Five (good) things on Friday

I’ve seen this theme all over the place, and thought I’d have a play with it today.  Let’s see how it goes.  I may even do it again….

  1. I am making pleasing progress through my (long!) list of backlog jobs to do.  Ticking off several most days.  Mainly by being a bit more realistic about how much I can actually manage each day, and not making crazy long lists that just demoralise me.  Nibble away at it, and gradually ‘eat the elephant’.
  2. Having made an early start on Christmas presents (like, right through the year as and when I’ve seen something suitable) and told everyone we want to keep it simple and not spend for spending sake, I’m feeling happy with the things I’ve made and bought for our brood (two sons, two partners), and I will enjoy the wrapping and (of course) the unwrapping.
  3. I’ve arranged to get together today with a very dear friend and neighbour for a spot of hygge – there will be knitting (or crochet), coffee, and good conversation –  catching up on a month or so when both of us have been under the weather for one reason or another.
  4. Since starting a new improved sleep regime a fortnight ago I’ve at last begun sleeping better – I have slept almost through the night for the past 3 nights.  This feels like nothing short of a miracle, after so many months and weeks of sleep deprivation.  The world is a different place after a good night’s sleep!
  5. I’ve got my reading mojo back.  I’ve found it quite upsetting that over the past year or so I’ve found it difficult to settle with a book, even a good one.  But with my new regular sleep regime I spend the last half hour or so in bed with a book, and I am enjoying it so much.  I went to the library (well, two actually – one here in Bath and one in Wiltshire where I used to work), and have an inviting pile to take me through to the end of the month.  Current reading: The Fortunes, by Peter Ho Davies.  Fascinating, and very well written.

And to top it all, we had a lovely visit this week from one of our Danish not-nieces and her family (including their three gorgeous children).

I know, that’s six things.  Which is why I didn’t include the last one in the numbered list.  Because rules are sometimes there for breaking, don’t you think?

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City Farms and us

We go back a long way, us and City Farms.  Almost all the way, it transpires.  The first City Farm in England was set up in London (Kentish Town) in 1972, growing out of a community arts group (Inter-Action, founded in 1968 by Ed Berman).

(At around the same time here in Bath, Bath Arts Workshop was running a whole range of events and happenings, some of which me and my circle of friends took part in.  This, and my involvement in the Bath Youth Volunteer Action Group, helped shape my future with community engagement).

Doing some STOing* earlier this month, I came across the programme for the theatre production where we celebrated Malcolm’s 21st birthday (in 1976) with his family – a production of two short plays by Tim Stoppard, directed by Ed Berman and produced by Inter-Action. Looking through the programme, I see that it has a double-paged spread on City Farms – what and why they are, how they work – because this production and Inter-Action and City Farms were all part of the same movement, founded by Ed Berman – anther example of how an individual’s great idea can bring about real change).  I guess that was our first encounter with City Farms.

Nothing if not consistent, we all went on for a meal at the then-recently-opened National Theatre.  The same theatre where youngest son later (much, much later) worked for 10 years when he left school, and met his now-wife who was also working there.

[I love it when hindsight reveals patterns and pathways in our lives that we could never have foreseen.]

Anyway, getting back to City Farms.  After university Malcolm and I moved to live in South London.  He was even then a keen and able photographer, and was part of several community education projects, one of which involved working with a group of local children to help them document why they wanted a local City Farm.  This helped provide evidence to support the founding of Vauxhall City Farm – still in existence today.

When we lived in Bristol we were frequent visitors to Windmill Hill City Farm and St Werburgh’s City Farm, and all the more so when our children were old enough to enjoy our visits.  We all still have fond memories of St Werburgh’s City Farm in particular, and we visit as often as we can (in youngest son and d-i-l’s case, that’s pretty often as they live relatively close by).

And now, over the past two years, our own involvement has grown to the point where we can’t imagine not being involved with Bath City Farm.  Of course, I know that one day we will move on, our interests and abilities will change, or the farm will have changed.

