Thursday, 10 November 2011

It's November!

October was a craaaazy month and I can't believe that we are now well into November. A combination of life, a hectic social schedule, a broken internet connection and blogging blahs piled up and now here I am, dazed and confused, wondering where the time went.

The UK blog list is up, though not complete yet. I would say give me a week, but, well you know how I am with deadlines. Thank you all for taking the time to add your suggestions. It is already quite a long list, though I hope that there are more out there! Keep the suggestions coming please.

Today was my day to blog over the Co-op, I'll be back here within the week hopefully; and dropping by and actually commenting on all the new blogs you've led me to. 

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Calling UK bloggers

Just a quick one, really. I want to compile a list of UK frugal/green/simple living blogs on a separate page here. I have some favourites, but I am hoping that there are many many more out there.

I have nothing against all you lovely US and Australian bloggers, quite the contrary. But you are prolific and make up a sizeable proportion of my feeds! And as you all tend to link to your fellow native bloggers, I find myself reading more and more non UK blogs. Simple, green and frugal living in the UK looks very different to your home countries, not least because of the general scale of our living arrangements here.

So fellow Brits - a chance for flagrant self promotion, or promotion on behalf of your favourite bloggers. If you consider yourself a predominantly UK based frugal/green/simple living focused blogger, please leave a link in the comments below. Ta.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011


  I suspected, before we even locked our front door and joined the stream of late summer weekend traffic, that our second excursion to Norfolk as a family would leave me with much to contemplate. Since we decided earlier in the year that Norfolk is our preferred destination when we leave this place, I have done a fair amount of behind the scenes ruminating, including confronting resurfacing doubts as to whether it's actually a good plan. I suspected that our trip would settle the matter once and for all. 

I am a fickle beast; prone to announcing that I have finally settled on my grand plan (oh how many variations on 'when I grow up I want to be a  ____' I have uttered over the years) only to recant within the month, week or hour, which is why I haven't discussed our plan since first announcing it, for fear of making a complete wally of myself.

We had a great time exploring, gadding about the countryside, visiting some old friends and old haunts. We discussed these troublesome doubts of mine whilst we were there, and we discussed them some more when we got back.

Norfolk still holds, still consumes my thoughts on a daily basis, still looms large in my mind as I rewrite our budget yet again. There are still questions; and answers semi-formed; to mull, however. So that is what I am doing. Which is to say, expect to hear a lot more about it from now on.

What are you mulling over right now?

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

♫ Oh we did like to be beside the seaside...

 Oh we did like to be beside the sea ♫...

We have just returned from a week away at my favouritest place on this side of the earth. Oh how I wish we could have stayed. There were a good few family arguments, rainy days and toddler meltdowns. And yet...

there was sand and sea and sun:

there were sunsets (and a Nick chilled out enough to pick up his camera after a long hiatus and take photos of them):

there was the delicious local food:

there was even (the tail end of) Hurricane Katia:

It brought rainbow spray. Sigh.

Thank you to all of you who left comments in my absence. I hope you have had a good week wherever you have been and whatever you have been up to.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

The trouble with chutney

The green tomatoes didn't really ripen too well on the windowsill, probably thanks to all the clouds loitering around these parts at the moment. Kind souls from all around have offered me chutney recipes as a way to deal with my green tomato harvest. I like sugar, I love vinegar, I adore sweet and sour anything. What could be the problem? I couldn't bear to tell a single one of those kind souls my very unfrugal, unautumnal, unsweet-and-sour worshiping secret.

I hate chutney. I am not a chutney person. I have never met a chutney that I have really enjoyed.

So it came as a surprise to me that I found a spare six hours in my hectic schedule to make chutney yesterday. A simple means to deal with the tomatoes threatening to turn bad, I had planned on giving most of it away, leaving only a token jar for the men of the house to enjoy. I spent several hours scanning recipes hoping to alight across something that appealed; and in so doing, I struck upon the root of my problem with chutney. I have never met a piece of chutney worthy dried fruit that I actually like. Sultanas, apricots and raisins...mollasses-y chewy yuck. And all of the recipes I found were brimming with dried fruit.

With understanding comes healing. I made this recipe up as I went along, using the unripe and half ripe Purple Calabash tomatoes. Aren't they ugliful?

Ugly Tom's Chutney

1.5kg mixed green and under ripe tomatoes, chopped
0.5kg young tart apples, chopped
350g onions, chopped
6 garlic cloves, slivered
150g demerara sugar
200g white granulated sugar
200ml balsamic vinegar
150ml white wine vinegar
250ml malt vinegar
1 1/2 tsp powdered ginger
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
Motherload of ground black pepper (I spent several minutes of grinding)
2 bay leaves
1 tbsp sea salt

Simply bring all the ingredients to the boil in a large pan...

