Saturday, 18 December 2010

Crochet 1 - Knitting 0

I have been away visiting family for the past week; and actually wrote this before I left, but never had the chance to post it.

There will come a time in any journey towards self reliance and simpler living that you may be tempted to make for yourself items that you need in your everyday life. I chose to focus on yarn crafts, as the start-up equipment is minimal and they do not require a dedicated space (apart from a little storage). You can produce blankets, hats, socks, dishcloths, jumpers, slippers, rugs and a host of other useful, comforting objects from nothing more than some variation of a stick and a ball of yarn. 

I finally mastered crochet, after a decade of failure, at the age of 17, as an alternative to all that German verb revision I should have been doing. I was hooked, if you will pardon the pun. Crochet grows so much quicker than knitting; and as I was more of a blankets and scarfs than garments kind of crafter, it suited me to the ground. I began knitting in earnest when I was pregnant and wanting to make garments for my son; and  stylish good crochet garment patterns were few and far between. That is now changing gradually and there are many good crochet designers making their mark.

This year I have failed to complete any of the knitted objects I have begun. That jumper that should have been finished in  November? The arms might now get finished (or should I say started?) for next November. I am slow; and I am terrible at following pattern rows, especially ones that are charted as seems to be the case more often that not these days. In short I am no longer a happy knitter. So this week I returned to a chunky mesh crochet afghan I have been hooking on and off for over a year. It had been cast aside as I struggled with casting on and frogging various knitting projects. Its not overly fancy, made with self patterning acrylic. But the colours are glorious and to actually finish something with an hours work was soothing to my crafting soul. I was so enthused that I finally whipped up a winter hat (the snow wasn't much fun last week without one) using a spare ball that same evening, making it up as I went along. 

If time is an issue for you, or you are just highly impatient like me, I recommend crochet. It is often seen as a poor relation to knitting, but beautiful functional objects can be made, albeit with a different look to knitting. RavelryInterweave, and Attic24 offer inspiration, patterns and some good tutorials. If you want to learn, a quick search of YouTube gives a wealth of video demonstrations. The best way is usually to find a patient teacher, but books and videos can be very useful.

I plan to focus more on crochet projects next year; which should make room for other crafts. I really want to develop my spinning which I reluctantly put on the back burner to concentrate on the jumper. I would like to learn some brand new skills too, perhaps a little sewing; and also give rug making another bash. This week I tried my hand at dough craft decorations for the tree, to accompany some of the tree doilies I have been crocheting during my 3 day crochet fest. Christmas is now shaping up to be merry and bright, without a missed pattern row or slipped stitch in sight.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

(Belated) announcement

I have been invited to contribute to Simple, Green, Frugal Co-op. I wrote my first post yesterday; then realised I hadn't so much as mentioned it here. Apologies.

If you haven't visited the Co-op before, please do. There is a wealth of infomation on
frugal, sustainable living from bloggers with a range of backgrounds and lifestyle. I have found it a wonderful resource in the past; and hope that I can contribute something meaningful too. 

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Preparing for christmas.

A rare trip to the supermarket last week caused me to adopt my seasonal bah humbug attitude a few weeks earlier than normal. Meandering down the  aisle of pretty christmas lights and baubles and garlands (glittery twinkly shiny stuff in the depths of an otherwise grey winter is one aspect of the holiday season that I can get on board with), thinking that it would keep Gus amused for a few minutes; I had failed to account for the presence of a massive display of  Toy Story 3 merchandise at the end of the aisle. Mine was not the only child within earshot that was clamoring to get out of his trolley seat, though I shamefully admit that he was the only one that took off his shoes in a fit of rage and threw them at a complete stranger's feet. After apologising, I hastily made my escape in the opposite direction, to more screams of protest from the now incensed boy; and turning the corner crashed into another stack of said merchandise. A quick sweep revealed I had walked into a parenting booby-trap, displays of Buzz Lightyear and Woody for the boys alternated with shelves full of Hello Kitty and Disney Princesses for the girls.

I have known, from the tenderly cynical age of ten, that this isn't what the biggest festival of our calendar should be about. Then again, neither is my well honed cynicism and refusal to get into the joy of a seasonal celebration that marks the coldest and darkest time of year. There is a reason that a midwinter festival of some sort occurs throughout the cold and temperate regions of the world, across religions; and who am I to have argued with the recived wisdom of my ancestors? The songs, stories and traditions of this time usually highlight the return of light to the world, tales of hope and redemption, peace and goodwill, the promise that a community could make it through the long harsh nights and bitter weather.  Central heating and air freighted strawberries have successfully killed that spirit for many, but the message should not be lost, especially in the depths of recession and increasing hardship.

That is I think what needs to be regained; and perhaps here in the UK, because we no longer celebrate our harvest festivals, a time for giving thanks for all that has been gathered in the previous year. I know that I need to recapture the joy of the Christmas; and trying to stick it to those who see this merely as an annual merchandising opportunity, whilst not strictly charitable of spirit, would only heighten my joy. This year I will be working Christmas and Boxing Day (yup, nothing screams celebration and sticking it to 'em like a regular day at the office),  I am on a low-fat diet thanks to gallstones (out with the mincepies, stuffed goose, chocolate santa breakfast and cheese and cracker selection then) and thanks to the debt repayment plan I have little money to plough into a celebration.  These supposed annoyances might just go in my favour and actually support my sticking it to 'em quite nicely. I have little money to spend, so I am going to be very careful where I spend it.  I can't binge on regular seasonal fare which means a lot of thoughtful food choices and cooking from scratch.

This week I began my preparations by making salt dough decorations; and being thankful that I have enough food in the depths of winter that I could throw it into pretty craft projects. That seems an appropriate start to a more frugal, meaningful season.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Goat cheese experiment

Sometimes I bite off more than I can chew in my self reliance experiments, sometimes I have it bitten off for me. On a whim late last Thursday night, Nick bought four litres of goats milk that were selling for 10p each - having had the brilliant idea that 'we' could try and make curd cheese.

I have seen it done when I was small and understood that it is the simplest cheese making experiment you can carry out at home. All that is required is warmed full fat milk, to which lemon juice or vinegar is added to curdle it. This mixture is  then strained for a few hours through muslin, separating the curds and whey. The result is a spreadable soft cheese at very little cost. 

The first mistake I made was to think it a good idea to process all four litres at once. I started out following these basic instructions, deviating when it became apparent I was way out of my depth. The milk warming went well, I used a preserve making thermometer and a large stock pot. So far so good. I added the juice of a lemon that had accompanied the milk home from the shop. Nothing happened. No worries, I'll juice another. There were no others. OK, I'll use bottled lemon juice. I haven't kept bottled lemon juice in the house for at least two years. Oh.

It was with great scepticism that I poured in several tablespoons of red wine vinegar, the scepticism only increasing when I realised that cup volumes were obviously what was called for. When that had run out, I was all ready to give up, but as it was impossible to make the concoction any worse, I persevered and poured in a spoonful of malt vinegar. Finally the curdles began to appear.

Next came the straining. I keep a quantity of muslin for wine making, so placed a huge square of it doubled up in a colander (thankfully this is huge, comprising the steamer basket of an old pressure cooker). After half an hour, enough whey had drained that I could tie the muslin into a bundle, to be suspended from - where exactly? The bundle weighed the best part of 4 kilos! In the end we placed two dining chairs back to back, tied the top of the bundle with some spare shoelaces and tied the laces around the top rungs of the chair backs, suspended above a basin to catch the whey. In tying the knot we managed to squeeze a fair amount of the contents of the bundle over the chairs and hallway carpet. Several hours later it hadn't finished dripping, so I left it overnight and hoped for the best.

I needn't have worried. The cheese has an acidic tang to it, but is not vinegary, and is deliciously creamy. The only thing that the vinegar has added is a slightly pink tinge to the curd. I estimate that we ended up with over a kilo of curd, some of which is sitting in the fridge and some of which has been frozen into portions for stirring into pasta dishes. A quick survey suggests that ordinary curd cheese retails for around 40p per 100g, curd cheese from goats milk would be higher than that. The milk in this instance cost 40p, the lemon and vinegar a grand total of about 60p, the sea salt pennies.

Unfortunately, whilst scouring the Internet for curd cheese recipes, my eyes have been opened to the possibilities of real home cheese production. I have seen wondrous shops selling rennet and spores and waxes and molds and other stuff I don't yet know what to do with, but would like to one day. Another year perhaps...