But until that time arrives, I’m so very pleased that I dropped by one murky miserable day, walking past on the way home from a funeral, to ask if they might possibly be able to make use of me as a volunteer.  And that Malcolm later agreed to offer his substantial skills and experience to help move forward our ambition to have a proper cafe there.

*STOing = Sorting Things Out

Posted in Bath, Community, Farming, Food, Growing, Inspirations, Local food, Reflections on life (and death), Retirement, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Off and on the needles – November 2017

A quick round up of the various yarny projects finished and started over the past few weeks while I’ve been absent from my blog.  Which turn out to be surprisingly numerous.  A reflection in part of many sleepy evenings spent on the sofa (hello crochet), and lots of time on trains (knitting, always).

An upside of feeling under the weather and not up to much is that I spent whatever energetic time I had doing what we call ‘STOing’ (sorting things out), and making cosy corners. A bit like my student days when, an essay urgently required, I would develop an equally pressing need to rearrange all the furniture in my room, last week I found myself single-handedly dismantling and shifting beds, boxes and all manner of other things upstairs and downstairs.

Another full size blanket completed and given away (thank you so much Lucy! so inspiring and her patterns are always easy to follow).  This one given to daughter-out-law as a 30th birthday present.  It’s Lucy’s Hydrangea stripe blanket, and I think it’s much my favourite so far – an interesting stitch visually, colours I enjoyed, and actually very very easy to do.

Much progress is also being made on a second such blanket, this one for me and made (mostly) with left over yarn.  I’m loving making this, choosing each colour as I go, and staying warm on the sofa as I do so.  Malcolm thinks I’m crocheting myself into a cocoon.  There’s a lot to be said in favour of that idea, especially at this time of year….

As you can see, it’s not yet finished and there are still all those pesky ends to sew in, but I’m pleased with the effect so far.

Socks both started and finished – not to be pictured here (yet) as they are destined to be Christmas presents.

Another cot/pram blanket being knitted for Bath City Farm to sell, again using up donated and leftover sock wool.  So far they’ve sold all of the knitted blankets, and I hope that the remaining crocheted ones were sold at the Christmas Fair.

On the worst day of the cold bug, I cracked the art of knitting whilst at the same time reading someone else’s blog.  With a cup of hot spiced redbush tea alongside, nothing could be more comforting.

A friend who is working temporarily in Shetland has brought me enough wool to enable me to finish another lace shawl, as we are to become great aunt and uncle a third time next year.  This one is already part done, and I’m looking forward to being able to complete it.

I have a LOT (truly, no exaggeration) of untreated pure wool left over from an eco business I set up and ran when our sons were babies and toddlers.  I’ve been pondering (on and off for the past 15+ years….) what to do with it.  If you have any suggestions for how I can use it, I’d be really interested to hear from you.  I have a mix of 2 ply and 3 ply.  It’s lovely to knit with, leaves your hands very soft.  Ideally I’d like to use it to raise more money for Bath City Farm.

You may not have come across the concept before.  Lanolin wool is wool that has been washed clean and spun, but not enough to remove the natural lanolin from the sheep.  I used it to knit woollen nappy covers (I think they call them ‘soakers’ in some places), the idea (and the practice) being that the lanolin in the wool reacts with the ammonia in the wee and neutralises it, creating a soap and water.  The wee is absorbed by the wool soakers, keeping the baby’s clothes dry and bottom skin free of nappy rash.  It sounds unlikely but is true that they rarely needed washing (about every 6 months or so) – we used 6 pairs in rotation and hung them to air in between uses.  Truly, they didn’t smell, and our babies never had sore bottoms.

Interestingly, I’ve since learnt that in earlier times woollen fleeces were left to soak in stale urine (called ‘lant’) in order to remove the lanolin before washing and spinning.

