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!

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.

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.

 

Rhiw Las

Last weekend was a busy one! As well as going to Dyfed Permaculture Farm Trust I joined the Pembrokeshire Permaculture Group on a visit to Rhiw Las on Sunday to see the straw bale house Chris & Erica Thompson are building as part of their One Planet Development.

One Planet Development (usually shortened to OPD) is a planning system which is, I believe, unique to Wales. It was pioneered by the group who formed the Lammas eco-village just a few miles from here in the next valley and then established as a national framework. Although there have been tweaks to the regulations in the light of experience the basics remain the same. An individual, couple, family or group can acquire a few acres of agricultural land which has no dwelling on it and apply for planning permission to live on it within certain constraints.  The house must be low-impact, they must have a plan to meet at least a certain (high) percentage of their assumed needs from the land within 5 years, and be prepared to submit detailed annual returns to demonstrate progress towards this goal. If they fail to meet the percentage in the time frame then permission may be withdrawn. It allows people like Chris and Erica to buy a piece of land at the agricultural price which is much lower than land with planning consent and, particularly if they are willing and able to do a significant amount of the work themselves, build a home fairly cheaply. But of course there is a risk that planning will be refused or later rescinded if the business fails. Often there is an agricultural tie which affects the resale value of the property and plot – not a consideration if what you want is a home but not a rock solid investment. I have great admiration for those who are willing to negotiate the planning process then put blood sweat and tears into building a home and holding with no guarantees of success.

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Another of the houses goes up

Rhiw Las is a smallholding of about 20 acres which was bought by 4 households. It was then divided into 4 freehold strips running down the hill from the road so that each has a road frontage, 2 steeply sloping sections and a flatter bit in the middle where, not surprisingly, each has decided to site their house! The trackway and an existing barn are owned by a company with 8 shareholders – the 8 resident adults but to avoid possible squabbles the barn has been divided into 4 units. Each household has chosen to build their home in a different way and each will run a different business and report separately. They hope this structure will help them avoid some of the disputes which have arisen on previous developments. Groups are tricky things and typically go through a stage of ‘storming’ when assumptions about each other prove incorrect and it is often painful. By living as neighbours but otherwise independently the folk of Rhiw Las hope to minimise the friction between them.

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Lime render makes the straw waterproof

Erica and Chris have chosen to build a roundwood timber framed, strawbale house. Other OPD families have, in the past, chosen to build a roundhouse or other small building to live in temporarily whilst they establish their livelihood and build a ‘forever’ home – only to realise that by the time the ‘forever’ home gets built their children will have left home and it will be too big! So all 4 households in this group have built a permanent home straight away and will then concentrate on establishing their businesses. Since the Thompsons have a toddler, Tanwen, they felt that a caravan or yurt would be untenable and are renting a house in Carmarthen whilst the building goes up. It is a great incentive to get on with it!

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The beautiful roundwood frame was made off site then erected onto pad foundations by Ty Pren, a local firm with an excellent reputation for this kind of work and who source the timber locally.  That provides the structural support for the roof meaning the strawbale walls do not have to be load bearing. They are lime rendered externally and will be clay plastered internally. It had been hoped that clay dug when the site was levelled could be used but it may be too stoney. A large stove will heat the double height living space and its back boiler will feed radiators and a hot water tank.

Outside there is a newly planted apple orchard and there will be a veg patch (home grown produce counts towards the percentage of needs in the return) and bees. Other businesses on the whole site will include a micro-dairy, musical instrument making from home-grown timber and forest schooling.

After the usual bring and share lunch – delicious as always – we cleared a polytunnel left behind by the previous owners of the holding. It had been used to store straw bales, roofing sheets and other building stuff in relatively dry conditions but will be planted up this year once a new cover has been put on. With lots of people helping we made short work of the job. Whether Chris and Erica will ever find the things again remains to be seen!

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I took the second Bara Claddu I had baked and it was very popular. I keep being asked for the recipes at these events and Cara suggested I put them in my posts for everyone so here goes.