Friday, 12 November 2010

Eating seasonally

Starting this autumn I have really been making an effort to use seasonal produce. We did reasonably well last year, the first time that I had made a concious effort every time I went shopping,  but I found our diet a little bland and lacking in variety. I don't wish to besmirch my country's culinary heritage, but I can't say I find it particularly inspiring. 'British' cooking is meat and dairy heavy, and fruit and veg have taken a back burner to the extent that I would argue that we really don't know what we are doing with them, at least when it comes to maximising their flavour and nutritional value. We do meat well, especially in joint form. We produce some amazing cheeses. We do a nice line in comfort puddings too - suet puddings, fruit pies, and cakes feature heavily and what's not to like about that? Obviously there are regional differences too between Scotland, Wales, Ireland and England.

I would say the majority of Britain no longer cooks 'British', bar the odd roast. The popularity of bolognese, lasagna and other pasta dishes, as well as kormas, stir frys, fajitas and chilli con carne against steak and kidney pie and 'native' fish dishes is evident in TV cookery shows, magazines and restaurant menus.  This isn't all bad, but there is a problem with trying to eat this diet all year round. 

A recent post at Casaubon's book posed the idea that taking inspiration from the seasonal dishes of other nations can help you make the most of the seasonal produce you have. The operative word being seasonal. I remember from A- Level geography that the classification of world climate and biotic zones is more complicated than I would ever care to remember, but I know that to eat Italian style food all year round in a climate such as ours requires us to import out of season produce for most of it. Looking to the cuisines of Northern and Eastern Europe makes sense then when you want to cook a cabbage more imaginitively than steaming it. I have saved my Encyclopedia of Eastern European food from the eBay pile. It's full of delicious recipes that use our familiar winter vegetables. A lot are admittedly meat and dairy heavy, but there are also plenty of fish dishes, 'peasant dishes' with pulses and vegetables and delicious fruit deserts. Last night I made a stew of seasonal root vegetables with sweet and warming smoked parika. A stew made with imported bell peppers and basil or oregano just wouldn't have cut the mustard on a brisk rainy day like today.

I have a feeling I am not quite as well informed as I might be about British food traditions. I admit a prejudice against many of our great traditional recipes because my system just can't handle that much meat and dairy every day (except Stilton cheese, I can eat that on oatcakes until the cows come home. Or I am hospitalised with gout, whichever comes sooner). I recognise that British foods survived deepening wartime rationing for well over ten years, which would ravage any food culture. I think we are missing something by eschewing our traditional grains for  breakfast cereals and tons of pasta; and tea and cake for instant coffee and 'blueberry' muffins. But for all my searching, I can't find any evidence that we know how to use carrots or chard, sprouts, beetroot, spinach, turnip, tomatoes, cucumbers, peas, beans, marrows, mushrooms, watercress or pumpkin, or the culinary herbs that grow so well here to bring out the very best in them and make them the focus of a feast. In a world where we are going to be increasingly reliant upon local seasonal produce from lower down the food chain to sustain us, we need to know how to make food for the body and the soul. On that front, I think, we might need a little help from our international friends.

Monday, 8 November 2010

As it turned out...

to do lists are a great idea! Almost everything on the list is complete, I substituted a few tasks for some other jobs that have been bugging me for a while. Today I was flicking back through my notebook to some older, bolder to-do lists written a few months ago. I can tick most of the items off the list - sell at carboot sales, purchase new sofa, start making wine, clear out the garden, plant some tree seeds, paint the living room, throw a halloween bash, pay down debts, return that two year overdue library book, plan a food budget and pantry, declutter the house, get a dining table.... We have managed to get them all done in the past few months, plus a few more. There are still lots of things to be doing, but it was satisfying to tick off all the little things that we had managed and also a few that were no longer important for us to do.

This month we have managed to pay off over half of our outstanding debts. That means that our debt free day has been brought forward from 'indefinite', to the end of February 2011. I can't say how relieved I am about this, that in a few months we will be using our wages to build our finances and to fund the things that we want in life, rather than funding the interest payments on loans taken out before we were wise enough to realise the rules of the game.

So all in all it has been a productive week and a productive year. Which is progress, because most years of my adult life have been years of consumption, debt and dissatisafction.  I imagine that this is a process that is going on up and down the land, and across the world. People are finding joy in doing things for themselves, in crafts and home cooking and making themselves more secure and resilient and happy, all the things we have strived for for millenia. It is very tough and I know that there is for most people no romance in it, but it is comforting to know that we are making a start.

Thursday, 4 November 2010


It seems that this time of year is a time for getting organised and knuckling down to all the small jobs that have built up over the year. Every blog I read seems to be abuzz with talk of decluttering, rearranging, streamlining and cleaning. It puts me to shame, it really does.

I am not good at daily routines, such as hoovering, laundry sorting and washing up. Just because the laundry made it to the machine and the wash cycle is complete does not mean that the laundry will get hung up to dry, not before it needs a freshen up cycle at any rate. It's this kind of disorganisation that wastes a lot of time and energy in our house; and probably money too.

So November is my month to knuckle down to it too. We have relatives visiting later in the month, which is an excellent incentive to clean up my act. Nothing like public humiliation to spur me to action, apparently. Today I spent a few minutes whilst waiting for the casserole to reheat to organise the kitchen drawers. That tiny little bit of progress felt ridiculously good. I don't have a plan to tackle a room at a time as such, but just to spend a few minutes every time I enter a room trying to make a little headway. I do need to measure my progress, however, so by this time tomorrow:
  • The empty glass bottles that have stacked up over the last month will have been taken to the garage ready to be refilled with home brewed beer when the time comes.
  • I will have pared down and organised  my cleaning supplies. 
  • The kitchen floor will be clear of all objects but the bin, the cats bowls and the rug. 
  • The laundry will have been sorted and put away, some sorted for charity collection. 
  • The dining table will be cleared of paperwork.
  • At least 3 unwanted items from every room will be leaving our house permanently.
This is all incredibly dull and unambitious, I know. But the difference it will make to my house and my mood is immeasurable. 

Wednesday, 27 October 2010


I wrote a post yesterday about how I tend to sabotage myself, before I even get started. Ironically, I didn't publish it, because who would want to read that anyway?

No amount of navel gazing will actually move you forward. You can believe that you will never be as good at something as you want to be. You can believe that perfection is an achievable goal.  You can believe that there is always someone else that will do something better than you ever will. You can believe that there are outside agencies that will prevent you from achieving what you want. You can believe that any mistake you have ever made condemns you to failure for the rest of your days. You can believe any of the negative mind chatter that you want to believe about yourself, that stops you moving forward to where you want to go.

When I say you, obviously I mean me. I realise now after all these years there is an easier way to live. Just ignore the mind chatter; much in the way you would ignore someone trying to sell you extra cable TV, or double glazing for a house you don't own, or a handcart trip to hell and other crap you don't need. Those people eventually give up and go home. If you are too busy concentrating on the things you really want to succeed at, whether that be designing knitting patterns, growing prize pumpkins, becoming financially independent, or becoming world Tetris champion, self sabotaging thoughts won't have room to take root. Life is too short to let the ghosts of everyone who has ever criticised you, called you names, told you you are incapable or made you feel that you can never ever be good enough, to rule your life. You can't gaze at your navel and the horizon at the same time; and I know which one is generally more worthy of study.

It's all just a case of deciding to begin; and then deciding to keep on carrying on. So I have decided to begin.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Meditations on fermentations

We have been hard at work here during 2010; and after 9 months of hard slog; or rather a few hours light work spread over 9 months, I have a new baby:

It's not quite finished and needs to rest in the bottle for a few more months, but here is the 2010 vintage parsnip wine. We have been brewing our own beer for several years, which is Nick's domain (previously referred to here as OH, but apparently he is ready to come out now from behind the acronym to show the world his booze); but the wine only got started in earnest in February, by myself. This is my first bottling and I am ridiculously pleased with myself.