Having made and used these soakers for our babies, I sold knit-your-own kits and some aready-made ones mail order.  This was in the 1980s, before the internet, but when many of us were already questioning the environmental issues raised by so-called disposable nappies.  Though a bit ‘niche’, my ‘wunderpants’ went down well.  But then our babies grew to be young children and started school, and I wanted something more from my working life.  I wound the business up.  Hence the large amount of wool currently sitting in our garage waiting for inspiration.

Hmm, that turned out to be a bit of a diversion from what I’ve been knitting and crocheting recently and now, into what I knitted 20 odd years ago, and what I might be knitting some time soon…

Meanwhile, the cold bug gradually (oh too slowly) ebbs awat.




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Where we’ve been

I thought I’d do a quick round-up of where we’ve been while I’ve been absent from my blog.

Our habit of monthly trips away lapsed for a while as other things took priority.  But we both found through our ‘gap year’ that we really value our trips away, so we’re plotting some more for the next few months.  They don’t have to take us far (here are so many wonderful places in the UK that we haven’t yet seen), they don’t need to be exotic, and they don’t need to be very long (we’ve been amazed to realise how much we can cram into just a few days, and what a difference those days make).

We’re planning a brief trip to Liverpool; another long Scottish walk (next spring); a train trip somewhere in the south of France; and probably something further afield.  Then later next year there’s a significant anniversary coming up, which we plan to celebrate somewhere special (to us) with both sons and their partners.

Detail of gabion wall, Whitstable

In the meantime, there have been lots of trips to London, mostly for a specific purpose but I’ve been careful to build in something that was just for me as well.  Often ‘just’ a walk and a picnic lunch – simple, but so refreshing for the spirits.  Plus a couple of brief London visits purely for fun.  Including a day trip on the train from London to Whitstable – such a treat!

We went to the Pink Floyd exhibition at  the V & A (‘Their mortal remains’), largely because oldest son was involved in designing the exhibition.  We were wowed by it, and could see why it got such rave reviews.

We gave our Danish friends and a group of their Danish friends a guided tour – a combination of bits of of two of our favourite London walks (St Pauls, a section of the South Bank to Tower Bridge, then DLR to Island Gardens, through the foot tunnel to Greenwich. exploration of Greenwich, a pub supper, then back on the river bus).  Seemed to go down well with all….  We certainly enjoyed it (and we love the totally unexpected and gorgeous Danish porcelain they gave us as a ‘thank you’ gift).

I met a friend at the Museum of Childhood, another part of the V&A, tucked away in Bethnal Green.  A trip down memory lane for me, as it was somewhere mum took my sister and I were taken when we were very young (and she remembered it from her childhood growing up in the East End).

I don’t recall it being as gorgeous or as welcoming and family-friendly then as it is now.  It would have been worth the visit for the architecture alone, and was even more so for the special exhibition we saw about Michael Morpurgo (you may know him as the author of War Horse, also of many other books for children and young people).  A fascinating insight into what moves and motivates and inspires him as a writer, and an exhibition that integrated children’s experiences of his books into its very heart.  (Youngest son worked on the lighting of War Horse at the National Theatre, so I had particular pleasure in seeing the puppet horse Joey).

There have been lots of local walks, some new to us, some old favourites, some variations on old favourites just to mix it up a bit.

There was a fascinating guided visit of the flour mill that produces the flour I’ve used for all my bread baking for the past 30 years (Shipton Mill, near Tetbury).  Another example of ‘going back’ to the future – in the 1970s when they set up their mill in the old run-down former mill building, they reused machinery from flour mills in the north of England that were ‘modernising’ their methods and abandoning their old machinery.  The Shipton Mill people lovingly restored it, and have been using it ever since.  As well as being useful, it truly is a thing of beauty.

The ‘gap year’ may have ended, but the lessons and experience continue.  Once I shake off this humdinger of a cold….*

*I wrote this post over the past week or so, lucky because my brain’s not functioning enough to be coherent right now

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Planning (and using) my time

Oh my goodness.  Where did October go?  and most of November?  The weeks have slipped past in a blur.