Simmer down over a low heat for several hours, stirring frequently as it thickens, until reduced enough to leave a trace when the spoon is drawn through...

Remove the bay leaves, bottle, christen and label.

As for post bottling processing...I did it the traditional British way with quaint disregard for botulism, USDA guidelines, or scalded fingers. Next year I may get organized and take the  prescribed safer route instead (not least because it gives me an excuse to buy pretty Kilner jars).

I like this chutney. This recipe makes just under two litres, most of which I will be keeping for myself ourselves. It tastes like a slightly hot cross between tomato ketchup (which I heart) and brown sauce (which I most definitely don't heart - molasses-y) and I like it. It was my intention to leave them to mature for a few months, but so far one of the small jars is nearly empty. Turns out it makes a nice basis for a sweet and sour marinade and is also a good dip for chips. Not bad for some very ugly fruits.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011


I am sorry for the slow replies to your lovely comments. I am not getting in front of a PC much at the moment. I am in awe of people with babies and toddlers who are organised enough to blog everyday! I am reading your blogs through the wonder of mobile technology in the quiet moments when I am sat with a sleeping baby on me, but commenting is difficult on such a tiny screen.

Instead of screen time, we have been having lots of other types of fun. Allotmenting, foraging, walking, baking, gardening, painting, play-doughing, crocheting, eating - all of which I hope to find the time to tell you about this week...

Though I think this picture tells you everything you need to know. That's what happens when you pile a whole week of fun onto the dining room table. That and TV dinners.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Tomato woe

I know that I should have staked them the moment I planted them in the ground, but The Boy and his dad were grumpy and whining (yes, actually whining) to go home and get food. So we left the sturdy, perfectly formed tomato plants that I had carefully nurtured for so many months to put down roots unsupported. Unfortunately, I didn't personally get back to the allotment in the ensuing fortnight of hot moist weather to continue my nurturing - but boy did they put down roots in that time. Which meant that not only were the tomato plants not staked, they were also never pinched out, resulting in lots of foliage and few flower trusses. When I did get to them I removed as much of the excess foliage as I could, but quite frankly couldn't tell which branch belonged to which plant.

Unfortunately, because the plants are sprawling along the paths and over one another, the fruit that has set are dangling close to the ground and are being eaten by slugs, or are failing to ripen for lack of sun. We will be picking green tomatoes rather early this year and that our harvest from 10 plants (that could have kept us in tomato sauce almost all winter) will be measly. Sigh.

The tomato tale is painful, because home grown tomatoes are of course the very best flavour in the whole garden - and the few handfuls that we have brought home are delicious, a teaser of what could have been. I wish I could say that the woe stopped at the tomato bed - but it did not. The 2011 allotment tale is full of failures, of could haves and should haves and would haves.

There has been, and continues to be, a lot of empty ground, that could have produced something, anything, other than dust and weeds. Sigh.

There have been, and continue to be, a whole lot of weedy patches amongst the crops we did actually get into the ground. Sigh.

Thankfully, there have also been; and hopefully will continue to be; some small victories. We never come home empty handed, in fact we usually come home with a tote bag full of edible, organic veg (even if it is usually always some combination of beans, chard, beetroot and courgette). We have even eaten a few meals made entirely from our own allotment produce. We have a salad drawer full of new potatoes and two handsome and pungent braids of garlic hanging in the kitchen. The squash are fattening up nicely and the potatoes and oca are rampant. This week we finally sowed some late root crops. We have learnt a few lessons, such as quit your whining and stake the god damn tomatoes to never put off for tomorrow what needs to be and can be done today.

This year is OK and there is nothing we can do to improve that. Next year will be better and that is where our energy now needs to go. Sigh...of relief.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Grow sunflowers

We planted out five or six sunflowers on the allotment - a couple of giants that we are just starting to flower; and some of a smaller multi headed variety that are well into their flowering stage. Sunflowers are incredibly low maintenance and you get a lot of bang for your buck. They attract beneficial insects, add a cheerful splash of colour  - and eventually bear a nutritious (and relatively expensive to buy) food crop. What could be better than that?

It took minutes to separate the seeds from the flower heads - they are ready to go when the petals have fallen and back of the head is beginning to brown.

We have recently begun adding various seeds to our breads, and the small packets you buy in the supermarkets are expensive - paying for the convenience of a shelled seed. The shelling is relaxing however, like most things that make you use your own two hands; and can be done whilst sat watching TV or nattering.

We will store these in their shells (they will keep fresher that way) until we know we will need them and shell them in small batches, enough for a couple of loaves at a time. Some of the seeds will be resown next year, perhaps we will try and develop our own variety. There may even be a tallest sunflower competition. I envision a whole bed of them...did I mention how gloriously cheerful and pretty they are?