I can recommend brewing, winemaking and even seasonal liqueur making as excellent hobbies for simple living types for several reasons. Firstly, the start up costs are low - most of the (minimal) equipment and chemicals required can be purchased cheaply and in stages, if they aren't already lying around the house. We managed to get most of our demijohns from Freecycle and most of our empty bottles from our more hedonistic friends. All of my books have come second hand. The raw ingredients in the case of winemaking can be seasonal gluts or even foraged fruits and some cane sugar, as well as a handful of inexpensive chemicals. Beer is a little more demanding as most people don't live near malting houses or grow their own hops, but with the magic of the Internet it is still achievable for most people. Whatever way you go about it, the finished product will have cost a fraction of the price of any commercial product and can be of higher quality and character.

The basic principles behind both beer and wine making are simple to grasp and apply; but afterwards you can go as deep into the art, science and technology as you wish. You can start with tinned extract kits or start from raw ingredients. The finished product will be better with each attempt, although there will be mistakes along the way, most of which you won't know about until you have taken a mouthful of the foul brew.  

I love the process of making wine. It is a lot slower than brewing, but I love the alchemy of watching pulp ferment, watching bubbles flow through airlocks, racking the wine over and over into clean demijohns and seeing that it is clearer with every month that goes by. If you are less than patient by nature (which is usually me, I have to say), you can buy extra chemicals and filters to speed the process up. But why rush?

If it is something that interests you, a quick google search will bring up a range of forums, advice pages, blogs and recipes. Even better, try to find a local home brew shop (there are more around than I realised, certainly in the UK) as the staff are generally keen to pass on their knowledge and advice (and of course their wares, most of which you may or may not actually need). Radical Brewing by Randy Mosher is a bible of beer making, tasting, culture and history; with humour to boot. First Steps in Wine Making by C.J.J. Berry is a classic beginners text. A peruse of the library, second hand book stores and eBay will often turn up some older treasures.

Soon after the parsnip wine was first racked, a friend and I started a 15 litre batch of rhubarb wine which is making good progress. This past week Nick and I walked to the common and collected a sackful of wild rosehips, which are fermenting now in a bucket. This time next year I hope to be toasting autumn and Halloween with a few friends and a wine that is allegedly second only to grape wine in quality. Which brings me to yet another reason to ferment-it-yourself. The end product inspires good feeling and good times, whether you give it away as a present or host a party, or even brew with a buddy. So long as the alcohol doesn't flow too freely, of course...

Monday, 18 October 2010

Back to basics - budgeting links

I have known for a few months that our income would be dropping when OH started university. I knew that he would be starting university in September. Unfortunately, us being us, we were a little hazy on the details of just how a drop in income of a few hundred pounds a month would effect us. Now here we are, finding out just what it means. We are not in dire straits, but the budget will certainly be leaner over the next few months. It is a little daunting to return to budgeting after a few months of belt loosening. Which was all good fun whilst it lasted. However, all that hard work and frugality will have been for nothing if we end up right back where we started.

I am trying to recapture that feeling of excitement I had at the end of last year when began to make serious inroads into our debts.  Luckily in my mind, autumn and winter are a time for retiring a little from the world; and despite the gift giving frenzy that is December, plus a few birthdays, I don't tend to have as many hedonistic money splurging urges as I do in the warmer months.

Still, to get myself in the mood for belt tightening, I have been looking over some of the resources I found so useful the first time around:

Rhonda Jean at Down to Earth has written many inspiring posts about managing the household budget and making more from less.

Money Saving Expert, both the main site and the forums, are a treasure trove of budgeting, debt busting and consumer advice.

The Simple Dollar is a beautifully simple personal finance blog that focuses on the basics - 'Trent's money rules' and '31 days to fix your finances' ofter practical advice and a financial carrot (and sometimes stick) to keep you on the straight and narrow. It was here that I first learnt to think about my money in terms of hours worked; which put me on the road (eventually, after working through my stubborness...) to simpler living.

As it doesn't always come naturally, what inspires you to manage your finances? Do you need a carrot, or a stick? Do you budget, or do you just go with the flow every month? I need some inspiration, please!

Thursday, 14 October 2010

A life (slightly) less spicy

This is a good time of year for taking stock, and in this specific instance, taking stock of stock ingredients. I was going to run with taking stock of the stock cupboard, but that is for another day, so today's dire pun of a post will revolve around my spice drawer. Behold:

I think leaving home, branching out and discovering who you are and who you want to become inevitably involves some rebelling against your heritage and exploring what the world has to offer. In my case, that meant a good deal of experimenting with food and flavours. I am not a fan of bland, but a fan of strong, punchy, fragrant, warming, zesty, spicy, earthy, piquant, hot, cooling, sweet, sour, acidic, smoky and everything above beyond and in between. Which poses problems in a simpler kitchen, because you need a large spice drawer to house all of those adjectives.

With the exception of green cardamon pods, I have never met a spice or herb that I couldn't eventually work with. Living in a city with several excellent ethnic supermarkets meant I have had the opportunity to work my way around the world's flavours cheaply and find what I like. Unfortunately, I liked most of it.

I am now working and cooking for a family, which means there is less time for experimenting, less money for wasting and less space to store ingredients. So today I took a few minutes to pare down my spice drawer.  Firstly, I removed anything that was out of date, after a sniff and possibly a taste test. That removed about a quarter of the seasonings. Next I went through the nearly used up jars, to see if I could use them up before they were past their best. In my heart of hearts, I know that I will never use fennel and dill seed again, so they were out. I decanted my prized core herbs and spices that I could not live without into now empty air-tight jars and returned them to the drawer.

I like Indian food when eating at restaurants, but rarely cook it at home. All of the Indian and Balti spice mixes have gone, along with a few individual herbs and spices particular to those cuisines. Some seasonings are very versatile - garlic, ginger, oregano, basil, paprika, chilli, black pepper will service a range of different dishes from pasta to goulash to a stir fry or Thai curry (at a stretch). Some, such as cumin, I use only when I make a chilli or marinade meat, but then I make chilli quite often. Some spices I despise when dried but love fresh from the plant, such as parsley and coriander. Some seasonings are seasonal - I use sumac and dried mint by the ton in summer, but could probably go without over winter. Cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice don't see the light of day until autumn.

When I plan next years garden, I want to maximise my production of flavour ingredients. We have a potted bay tree; and bay also grows wild in the parks around here, as do massive rosemary plants.  We also have thyme, mint, tarragon, parsley and sage; and I plan to add a few others. I also need to learn, finally, how to preserve and store them at the end of the season.

A quick peruse of the Internet on spice storage is quite frankly, confusing, so I have distilled my own experience and a bit of common sense into a few basic rules that I will from now on be following: 
  • Don't buy large quantities of spices unless you use that spice in large quantities. It isn't cost effective if they are past their best when you come to use them. Most have a shelf life of up to 1 year at best.
  • Decant all herbs and spices the moment they are opened into airtight containers and store in a cool dark place, possibly even the fridge or freezer if ground. I lost good basil for want of this, sigh.
  • Buy whole spices and grind them as needed, if possible. They stay fresher for longer.
  • A quick sniff audit every now and again should tell you whether something is past its best - and that doesn't necessarily mean odourless. Savour the spices when they are fresh and you will know how they are meant to smell and taste.
  • Explore you locality for wild growing herbs. If you have the space, grow your own seasonings. This should save money, beautify your surroundings and mean you always have seasonings on hand for the pot.
If you are wondering why this important issue is so dear to my heart, please have a heart for those forgotten citizens of your spice rack. ; )

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Needing a push.

Our internet connection is playing up at the moment, so posting will be even more intermittent than it has been of late, until we get it sorted.

It has had its advantages. Many of the odd jobs I have been meaning to do since we moved in over two years ago are now complete. The living room has been painted. The sofa covers have been cleaned and dyed a deep (sticky-fingered-toddler proof) navy. Some more decluttering has been done and some rearranging of furniture. All in all, the house looks a little fresher and a little more welcoming; and it probably would not all have been completed had I had reliable internet access.

This is my favourite time of year, not least because I associate it with starting school and university and a year of learning, challenges and new experiences ahead. Its unlikely I will ever be going back to university; and as my darling OH has just started his mental health nurse training, I am tinged with a little jealousy too. I want to be immersed in piles of books and essays and seminars. I feel stuck in a rut. I haven't really pushed myself mentally since I left university; and my job seems to actively waste away my brain. There is no amount of decorating, crafting and housekeeping that is going to change this fact. I need a real challenge, a push, but in which direction I do not yet know.