But now I’m back (again), and this time I hope to manage to stay on top of things a bit better.

I usually plan my time in a way that I find gives me some balance between flexibility and structure, and helps me fit a lot in while also preserving some down time.  But over the past few months I chose to give some urgent (and important) pulls on my time and energy priority.  Coupled with depleted energy levels resulting from continuing insomnia, this has resulted in a backlog of other things I had to put to one side.  This was entirely my choice, and I don’t regret a second of it.

So, here I am again, with a post I began writing back in September, around Jewish New Year.  I’ve missed this space, and I’ve missed you!

Yes, the irony of writing a post about planning my time following on immediately from a time when I’ve not been able to achieve that is not lost on me.  But past failure is no reason for present and future failure.  We start from where we are, always.

One thing I love about a new year is reflecting on what I want to do differently with it (and what the same).  I’ve always found the lure of the perfectly organised (and equipped) pencil case hard to resist, and even more so the beautiful notebook or diary or planner.  And that hasn’t diminished since I’ve retired: I’ve maintained some of the habits that stood me in good stead when I was juggling work with many other things that I had or wanted to do.

Back last September (2016) when we were in New York I treated myself to such a diary/planner, and I haven’t regretted it.  This one lasts a full 18 months, so I was able to start using it straight away, and it’s still going strong.  It’s just a simple double-page-to-a-week diary with a front cover that caught my eye, which I’ve adapted to suit my needs.  It takes the place of all sorts of ad hoc lists, diaries and reminders.

Way, way cheaper than some of those (eye-wateringly expensive!) planning journals I’ve seen blogged about and thought sounded great, and this does just the same job.

There’s plenty of spare space in each double spread for notes of things that aren’t necessarily related to a particular day but I want to do some time that week.

As a reminder to myself, I’ve added a slot inside the front cover to hold three postcards – each a memory-jog for things to fit in each month, each week, and each day.  Because even though I’m no longer doing paid work, I still have commitments to others, things I really want to do, and things I really ought to do.

I never wanted to find myself wondering what I could do to fill the time, and I certainly never have yet: there are any number of things I want to do, places I want to go, people I want to spend time with.  Only now, at this time in my life, and who knows for how long or short a time, I have the luxury of choice.  My time is my own, and the only person to whom I’m accountable for how I spend it is myself.

I’ve been fortunate in that for almost all of my working life I’ve had control (mostly) of what I did, when I did it, and how I did it.  Of course I had to report and explain myself to managers or to clients, but it was me who agreed what to put in the diary when.  It was me who decided how to carry out a project, and when to slot things in.

To help me to do that in a controlled (ie not chaotic) way, I developed the habit of having a monthly planning meeting with myself towards the end of the month, to plan the following month, over a nice cup of coffee (preferably somewhere agreeable).  Not for nothing am I known for having a fund of nice cafes all over Wiltshire and Bath.  And I still have that monthly planning meeting.  With myself.

With a month-at-a-view A4 sheet in front of me, I could see what appointments and meetings were coming up.  I had a list of tasks I needed to do, and spent some time figuring out when would be the best time to slot them in to ensure that I completed them in good time before deadlines.  It meant I could, barring unexpected emergencies, avoid the stress of tight deadlines.  It also meant that, most months, if an unexpected emergency arose (as they frequently did in those last few years when we were helping care for two very dependent relatives), I had already made a good start on the urgent stuff.

Which is not to say that I didn’t struggle with the stresses and strains of combining a demanding job with caring responsibilities and normal life – I most certainly did (and I worked part time, not full time).

I struggled to the point that I had twice to take time off sick as a result of being burnt out by stress.  But those experiences were partly what taught me the usefulness of forward planning; of doing things in a timely way, not a rush (where possible).  And once I got into a rhythm of doing the things that helped me, well, it did help ease some very hard situations.

And now I have the luxury of freedom to choose, and the habit of planning ahead.  And I am still finding it helps me fit in most (but never all) of the things I really want to be spending my time on.  And reminding me that we always have to make choices about what we do and what we leave undone, and that life is never, ever predictable.

