since I get bored knitting a whole blanket in one piece I did squares and crocheted them together. To make it more fun I devised a number of variations on a theme of stripes of stocking stitch and reverse stocking stitch.

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Then it was my daughter’s birthday and I spotted a remnant of linen in the Ecoshop in Cardigan. Just enough to make a cushion. I had some felt left over from making Christmas decorations and there were tulips beginning to flower in the garden. Hey presto..

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Looking for the felt I saw most of a ball of Aran weight wool left over from a jumper I made a few years ago. Several of my own cushion covers are coming to the end of their lives so I fiddled around and devised a pattern. There is a similar amount of blue in the same yarn so maybe there will be a pair soon.

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Then Mrs Snail and I went on a course at Studio 3 in Cardigan to learn how to make a coptic bound book. She has already blogged about our day so you can read about it (here) Mine was a birthday present for my son so I had to stay quiet about it until now!

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Finally my new friend Roni came over and showed me how to turn a bowl on the lathe. She is a professional woodturner (find her here) and makes some beautiful things but also proved a very good and patient teacher so it was great to learn from her. We found an old piece of wood which was already cut into a disc shape but it proved to be rather rough and a bit too old so it was not worth sanding and polishing. Even so I was quite pleased with what I produced and have started on another with a better bit of wood.

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Apart from the book they have all involved designing as well as making so my creativity has had quite a good workout recently!

A Little Bit of Magic

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wilderness to Wonderful

The area immediately south of the house has always been a problem. Originally two tied, farm workers’ cottages and a cowshed were built here but they were abandoned in the 50’s, bought in the 70’s for a song then renovated and extended as one dwelling. The old front doors faced south with a path of massive slates all along that side to allow access. They were picturesque but lethally slippery when wet. From there a steep bank dropped to the more level gardens next to the stream and when we arrived there were faint traces of steps down to them. The door into the living room was very heavy, solid and difficult to open. Around it a porch had been built of reclaimed wood and windows but it was rotting away and although lino (also disintegrating) had been laid over the slates weeds were coming up in the gaps. Something had to be done – but other things such as plumbing and wiring took priority.

After a few years we had the remains of the porch demolished, the slabs lifted and a concrete path laid in its place. Our plan was to replace the solid door with a glazed one and build a lean-to greenhouse over most of the south face for solar gain and insulation. Sadly John died before that phase was started but eventually I got those jobs done. The sitting room went from gloomy and chilly to light and comfortable.

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That left the bank! I planted shrubs but they were no match for the bindweed, nettles and brambles which had infested the ground and got their roots deep down into the stone. On such an uneven slope crawling around trying to chop down the weeds with secateurs and shears was backbreaking and it really needed to be done several times a year. In addition the double doors of the greenhouse opened onto nothing and cleaning the glass involved teetering on a narrow strip of ground. There was a tiny area outside the kitchen where I could sit with a cup of coffee or eat lunch but if one person came it was a squeeze and with two visitors impossible. There had to be a better solution.

Using a digger to remove all the material back to a vertical below the path risked de-stabilising the path and house and I would have to build a facing wall. Terracing the slope would give very narrow terraces and the same problem of undermining the house. To build a retaining wall at the bottom of the slope and fill in behind to create a terrace would be prohibitively expensive.

It was when I went to visit Jono and Pamela Gaunt that the solution stared me in the face! In a similar situation they had built a huge curvaceous deck which appeared to float above the valley. With their permission I explored underneath it and worked out how it had been built taking lots of photographs of the construction. Could I do something similar? Did I have the carpentry skills and physical strength?

A chance conversation reminded me that my friend Martin had worked for a local landscaper building garden structures so I sought his help. He came, he looked, we measured and we planned. He was happy to do the job and, like me, favoured a design with curves, built of solid local timber rather than off-the-shelf decking boards. The Gaunt’s deck was one level with space for an outdoor kitchen underneath but I didn’t think I would use such a space. Should we create a shed under there? My experience is that sheds get filled with clutter. So Martin suggested that we make two levels. Once the sides were blocked with trellis or shrubs there would be very little light for the weeds which should give up.

The first job was to clear the bank rescuing the better shrubs and replanting them somewhere else then cover it with old carpet to discourage regrowth until the deck could be built. As I had broken my wrist Marie and Rose did that job for me. (You can read that post here)

To a large extent the detail of the design had to be made up as we went along since the posts had to go where blocks could be placed to support them out of the wet without too much digging out. At the end of day 1 I realised that although it was pretty much as we had agreed it was too small for a really big, sociable table. Luckily Martin and Pete had had the same thought and were very happy to extend the lower level. That meant there were not enough planks to finish the job and more had to be ordered. I was able to use the top level after only a couple of weeks (Martin and Pete could only work here 2 days a week and some weeks Martin was away so nothing happened. They were so good and so nice to have around I was happy to wait) The lower one was only finally completed in the autumn.

Now I step out of the sitting room into the greenhouse and then through the double doors to a beautiful level area where I can sit with my coffee or lunch and enjoy the view of the stream, or down easy steps to the bigger level if I am having friends over. The big, self-seeded Ash gives dappled shade to the big table in summer and the small sycamore does the same for the top deck in the evening. We even managed to incorporate a small pond and there is a long, curving bench to fill the gap betwen the levels. Bliss!

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