The spinning is going better with each attempt and I am hooked. The rhythmic motions and productivity of it are very relaxing. I downloaded Respect the Spindle with Abby Franquemont and ordered the book of the same name and all I can say is I LOVE ABBY FRANQUEMONT. The book and video are beautiful and explain everything so well, at a pace you can practice along to. My spindle of loosely twisted, uneven merino has become finer and more consistent, almost yarn like, in fact...

Mild disgruntlement aside, I am looking forward to the rest of autumn and onwards into a new year. I know that most people have a season that they love and autumn is mine. Whatever you are up to, I hope you make the most of the months ahead, whether the passage of the seasons be winding up or winding down in your hemisphere. Enjoy it.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Another obsession in the making

The last few weeks, pingling child not withstanding, my promise not to buy any more yarn or craft materials until I had wound down my stash has been going quite well.

A few days into our holiday however an idea wafted in on the sea breeze and implanted itself in my brain...I could make my own yarn! I could learn to spin, on a drop spindle first, then progress up the ranks. I could then plant a few dye plants, experiment perhaps with growing my own plant fibres, one day keep sheep and alpacas and angora bunnies...have a dye studio, paint some yarn...yup. A few days into our holiday, in a very rural very arable county with few fibre animals and even fewer craft shops, I became obsessed with the idea of finding a spindle and a book about spinning. Obsessed to the point of insomnia at one point.

Unfortunately, bankrupted by said holiday until payday, I had to wait. The idea didn't fade into the background. Everytime I picked up my knitting, I wanted to be learning to spin at that moment. It has been a long time since an idea has gripped me with such longing for action (I am quite sloth like at heart). In the end, I bit the bullet and dipped into my savings (to be replaced next month) and bought a drop spindle kit.

I am rubbish. So rubbish. I want to be good right now, I want to be practising at every moment of the day and night, I want those pretty dyed rovings (I can't even remember if thats what they are called, I am THAT rubbish) to be pretty handspun yarn and eventually a pretty hand knitted something. Sigh.

A productive week

When I began to refine my life goals a few months ago, the biggest thing for me was that I wanted to stop damaging and start repairing the world and the people around me. Beyond mindful consumption, that means actually working to repair damage already wrought.

The book Trees and How to Grow Them is a brilliant (though not a field) guide to our native and common trees. I bought it as a gift from Gus to his dad when Gus was just a month old. Finally this autumn, it has come down from the shelf and been put to use. It gives plenty of instruction on collecting and preparing different seeds for planting; as well as planting trees out where they will be only beneficial and not a nuisance.

So far we have collected wild plum and cherry stones, hazelnuts, horse chestnut, bird cherry and rowan. There will be more as we find them locally over the next few weeks. I would like some more edibles, such as sweet chestnuts and apples. After a few sessions looking for seeds and edible treats, we here can highly recommend an afternoon spent in the friendly company of your local trees. They filter out the noise of the city, they welcome inquisitive children (and adults), they sometimes offer up a little food or a place to shelter and watch the world go by; and they lift your spirits after a few hours of walking amongst them. Which is why in a city of 200,000 people, there should be more than 30,000 trees.

In a year or two, with a little TLC, we will hopefully have some strong saplings, ready to be planted out around the city. In a world where I consume so much, including many, many trees, many habitats and many foraged fruits, I know that I have actually put something (small) back with my own two hands. Which is a start.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Knitting nemesis

 I have a head swimming with ideas for things I want to design and knit (or crochet) with my yarn stash. Winter is a coming, and autumn and winter are knitting seasons. They are also the seasons of wind chilled ears and numb fingers and toes; hence I needed to start stitching, ooh say, in March 2010.

Unfortunately I have a knitting nemesis apparently determined to thwart every swatch I cast on. Especially the ones with the complicated lace patterns, variable stitch counts and fiddly yarns. High surfaces, closed-tight cupboards and  knitting bags are apparently light (but absorbing) work for a toddler, as is pulling my starter rows off of the needles and trailing a knotty mess around the house. It takes him about the thirty seconds it takes me to put milk in my tea and walk into the living room.

I read a lot of those gorgeous crafting blogs,  the ones where lavishly heaped skeins in decorative ceramic bowls happily coexist with small children that, whilst the bowl is at eye (and therefore pingling) level, ignore it, instead seeking joy creatively but tidily elsewhere, leaving mummy to knit in peace.

Which makes me wonder...where do I get one of those magical decorative ceramic bowls that adorable  toddlers find so repugnant?

(Secretly I am of course delighted that one of the men in the house admires a hand dyed silk-merino 6 ply when he sees it. That child is going to be one screwed up yarn crafting genius when I am through with him).

Friday, 24 September 2010

We're back

We have been back for almost a week, but I wanted to hold on to the deep peace of big open Norfolk skies, the joy of friendly company and the sense of possibility that you carry when you have spent a week away from the humdrum of your life, for just a few days longer.

As it was, I went into work yesterday (to help them out of a fix) and all that disappeared in an instant. Apparently a recession is an excuse for complete lack of civility and trust in the world of work. "Hell, you won't be able to find a job anywhere else, so we now have free reign to run this place like a battery farm".

This morning I arose early, reinvigorated towards my goals. When the debts are paid off, they will have no hold on me. I will be free to walk. I will be free to make my living by producing something beautiful and useful in the world, as it should always have been. I have put this one on the back burner for a few months, but now is the time to knuckle down again.

I came home exhausted at the end of my shift last night; but I came home itching to cook. One huge casserole later; and I won't be buying unappetising, unhealthy overpriced crap from the shop at work for the next 3 days.  Me £10, b*****ds £0. Result.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Deliciousness is...

We are off on our travels soon, so it was time to take down the tomato plants and make something of the abundance of green tomatoes left on the vines. I think that the green ones are more beautiful than any other tomatoes I have seen. I have never actually eaten green tomatoes, but as time is short, we might just do that. I had grand plans to batch cook tomato sauce, which unless they ripen up in the next 2 days isn't going to happen. Perhaps I shall take some with us to whip up a few self catered frugal meals, or to give to the friends we will visit on our travels. 

I am amazed that these fruits are so integral to so many food traditions, not least my own. I assume that it is in part because they are easy to grow and marry well with so many other flavours. As a student, most of the people I knew didn't let a meal go by without resort to a can of plum tomatoes. They are delicious, they are useful, but I can't help but feel that I rely on them a little too much for easy weekday meals. Having managed to produce delicious homegrown tomatoes for the first time in years, I want to do it all over again next summer and be able to savour them as a seasonal treat.

I have no idea what we are going to eat in their place this winter...

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Minimalism vs. the farm (vs. my brain)

The last few weeks I have been on a decluttering drive and it has made a huge difference to our home. I have vastly scaled back in the kitchen, the book collection, my yarn stash (all that acrylic has gone to a better place where it will be made into something beautiful) and now I am moving on to our wardrobes, again.

As I am clearing however, I feel a certain unease. Many of the things that I own serve a useful purpose - the kitchen equipment, the craft materials, gardening bits and bobs. When I peruse other blogs, where people are settled into their smallholdings and self reliant lifestyles, they do seem to be surrounded by an awful lot of stuff. Tools, books, craft materials, bake ware, canning equipment, extra linens and clothing...all seem necessary if you are going to have a degree of self reliance and sufficiency. Which is making me wonder - do I really want that lifestyle? I love the idea of producing our own food, tending animals, hand crafting many of the things we need in our day to day lives. But does that mean I will have to maintain lots of stuff? Is it that the more skills I learn, the more equipment I will need; and the bigger the space I will need to accommodate it all?

I love my new found lack of stuff - I have enough that I can live a simple lifestyle in a small terraced house in the city. But the part of me that has an eye on possible power cuts and economic disruption in the not too distant future is less sanguine about throwing out that second hand-cranked torch and extra layers of clothing, 'just in case'. Then there is the incredibly optimistic part of me, scouting the horizon for our 'farm' with a veg patch and pantry and workshop, that wants to keep the maslin pan and perhaps invest in some more cookware and knitting needles, for when the time comes.

Decluttering is temporarily halted. My brain is about to explode.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Rethinking the kitchen

I found a link to Stone Soup whilst browsing the equally wonderful Move to Portugal earlier today and I am so inspired. I love the minimalism of stonesoup, with its focus on simple to prepare, 5 (quality but common) ingredient  recipes that take minutes to prepare with basic kitchen tools.