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Going backwards to go forwards?

Sometimes it’s worth looking to the past to help us move forward.

As I am increasingly doing in my journey with food – revisiting old ways of doing things; gradually reducing any reliance on ‘convenience’ foods; trying to ditch unnecessary  and unsustainable packaging.

This is a thought that repeated itself to me several times during our recent trip to Germany.  As usual, most of our stay was spent in a holiday flat on a vineyard.  We witness just how hard the owners (and their neighbours) work to grow the grapes that will become the local wine.  Every month brings different chores to ensure as good a harvest as possible.  This is the first time we’ve been there during the grape harvest.

This year their son has joined the family business.  Until now they’ve sold all their grapes to one of the larger wine makers in the village.  With his parents’ blessing he has taken the first steps in a new direction.  He is using some of their grapes to produce their very own wine.

Rather than buy brand new (and very expensive) modern pressing equipment, he’s bought a press that’s 40 years old.  He worked hard on stripping it down and rebuilding and refinishing it, and now it’s ready to go.  With all his academic and practical study of winemaking, he believes that this older kind of machine will actually make a better wine than the modern ones.

The first pressing took place while we were still there, and we all stood around as he tweaked and adjusted.  Finally all the grapes were pressed and the juice ready to ferment.  He’s aiming to gather local (wild) yeasts for the ferment.  We hope that next time we visit, we’ll be able to taste their first wine.  The raw juice we sampled was simply delicious.

Collecting the wild yeasts

He’s worked hard, this young man, to produce something in the ‘old way’ that they hope will become his (and their) future.

We left there to visit a young relative who is working on his PhD in Tubingen, a beautiful old university town we’ve never been to before.  He took us for a walk near where he lives and works, which included in a nearby collection of small farms farming traditionally.

There were several small farm shops open for limited hours during the week, but you could buy some of their produce any time you like from their vending machines.  Eggs; smoked ham; bacon; vegetables.  At one of these farms you can buy their own-produced raw whole milk.  From a vending machine.  Wow!  I would love to have one of these near where we live.  That would solve the plastic milk bottle problem I’m still grappling with in an instant.

But then there are those times when going backwards really doesn’t take you any further forward, it simply takes you backwards into a very dead end.  Like Brexit, for example.  The more time I spend time in other EU countries, the more despair I feel about where the UK is headed.


Posted in Community, Farming, Food, Growing, Local, Local food, Reflections on life (and death), Seeing differently, Travels, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Allotment update: September 2017

One of the things I love about working an allotment is that it really keeps you rooted in the annual cycle of life.  And yes, the pun is fully intended, and very appropriate.

Now, in September, as many of the summer crops are coming to an end, I find myself looking back over the year to reflect on what went well, what needs to be different next time around, and what I’d like to add into the mix.

This year the success that gave me most pleasure was growing the sweetcorn in a fenced off corner of the hen pen.  Final score this year: badgers: 0; me: plenty!  At long last, we had the sweetest, most delicious sweetcorn I’ve ever grown.  There is nothing like eating sweetcorn cooked straight from the plant. (Though I dimly recall reading something by Garrison Keillor in which he described the inhabitants of Lake Woebegon comparing the joy of eating sweetcorn with the joy of sex; I can’t now recall which came out better).

Other things were more of a mix.  The broad beans were delicious, and we could have used more.  Some of the plants I overwintered survived, and I supplemented them with some spring-sown plants.  This was a success, because it meant we had a longer succession of broad beans.  On the other hand, once the french beans kicked in, as they did quite early this year, we suddenly lost interest in broad beans and were ready to move on, so the last of the broad beans got left behind.  I should have picked and dried them, but somehow didn’t.