BARA CLADDU – My daughter’s recipe

Line a 2lb loaf tin with greaseproof paper and pre-heat the oven to 160 deg.

240g plain flour

1/4 teaspoon baking powder

240 g sugar white, demerara, muscovado or any combination

1 teaspoon mixed spice

1 egg beaten

milk for mixing

Mix all the dry ingredients together then add the egg. mix and add milk a bit at a time until it all comes together to cake batter consistency. Bake for 1 – 1 1/4 hours until the top is nicely browned and a skewer comes out clean. Once cool serve sliced and buttered. It freezes well.

Getting Ready for Spring

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The arrival of my seeds and the compost plus reading some other bloggers’ lists of jobs to do at this time of year set me thinking. I have 5 greenhouse – yes, I know, greedy! 3 are end to end on the veg patch and replaced a polytunnel, one is the lean-to on the South wall of the house built primarily to give solar gain and protection without the expense of a conservatory, and the 5th is near the West end of the house beyond the conservatory and is where I raise seedlings which then get planted out elsewhere. It has staging which includes a big trough filled with sand and heated by a soil warming cable. With surrounds of twin wall plastic and bubble wrap this acts as a big propagator. But I have never got the storage of plant pots right and the workbench is too small. Time for a rethink.

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Some years ago I wanted to make a secure area for poultry behind the house so built a small shed for pots outside the greenhouse with a tall gate hung on it. Because it was constructed from bits I had lying around the gate opens the wrong way and makes access difficult. The walls are not solid and there are trees on the bank above so water and dead leaves get in and make the clean pots dirty and slimy – something I had not thought about before I built it. I could rebuild or modify the walls and rehang the gate but as I no longer keep poultry this whole assembly could go if I could find another home for the pots.

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Before I built the shed some were stored in the shed on the veg patch which was where we originally did sowing and some were under the staging, but I got fed up of having to traipse up the hill to fetch ones from the shed or bend down and scrabble underneath the propagator to find ones there. However that space under the staging was wasted – could I find a better way to store pots there? My first idea was to buy some of those plastic boxes on wheels. They proved expensive and did I actually need the lids? If they were hinged they would mean I had to pull the box right out to open them and if loose they would end up knocking around somewhere being a nuisance. Hmmm. Creativity required!

A good rummage in my sheds (I have a lot of those too which panders to my hoarding instincts!) revealed a rectangular plastic washing basket discarded because of a cracked base but OK for holding light things, 2 plastic boxes from when Safeway experimented with self check-out but discontinued it (They sold out to Morrisons years ago so goodness knows how old those boxes are), a stack of bakers trays bought as a job lot at auction donkeys years ago and used to store potatoes or apples, and some 10 litre canisters (bought with contents and saved when empty) which are actually too heavy to move easily when filled with liquid but could be cut down and given a makeshift handle. A bit of sorting and almost all the things in the shed are now under the staging in containers that should be easy to pull out when I need something.

 

What struck me was how much of my equipment is recycled. I buy refurbished tools from the Eco-shop in Cardigan or ones made for Tools for Self Reliance. Instead of plug trays I use a collection of cut down probiotic drink pots and old waste pipe inside mushroom punnets. Those pots and pipe have been in use for at least 10 years and whilst a few get lost or broken every year the majority soldier on. The pipe was taken out when we refurbished the house. Because we were doing the work ourselves, and living in the house whilst it all went on, we had to install the new kitchen and bathroom before the old ones were taken out so got left with lots of odd lengths of used pipe. Beans and peas are sown in newspaper pots in mushroom trays from C&M organics who cannot return them. Small pots are cream or yoghurt cartons or gifts or ones which came with plants in. Only some of the larger ones were actually bought!

That leaves the workspace problem but in my excavations (yes it did feel like an archeological dig!) in the sheds I found a small drop-leaf table which could go at the end of the central bed and give me extra space – one bench for filling pots and another for sowing and labelling. Moving the table will have to wait until I can use both hands but there is no rush. Only time will tell if I have now solved the problems but I am optimistic!