I already have a very heavy box of kitchen equipment ready to go to the next car boot sale we do. The cookbooks are to be pared down even further too, as I realise that I have never cooked out of 3/4 of them. Whilst I love good food and experimenting in the kitchen, cooking isn't my raison d'ĂȘtre - yet I spend a disproportionate amount of my time in the kitchen looking at, finding homes for and washing up more utensils and items of cookware than I know what to do with. At least until now, anyway. It turned out the solution was a cardboard box and a black bin liner :) .

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Rainy days

We have had torrential rain for the past few days. Rainy days are wonderful if you don't have to go out in them. To be snug at home watching the rain falling outside is one of the most comforting feelings a human can experience. Unfortunately, I was silly and stepped out in the rain unprepared a few days ago; and now I have a sore throat, fuzzy head and generally ache all over. Even so, I have whiled away a few days ignoring the housework. Instead I have been knitting, reading, watching films, drinking tea and cocoa and trying to ignore the sore throat.

The jumper is going well and I have now started knitting the front. I want to have it ready for OH's birthday in November. I also have plans to whip up a Christmas jumper for the boy and some accessories for me (to protect me from the weather so that I don't suffer again as I am suffering now). I will no doubt find my rhythm between now and then. As the nights draw in I find myself wanting to sit and be productive indoors.

Tomorrow, I have to go to work and then catch up on all the chores. It has been nice to relax for a just a few days with my little boy, who has been wonderfully understanding about it all and hasn't protested about the snuggling, film watching, book reading and cake and biscuit breakfasts even one bit...

Monday, 23 August 2010

Time to reflect on how far we have come

A few of my activities today have put me in reflective mood. Our little baby boy is no longer a baby, but a talkative and independent twenty-two month old! Time has flown and much has changed since he was born, in the last year especially.

Some of the important things that we have done in the past twelve months:

Finances - We have paid off £2000 debt. This is perhaps the most exciting thing to reflect on. I know that we could have done even better than this, but we afforded ourselves a few luxuries along the way. Even so, two credit cards are now gone, and we no longer have overdraft facilities. Every month we have a little money put aside spare, which is a position I never imagined we would be in for the next decade! We have also transferred the majority of the remainder of the debt to 0% interest rates, which means that we will be able to pay it off faster every month.

Home - We have been on a massive decluttering mission this year. We have charity bagged, chucked out and car booted possessions that I had deep emotional (read 'hoarding instinct') attachments to just a few years ago. the house is clearer (though by no means complete) and our lives are lighter. Hopefully other people benefited from our stuff too. We also invested in some solid furniture as ours wore out; I think we finally grasped the importance of quality and beauty and functionality over quantity.

Practical skills - Over the last few years we have been knuckling down and learning the skills for true self reliance. So new found money management skills aside:

  • This year I have put much more effort into the garden and developing my food growing skills; and from just a few containers our harvest over the next few months is looking promising. I am branching out into winter crops this year too. Unfortunately I haven't learnt the art of war against caterpillars. There's always next year...

  •  Our home brewing (OH's) and wine making (mine) enterprise is going well and is very satisfying work . OH is about to start his first non-kit, from mash brew. I have plans for lots of foraged fruit wines and perhaps some cider in the months ahead. As well as the finished product (which has an uncanny ability to win you friends and influence people!), I find the whole process fascinating. 

  •  I have developed my knitting and crochet beyond basic stitches and simple shaping. Now I wonder every time I need a soft furnishing or item of clothing, 'can I knit that?'. Being able to make basic items like socks, hats and gloves to keep us warm comforts me deeply.
  • I can finally bake a loaf of good bread, along with lots of other baked/skillet staples.
Parenting - we have had to learn patience, tolerance and a  good dose of selflessness. But thankfully our little boy teaches us as painlessly as possible, with the most fun and smiles he can muster (which is a LOT). Oh, and when handed a pooey baby, I can close off my smell receptors and have that baby cleaned and pinned in a terry cloth before others have stopped retching - which is good progress for an only child that was never entirely sold on being a parent.

I realise now that we are closer to living our dreams than I usually give credit for. It is so easy to focus on what we don't have, what we want to be doing and what we don't feel we are doing well enough. I know now that goals and dreams are built one and every moment at a time, until you arrive at the place where you want to be. If the goals are the right ones for you, then the journey will be as enjoyable as the destination.

Where there's smoke...

it's a mighty fine idea to check that there isn't fire.

So, every time a politician or a corporation or an international quango says 'nothing to see here, move along'; based upon previous experience that they will lie to us with almost every breath that they take in public; surely, then, that is exactly the moment that journalists and citizens should start digging for the actual truth?

But perhaps I am just a cynic.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Tracking spending

When you first go looking for information on simple living or household financial management, the suggestion that you should track all of your spending (usually for a minimum of one month) will always come up. However, the anti-planner in me always balked at the thought of such organisation and the idea was always dismissed.

The carrot of sound finances to pay for that eventual homestead/cycling holiday/banjo means I have finally been summoned by my inner-accountant, and have begun to track my spending. Ironically I bought a notebook to do it in, but it was 75% off and it is very pretty (which obviously absolves me). I have drawn a date column, followed by an 'amount spent' column, a 'payment method' column and finally a space to record the brief details of where and what I spent the money on. Some people choose to itemise every purchase, I write a general description (for example 'Corner shop - baked goods') and instead am keeping all of my receipts. I also don't list automatic payments/direct debits as these appear on monthly bank statements. At the end of every day, I tot up the amounts (and weep...).

This exercise, after only a few days, has been revealing and my inner anti-planner has been banished by my inner-accountant until I require her services for spontaneous fun. As it turns out, long term financial planning does not require the same mindset as throwing spur of the moment picnics, coffee shop stops and last minute jollies to the beach, which might be where I was going wrong for all those years.

I realise now that most of my small spending is done with cash; most of it is spent on snacks from the corner shop. In the past when I have read my bank statements and seen cash withdrawals, I have always explained them away to myself as cash for bus fares, pints of milk and other last minute essentials, which actually represent a minority of my cash outgoings. I also noticed that we end up buying essentials at uncompetitive prices because we have run out of something or I have forgotten them in the bulk shop.

Keeping the diary has made me reluctant to spend, because I do not want to accrue receipts or see the actual numbers tallied up every day. When I forgot to pick up my packed lunch, instead of going to the shop and buying a sandwich, drink and treat, I bought a carton of milk and used up the last of the cereal I keep at work. Just the disincentive of having to note down a figure saved me the best part of £4. So whilst the spending diary is an exercise in observation, I realise it is also motivating me to spend my money more wisely. I will use the information to tweak our monthly budget, our shopping lists and also my daily routines.

So now I am evangelical about the ways of the spending book, here are my tips for tracking spending:
  • Start a diary - a notebook small enough to carry around everywhere. I have found a rows and columns format easiest, but some people may like to write out sentences. The minimum information you need to record is the date, the amount, the payment method and the where/what on. Some people use a spreadsheet instead or as well as a notebook. Do whichever you find easiest.
  • Ask for and keep all receipts. Highlight any gratuitous spending to help you recognise your pitfalls.
  • Actually open and read bank statements. Together with your diary, they will help you build up a complete picture of where the money goes each month.
  • Get your partner on board to build a complete picture of household spending. I have finally convinced my OH that telling me about every penny that has left his pocket during the day is a scintillating use of his time.
  • Record EVERYTHING you spend, no matter how small the amount. 
  • If you are using the book to motivate you to spend less, place a reminder of a juicy financial goal on the front cover or inside. It could be a picture of a holiday destination. Mine is the total number of pennies I need to save for a deposit on our some-day homestead. Yes, I did say pennies.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Back home

I have been away for a week visiting relatives in sunny Derbyshire. OK, it really isn't very sunny, but it is fairly picturesque in the moments when the cloud cover breaks and the sun illuminates the peaks. Unfortunately I forgot to take my camera, so I can't show you. It is well worth a visit if ever you pass that way.

A week away from the city calms and clarifies the mind beautifully. As a child I used to wander for hours in the countryside if I had a decision to make or was feeling out of sorts. I never realised until last week how much I missed the opportunity to roam free, physically and mentally, for just a few hours.

Which leads me to the decision I made whilst we were away and my mind was peacefully rambling. I am not an urban girl, I never will be. Sure I can cope, but I don't thrive. Too much noise, too much commotion, too much competition - and for want of a better word, too much fronting. So when we move, as the darling OH is also not overly enamoured with city living, we will be leaving the city. This will be in a few years when he has finished his nursing training, but I have made peace with that and will throw myself into enjoying to the full all the pluses of living in the most densely populated city in the UK (awesome 'Indian' restaurants and takeaways, for one) and of course, spending time with all of the lovely people here that we call our friends and neighbours.

We are still undecided  just how rural we will go. At the moment I am keen on the outskirts of a town. Being landlocked in Derbyshire, followed by a stopover in the equally pretty-but-landlocked Oxfordshire, also taught me that reservoirs and lakes and streams are no substitute for the open sea and a beach nearby - and therefore we will not be heading too far inland anytime soon.

But knowing where our eventual patch of the earth will not be is a step in the right direction, don't you think?

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Permaculture goes mainstreamish

I remember watching the odd episode of Gardener's World in the nineties and being disgusted by the heavy emphasis on hard landscaping and high maintenance annuals. I am delighted to see that the Beeb has finally gone hippy-dippy and embraced permaculture principles. I think perhaps the interest that A Farm for the Future and The Future of Food generated last year, along with Alys Fowler's The Edible Garden means that we will see more quality coverage of such issues over the coming years, which can only be a good thing. If you can dig any of those out they are all worth a watch.

Back to GW - Herb spirals, prairie borders and  forest gardens, along with organic vegetable growing. You can watch it on iPlayer if you are in the UK (and possibly if you're not).

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Low impact living for a high impact life

I think my philosophical meanderings over recent weeks have taken their toll on me a little and I am seeing the future through gloom tinted spectacles. Every goal I decide upon seems wanting somehow and I am once again paralysed by indecision.

So I have decided to start steering a course and hope I land up somewhere...nice. There are a couple of things that I know I want that I now recognize have drifted in and out of my consciousness since I was a child:

  • To own my own 'homestead', size to be determined at a later date when I have explored a few other activities I might want to incorporate into my daily existence. May range from terrace house with good garden to large permaculture farm away from 'civilization'. I would like to produce a good fraction of our food and perhaps even fibres (a girl's gotta knit; and possibly even weave by then!) and also be self reliant (not necessarily sufficient) in energy. There would be an outdoor 'room' space too, a porch or fire pit. No idea where in the world it would be, apart from near to the coast, somewhere you can look up and see stars, not sulphur lamp. Abroad appeals. 
  • To travel and have adventures, in a low impact way. I like the idea of packing a trailer and going bicycle touring. Perhaps a bit of trekking. There will definitely be tents and camp stoves and marshmallows. I think that this is something that Gus would enjoy too, even if I struggle to convince daddy of the merits of leaving his brum-brum at home.
  • To earn a living by being productive, by which I mean producing genuinely valuable goods - whether that be food, music, knitted clothing or good cheer - in the lowest impact way possible. 
  • To be involved in some kind of ecological restoration - whether that be forest planting, beach clean ups or a bit of guerilla gardening.
  •  To spend more of my hours in good company. I have a tendency to be a bit of a recluse, yet really enjoy the company of good friends when I manage to get it together and get in contact. 
  • To be proficient in a (portable, probably stringed) musical instrument. Because the above campfires/porch/friends/marshmallows are not going to provide their own soundtrack.
  • I would like to be fluent in another language, because I think that being able to read and speak and comprehend another cultures language will open windows on the world to savour. Again, I don't know which one...perhaps more than one.
That's my list. I know that it isn't very precise, is apt to change and as yet has no measurable targets and mini goals attached to it. But just reading it makes me feel more positive about the future. I have something to aim for, but the striving for it, unlike so many of the other life goals I have contempleated, does not require me to place an unsustainable burden on the biosphere and doesn't induce massive amounts of guilt - or debt. It seems doable in a world with a significantly reduced energy supply and consumption too.

In Depletion and Abundance, the author Sharon Astyk talks about the Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam, or 'the repair of the world'. Whilst it no doubt has specific connotations within Jewish culture, I like the idea that it conjures up for me, the idea that I could; and should; contribute something meaningful to the world, to mend that which is broken. The place to start is of course with my own life, by first minimising the harm that I could be doing. Anything on top of that is just gravy that makes life a joy to live.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Working out 'simple'

I am in a bit of a funk at the moment as to what 'simple' means to me. I want to really knuckle down to setting goals (which has never been my forte - I'm more of a go with the flow type of gal). 'Simple living' means many things to many different people. One of the maxims I have come across frequently is 'focus on what is important to you' - but this may be a very different lifestyle from the Amish simple lifestyle, if say, training to be an astronaut is my passion. To some people simple living means spending less (but not necessarily consuming less), to others it means living and working in a minimalist environment and to still others, complete self sufficiency.

Yesterday I was reacquainted with the phrase 'Live simply, so that others may simply live'. I like it. I think I have found the definition of simplicity that I want to embody everyday of my life. I need to start using my fair share of the resources available, so that others may have theirs too. I need to recognise when I have 'enough', when having more adds nothing to my experience, or even detracts from it.  It is hard to do in a culture that doesn't realise there is a broken connection between its brain and its belly, resulting in a hunger that can never be sated. For all my good intentions I give in to temptation on a daily basis.

I spent a fruitless few hours yesterday surfing the web for what exactly my 'fair share' looks like. I think that I had hoped  that somebody had made a pie chart of resources and how much of each a person could consume every year. No such luck. The closest anyone has come is the ecological footprint calculator which tells you how many Planet Earths would be required if everyone lived like you. There are a few out there and they all give slightly different results. If you live in the 'West', chances are they are well above 1 (the UK average is 3 - and I am guessing that we aren't the worst). My own footprint comes out at 2.25. That's not my fair share and I have some work to do.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

The powered down kitchen

This week I have been brooding over both our food budget and our energy use. The food I have made great progress on whittling down over the last twelve months but still want to tweak it a little to incorporate building up a decent store and rotation. The utilities are going in the opposite direction. We pay our gas and electric bills by monthly direct debit; and once again the amounts have had to rise to take into account rising prices and our own profligacy.  It can be hard at the end of the day to change daily habits - for example, ooooh, lets say - hours sat in front of the PC, browsing mindlessly. Ironically, the path of least resistance in this case is the one that uses the most energy.

A few months ago I found a brilliant book  - The Victory Cookbook by Marguerite Patten. Marguerite, who is now in her nineties, was in effect Britains' first celebrity chef, a home economist in the Ministry of Food during WWII. The book is a compilation of her three wartime cookbooks and some additional illustrations, adverts, pamphlets and background information from the war, victory and 'austerity' years.

The first thing I noticed was how unappetising some of the recipes are a first glance, to someone who has a world cuisine at their disposal. This was a Britain before Elizabeth David and the prosperity of the sixties. There were no fast food joints, olive oil was bought from a chemist (that's a pharmacy to the rest of the English speaking world) and Coronation Chicken only popped onto the scene in 1953. Food systems were relatively localised and the cuisines of empire hadn't impacted on the nations taste beyond tea, cocoa, bananas and orange squash. Dig a little deeper of course and you realise that the book adapts quite nicely to a more prosperous population hankering after seasonal local food.

The second thing that really dawned on me was just how little people had to eat during the war - and how they had even less as the economy was mobilised for export after 1945. The absurdity of the average modern industrialised diet of too many calories, too much fat and too few nutrients (along with massive systemic and domestic food waste) is brought in to sharp focus against a national food heritage of war rationing and hunger that actually left the war generation the healthiest and longest lived in European history.

The third point, was the emphasis that was placed upon fuel efficiency throughout. Admonitions against lighting the oven for a single dish and over boiling vegetables sit next to recipes for griddle scones and breads, raw side salads and even a plan for a hay box, the low tech equivalent of the modern slow cooker. This is something that modern cookbooks, even the most thrift minded, do not take into account, because today cooking represents such a small percentage of our home energy use. Except it doesn't, when you take into account that the majority of cooks now have fridges,  freezers, blenders, processors, toasters, juicers, coffee machines, microwaves, slow cookers, electric carving knives, breadmakers and deepfat fryers at their disposal.

This happens to be an area of home energy use I would like to tackle. It began when I realised that my oven only had one shelf that could actually cook food, the shelf underneath burns anything to a crisp if it is placed within 15 cm of the heating element in the bottom of the oven. It is the middle of summer and I do not need to heat my entire house up via the incredibly inefficient means of a poorly insulated electric oven with leaky seals. Which means my old style bread making and baking routines will have to be put on the back burner (no pun intended) until the chillier nights of autumn. For the next few months we will be using the hob; and preferably one ring at a time.

The summer months are the perfect time, I realise, to do away with the oven. Salad ingredients are in abundance and low or no-cook meals are the key to lots of hours lazing in the garden watching the sun go down.  They go better with a chilled glass of wine or homebrew lager.

Today I cooked oatmeal cakes on the griddle pan (a recipe from The Victory Cookbook). We have breakfasted on pancakes and made flat breads to go with soup. I have gone from hating my griddle pan (possibly because I never really got the hang of using it for anything other than making charcoal out of batter mix) to adoring it. It is impossible to cook anything overly complicated on a griddle, but the simple food it can produce can be delicious.I love the fact that I could pack it in my knapsack and take it camping too, or stick it on the barbeque.

In late autumn, that period of blustery days and cool nights that demands soups and the odd casserole, I plan to construct a hay box, which sounds like an even lazier method of cooking than the griddle. I had been considering buying an electric slow cooker for a while, but would have to work 6 hours to buy a half decent one and I wouldn't really save fuel costs if the thing is on for 10 hours. I will instead invest 8 hours hard labour into buying a pressure cooker that will cook my pulses in half the time, heat up my meals ready for the haybox, and pressure-can all those pickles I plan on getting around to making 'some day'... I hate those words.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Building a library

I grew up in a home with hundreds, if not thousands, of books. I used to think that it was sacrilege to throw a book out, or to 'deface' them by making notes in the margins. GCSE English Literature was two years of hell for me, being forced as I was to scrawl interpretive notes in the margins of some of the finest works in the English language.

I have changed my tune in the last few years. I have sold many books that I had never got around to reading, not least because it earned me a few much needed pennies. Now I am at the stage where I am editing my bookshelves to reflect the person I am hoping to become and the the lifestyle I want to lead. The magazines have already gone, now its time to get started on weightier tomes.

Whilst we have a collection of good fiction books that we will read again and again, the main focus of our shelves is non-fiction.  I always considered myself a bit of a scholar and these shelves used to house a lot of theory and discourse on politics, environment and science, many of them from my university days. I couldn't bear to part with them. I now realise that it is all well and good, but a shelf full of theory and discourse is useless until you have a couple of shelves dedicated to the nitty gritty of everyday life - cleaning, cooking, sewing on a button, growing a garden, building a community.

The tone of those books has to be take into account too. There is a lady, lets call her Martha, who has made a career out of teaching people how to make a home and garden and an awesome scrapbook of holiday memories, whilst waiting for the cupcakes to cool and the hand dyed silk gift ribbons to dry. Which is cool. It is good that one of the TV icons of the modern world is basically a TV homemaker. I have bought a few of her books and enjoy perusing her website.

But now I am considering selling them. Because in a lower energy future, the kind of domestic  organisation and tweaking that Martha advocates isn't going to survive the cut. Not everyone can maintain their house as a boutique hotel when unsupported by cheap energy and cut price imported wicker baskets and Dymo labellers. I am sure that Martha will adapt. She may even lead again.She is keen on Organic gardening, real food, natural cleaning products and handicrafts. All essential skills when we (the developed nations) don't have every other continent furnishing our rapacious appetites. But the tone and the ingredients and the energy inputs will have to be adapted to a lower consumption reality.

And so my bookshelf is adapting. It looks rather a lot like the bookshelf we had when I was a child - knitting, crocheting, sewing, cooking, foraging, brewing, wine making,baking, DIYing and gardening. The cookbooks have been whittled down to a mere dozen, with a focus on seasonal, nutrient dense (and low down the food chain) foods with low-energy prepartion methods (none of that, by the way, translates as 'tasteless' or 'inedible' or even 'boring'). There are some 'theory' books - a few permaculture texts, a few books that give the 'why' as well as the 'how'. I am looking forward to reading all of these with fresh eyes and scribbling my own thoughts in the margins...I might even take some post it notes, or even a highlighter to some of them!

Monday, 19 July 2010

The beach

Today we went to the beach for an impromptu picnic, with last nights leftovers and a freshly made salad. We love this beach. It is a rarity in that it is vegetated shingle - there are very few parts of the world where shingle beach is stable enough to allow the few specially adapted plants that can live on it to thrive. The photos are ones that I took a few weeks ago and I will probably post plenty more, because the beach changes with the seasons and looks beautiful all year round.

 A year or so ago a letter turned up in the local paper from a woman suggesting that the council should have gone out and cleared all the 'weeds' because it would encourage more tourists to use it, that the beach was somehow a disgrace to Portsmouth. This woman could not see the beach for the beauty of the stately pale green sea kale bending with the breeze. The mauves, the greens, the blues, the pinks and yellows of the vegetation against an ever changing sky. The birds that this habitat supports. She couldn't even see that the vegetation provided a further layer of sea defence for a city that sits barely above sea level. Apparently the tens of people scattered along the beach enjoying the relative tranquilty (to the 'tourist' beach a mile down the coast) were not enough for this woman; she would not be happy until the entire beach looked like Brighton on a bank holiday weekend.


 I think that that woman was wrong.

So did someone else:

Memorial benches line the promenade, as they do in most seaside towns. They are poignant reminders on sunny days of the brevity of life and what really matters. Someone took a lot of time to decorate this bench with knitted panels (looped through and stitched at the back). At first I thought it was a totally awesome bit of random knit graffiti, until I saw the top middle panel, which had 'Isobel' stitched in pearl beading, the name the bench is dedicated to.

I think that when I go, I would like a bench overlooking the sea someplace; and I would like some good crafty friends to come and embellish it once in a while, to remind others to stop and look at the flowers and feel the breeze on their skin; and be filled with thanks that they are alive.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Peak denial

"But let’s be perfectly honest: Any steps we might take to prepare for a potential environmental, societal, or economic disruption, no matter how grand, are nearly certain to be insufficient. Nevertheless, they are still necessary. They will be insufficient because being perfectly prepared is infinitely expensive. But actions are necessary because they help us align our lives with what we know about the world. In my experience, when gaps exist between knowledge and actions, anxiety (if not fear) is the result. So it’s not the state of the world that creates the anxiety quite as much as it is someone’s lack of action." 
-Chris Martenson in Resilience: Personal Preparation (The Post Carbon Reader Series: Building Resilience)

In 2006 I first came across the concept of 'Peak Oil', first from an article in National Geographic and then through 'The Party's Over' by Richard Heinberg. It is an excellent introduction to peak oil theory and I highly recommend it as a starting point. Where initially I had enthusiasm for preparing and reskilling for a powered down future, in recent months I have been steering clear of anything related to peak oil, climate change and financial meltdown. Quite frankly, it all got too much and it left me almost paralysed with foreboding and despondency.

It becomes hard to to ignore something when it goes mainstream. At the same time as I was trying my best to pretend the issues away, this report was launched, not from the usual suspects, but from some of the largest corporations and businesses in the UK. This was followed swiftly by dire warnings from the US military and the British governments former chief science advisor David King who was scathing about our approach to energy security. Still, I have persevered with my magical thinking.

Unfortunately my blue sky approach has just hit a storm front in the form of this report from Lloyd's of London. I haven't waded through it yet and I probably never will, but the fact it comes from the heart of La-La land (that'll be the City), it is a wake up call just for its very existence. Its existence, combined with the horrifying images coming from the Gulf of Mexico over the last few months; and the tales of financial woe coming from regular people on some of the forums I visit; has led me to re question my attitudes.

My wake up call was followed by a period of anxiety for the future. The quote from Chris Martenson (creator of The Crash Course) sums up my mood. I realised that as a family unit, we were not doing what we needed to do with the knowledge that we have. I wasn't entirely sure that my OH and I were even singing from the same hymn sheet - he is a total petrol head and is more likely to be found on PistonHeads (I'm not even going to countenance it with a hyperlink) looking for old fuel guzzling bangers than The Oil Drum looking for crude production statistics.

Yesterday we sat down and had a short chat. I started by asking him what kind of world we would be living in as Gus grew up. We agreed that we had probably reached, or were close to peak oil production. We agreed that the climate was changing and that food and political security were uncertain. We agree that the West's time as the global superpower was over and that whatever is left over will be going east. We envisioned that within the next 10 years, there will probably be oil shocks, blackouts and economic hardship for many people.  We agreed that people that "could never live without their hair straighteners/mobile/weekly nail appointment" would probably learn to. We agreed that technology would adapt, but the level of energy use and convenience provided by the oil binge we have been on would never be matched. Our vision of the future looks somewhere between the home front of WWII and the appropriate technology experiments of the 1970s, hopefully with the internet and progressive attitudes thrown in. We both agreed that the future was not destined to be apocalyptic.

I feel better, because I know that we both broadly agree where the world is going. Which means that we will be able to broach the subject (in all fairness, it will probably be me doing all the least until PistonHeads shuts down) with each other and make plans and changes as as and before the need arises.

I will document what we are up to in this blog, which is probably going to take a slightly different direction to the one that I was expecting. Simplifying doesn't necessarily mean powered down, but with a bit of extra thought it can be just that.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Taking stock

There are a few stragglers around the house. I know I am missing a few dishcloths and definitely a crochet blanket I am working on. Now I have taken stock, I realise that not buying any more craft materials until I have used up what I have won't actually be so hard. 

I can't believe just how many WIPS and UFOs I have. I would have estimated seven, it turns out there are closer to fifteen. Some will be finished in the next few months, some will be frogged and the yarn salvaged for reuse. Whilst I feel a tad guilty about the money this yarn represents, I am dead excited by all the wonderful textures and colours I have to pick and choose from. I might even get around to designing a few patterns of my own which I have wanted to do for a long time. 

My pretties are now sorted into bags and boxes and stowed away safely. I now know why Ravelry includes that 'Stash' tab. I might be making use of it, now I realise I have such a stash to keep track of. I have chucked all of the scraps and poor quality yarns that I will never get around to to using. I still have a big bag of tangled yarn given to me by my friends mum; eventually I will sort through it with a knitting friend and see what we can do with it. 

Of course, if yarn companies would stop producing such yummy yarns and wafting them under my nose, this wouldn't even be a problem...(whistle and wander away nonchalantly, neglecting to mention that there is also the sewing stash, the paper stash, the bead stash...).

Monday, 12 July 2010


This week has been a holiday week. I actually worked my regular hours whilst my OH took the week off and entertained family who came down for Goodwood. Whilst wistfully staring out of my office window, thinking about the rest of my family (and it seems, the rest of the nation) who were out picnicing and paddling and generally chilling, I had time to mull a few things over.

First, I realised that I am rubbish at booking holiday. I have used about 3 days of my allowance this year so far and have nothing booked. I always end up saving it because I know it causes my boss hassle to cover it and it generally causes grief to whichever colleagues get left short staffed that partcular day. It sucks, however, because I know deep down I prioritise not wanting to cause a little bit of work for others way above taking time out for myself and my family.

I also thought long and hard about how much I enjoy the days off I have; and I realise that the answer is actually 'very little'.  I end up focusing on the things I hate doing and seem to have very little time for the things that I would love to do. My life is filled with too much routine and drabness, which is about as far as you can get from the life I always envisioned for myself and my family when I was growing up. Whilst I am beginning to appreciate the importance of some routines (life is more enjoyable, for example, when you keep on top of the housework and laundry pile), I realise that days can go by without me learning anything new.

I have now requested some holiday for later in the year and resolve to be less kind to my (admittedly lovely) boss and request holiday to suit myself and not feel guilty about it. I still managed a few trips out this week, which were fun, because I was forced to actually do things that were life and knowledge expanding; and spent time in good company. My 22 month old son sees the world with such wonder (his current most used word is 'Wowwwwww') and is always looking for new things to explore; I don't see why adults should be any different. If we were focused on the things that matter and were seeing the world clearly, we should probably be saying 'Wow' several times a day. Anything else is a waste of a life.

Monday, 5 July 2010

A bid for freedom

Last month we managed to pay off over £500 off debt. This included a couple of hundred pounds to close a credit card, a regular loan payment and dribs and drabs to various other accounts. To get to the stage where we could pay off so much in one month and not be totally deprived is wonderful.

A few years ago, before the credit crunch, we were bobbing along paying off just the minimum payments and going into our overdrafts every month. Around 2006, I remember seeing the front page of The Economist magazine. I knew nothing of finance and economics back then, but I remember the title splashed across a row of foreclosed cartoon McMansions was something along the lines of 'Time's up for the American housing bubble'. I remember it gave me an uneasy feeling, not least because we as a nation tend to follow where the US leads on just about everything, bonkers financial models included.

At around the same time I came across the concept of peak oil, in National Geographic of all places. The more I read, the more I realised that we were heading into a period of huge financial instability. I began to take debts more seriously; but whilst a step in the right direction, our efforts were half hearted.  Falling pregnant with Gus, whilst a shock, was actually our saving grace. We ploughed our efforts into paying off debts, moving them around to zero interest deals and paying a small amount into savings each month. We are aiming to have cleared the remaining credit card and overdraft by the end of 2010, and perhaps pay off the loan early if it is cost effective to do so.

To get to this point, our mindset has had to drastically change:

  • I think the most valuable thing that we have done is to write a realistic budget. We have been doing this seriously since february and it is in this period that we have paid off the most debt, which can't be coincidental.
  • We pay extra debt repayments at the beginning of the month, before we have a chance to fritter away the money.
  •  We generally withdraw cash to pay for everyday things instead of using a card. This makes it easier to shop in our local grocers and we do spend smaller amounts at a time. I still have the bizarre idea that it isn't fair on the shop to spend less than a fiver on my card, which as the big chains don't charge for small amounts, is absolute madness on my part.
  • We do an online shop every 2-3 months for our bulk goods. I started doing this in the run up to giving birth, we stocked up on dry goods and 200 tins of cat food (I kid not) so that we didn't have to do much shopping in those first few months with a new baby. It worked out brilliantly. I hate supermarkets, I hate spending money on petrol to travel to supermarkets and I like having everything on hand that I need to prepare a meal and get me through a few lean weeks if need be (and  look at the panic buying that ensured following the snow last winter). I also don't impulse buy when I shop online.
  • We now buy the best quality we can afford, or we buy second hand, we freecycle and most importantly...
  • ...we ask ourselves whether we need the thing in the first place. Less stuff = less stuff to maintain and less clutter.
  • We eat very little meat and lots of pulses and eggs and things. Vegetarian is definitely cheaper.  I have also started to work out what constitutes a healthy portion of something so that we waste less and still get everything we need from our food. 
Scones I made for Father's day

    • We cook a lot from scratch.
    • We save our pennies, literally, in a glass flagon on the mantelpiece. As a result of usually withdrawing cash to pay for things, there is always change left over; and it is amazing how quickly it tots ups. In the aftermath of the bank run on Northern Rock I think it is a good idea to always have some cash in the house.
    • I read forums, such as the Old Style Money Saving board over at MSE, which are invaluable for support and ideas. Blogs such as Down To Earth and Tipnut are full of good ideas too. Having a few flesh and bone friends around you who are interested in a more frugal and sustainable way of life is a bonus if you can find them (or convert them!).
    There are many things we can improve on and we still have a way to go. So my money saving goals to the end of 2010 are:
    • I will take a packed lunch into work. This brilliant tool has told me that not only would I save about £450 pounds a year, but that that £450 represents 1.5 weeks of my working life.  I will also make sure I have sweet treats and baked goods around the house so that we do not go out and impulse buy.
    • I will start making my own laundry powder again. I used to do it to wash Gus's nappies and saved a pretty penny, then just got out of the habit. I am actually pretty good on the green cleaning front though. Admittedly it only saves a few pounds a year, but that is better than nothing and I find it fun in a geeky way.
    • I will work through the craft stash that I have before I buy any more. I will also start creatively recycling as much as I can so that I have craft materials to work with. 
    Salvaging seed beads from my favourite, but unfortunately worn out, bag.
    • I will look carefully at our energy usage and try to cut back. I particularly want to make sure that we use less heating in winter, which means a bit of DIY and sewing over the next few months.
    I have many things that I want to achieve and these money saving ones overlap with many of my other goals. But ultimately, having no debts means that we are in effect, free human beings - which is a good place to begin a new life from.


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