French beans, as always, were a huge success, and we have eaten pounds and pounds and pounds of them.  These beauties never go stringy and always taste fresh and new.  I’ve been collecting my own seed for several years now, and will do the same again this year.  I’m aiming to gradually increase the range of plants I save seed from.  I use them myself, and give some to friends and relatives who have even the tiniest space for growing.

Potatoes have also been a success this year, after last year’s disappointing losses to blight and slugs.  I put them in earlier, and was more careful about earthing them up.  I noticed as soon as the badgers began rooting around in them, and I covered them over.  I also got them in out of the ground earlier than before.  I think maybe it wasn’t the potatoes the badgers were interested in, it was the masses of earthworms in the very rich, crumbly broken-down muck I’d covered them with.

Onions and garlic – not so great this year.  We had a crop, but much smaller than I would have expected.  I’m not sure why – maybe that long dry spell we had in April?  Perhaps I should have been watering them to ensure that they swelled as they should have done.  That was a weird patch – I’ve never before used so much of my stored water in the garden so early in the year.  Worrying about running the water butts in April?  never before.

Tomatoes – blighted again.  We had a few, but not nearly as many as we should have had.  On reflection I wonder if it was carried by the rings I grow them in.  I’m always careful to grow tomatoes and potatoes somewhere they haven’t been for several years, to reduce the chance of blight.  This year I will carefully wash and disinfect the rings before storing them away.

NOT my tomatoes! but what an inspiration for next year….

Cucumbers – most of the plants got eaten early on (slugs? badgers? No idea).  I wasn’t able to replace them.  I harvested just 2 cucumbers in the whole season.  I was picking more than that most days in previous years.  I missed them sorely.

Courgettes and squash – another success story, and for once I didn’t grow so many that we were overwhelmed by them.

Soft fruit – a great success and a complete failure.  Strawberries and raspberries in great  and luscious abundance.  I made jam from both, once we’d eaten our fill.  Blackcurrants, redcurrants and gooseberries – none at all, but this wasn’t too much of a surprise as I had moved the plants twice and I figure they just need time to get their feet well into the ground and settle down.  Next year will be different (I hope).

Tiny alpine strawberries, picked and eaten with yoghurt for breakfast one morning

Flowers – those that I grew looked really lovely.  I want more for next year, including plenty to cut and take indoors.

Salads – I started well, peaked too soon, and failed to continue sowing.  So now I have nothing to take us through the autumn and winter.  I may be able to remedy that by buying in some plants, and resolve (again!) to do better next year.

I did manage to plant leeks and brassicas at the right time, and they are doing well (despite the best efforts of the caterpillars on the brassicas), so I look forward to a few winter dishes from the allotment.

Eggs – it remains a joy to keep hens.  There were some frustrations this year when the three so-called ‘point of lay’ birds turned out to be some long way away from actual egg laying. But now they’ve settled in well and all five hens are laying, and we again have enough eggs to give away regularly to our sons and others as well as providing several meals a week for ourselves.  Recently I’ve been pondering on the feed I give them (bought-in organic layers pellets, supplemented by weeds and leftovers from our kitchen), and wondering how that fits with our general policy of using locally grown and produced food as much as possible.  More on that later this year perhaps.

My plans for next year (to be put in place this autumn and winter) are:

  • build (for which, read ask nicely for Malcolm and youngest son to build) a fruit cage – to protect the soft fruit bushes from the birds;
  • construct (probably myself) better protection for the brassicas, with finer mesh netting to keep out the butterflies as well as the birds)
  • to plant some fruit trees – I would so like some apples and pears, and maybe I’ll risk a plum again (my dreams would be a mirabelle and a zwetsche, if I can find them and they don’t succumb to silver leaf disease)
  • more succession sowing and planting of all sorts
  • finish making the pallet terrace in front of the shed, and kitting out the shed with shelves and hooks for storage
  • clear out and re-fit the greenhouse in the garden to enhance my ability to grow things in there

So – plenty to keep me busy!

A satisfying morning’s harvest

Posted in Allotment, Food, Frugal, Growing, Local food, Retirement, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments