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.

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