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Not a creature was stirring

I have been up for almost an hour - very early for me, especially at this time when I try to stay in bed for as long as humanly possible to catch up on all the shut eye I am missing. The weather has turned decidedly autumnal and the breeze coming in to the open bedroom window caused a sneezing fit cured only by a nice warming cup of tea. The house is quiet - and I am awake to witness it. Bliss.

I wish I could summon up the energy to do something productive. I could be using this time to sort the laundry, to spin, to wash up last nights dishes, to weed the garden, to bake bread - but I would prefer to be here writing this, for the simple fact that I love stringing letters one after another; and I don't have as much time to devote to it as I would like. This blog is not just an opportunity to reflect on my daily life (important), to connect with like minded folk (also important), but it gives me a chance to exercise my grey matter a little in a life dominated by toddler talk, house work and nappies (all good things). If there is one thing I have missed from my university days, apart from the freedom to stay up until 5am and rise sometime the next afternoon, is the opportunity to write and to think deeply about things. These days, the opportunity to do both at the same time rarely occurs.

If you are in the UK and have been affected by the riots of the last four nights, I wish you the very best. As an outsider looking in from a city that as it turned out didn't erupt into violence and flames and mayhem, I can't comprehend the impact it will have on the individuals and communities who were affected. The dust appears to now be settling - I hope that the aftermath brings out the very best in us all.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Old friend

At first, it was the queasy fatigue of early pregnancy that stood between me and my then new but cherished friend. After that had passed, it was the frenzy of decluttering and organising that consumed much of my spare time. Finally, last month, when I placed my drop spindle and fibre on the new shelves we had bought to keep precious things precious, I felt a pang of longing and regret. I lifted her down from the shelf, examined her...and realised that in my condition there was no way that we could attempt to (learn to) do productive work together. I couldn't see my own feet, let alone a spindle. She would have to wait a little longer.

Today, she came down from the shelf and (literally) out into the sunshine. I repaired her – within two minutes of her arrival in this house, she was dropped from a fair height onto a tiled hearth. Now with a little TLC and Bostik, she is all patched up, though she still sports a fancy holographic bandage for show. We spent half an hour out in the garden, and celebrated our reunion with a length of purple roving whilst The Boys and The Girl played nicely inside.

This, from the fourth pack of roving I have attempted to spin, is the most even, finest thread I have produced so far; and for a 7 month absence from spinning and a slightly blustery day, its quite an achievement - I might actually produce a usable yarn!. I am still as enamoured with the spinning thing as when, for no good reason, it first captured my imagination. Completely smitten, still.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

When we're cleaning windows...

Thank you for all your lovely messages regarding The Girl. Still just peachy and easy going. Hope it stays that way! 

In a feat of extraordinary organisational ability (for me, anyway), Monday turned out to be quite a productive day. My biggest fear was that being alone all day with two small children, my relatively new-found and quite fragile grasp of routine housekeeping would fall apart completely. Whilst the influx of new 'stuff' that comes with a new person has left us space challenged once again; the untidiness isn't catastrophic.

The windows at the back of the house have required cleaning for a while and Monday was a gloriously sizzling day. Whilst The Girl slept, The Boy and I knuckled down to righting the wrongs inflicted on our windows over the year (yes, a whole year since I last tackled them, slovenly I know) by salt and dust laden wind and rain, sticky fingers, kitty paws and more recently, wax crayon doodles.

The last time I tried to clean them I used a generous dose of Ecover washing up liquid and a terry nappy to wash the worst off, followed by a vinegar and newspaper buff. Unfortunately the dish soap had no effect whatsoever on the salt deposits and I gave up and just left them at that. Turns out the secret to clear unsalted windows is a tiny amount of Ecover (less than a teaspoon in a few litres of water) with a good slug of vinegar added at the washing stage. This even, with a little bit more elbow grease, got rid of the wax crayon doodles that I had expected would need to be scraped off.

If you can enlist a willing toddler to do most of the hard washing work for you, and just rewipe any bits that they miss, so much the better - though perhaps reserve their slightly sloppy efforts to the outside of the windows, unless you want a soaked carpet. I have been trying to get The Boy to take responsibility for the messes he has a hand in creating; and whilst it can be a running battle to get him to pick toys up or tidy away his laundry, he will engage happily in any household task that involves bubbles.

After washing down the windows thoroughly, a generous spraying with a 50/50 cooled boiled water/vinegar mix (we have very hard water around here, hence the boiling), buffed vigorously with crumpled sheets of newspaper, left them gleaming:

The ink from the newspaper did run and smudge on the plastic window frames, but it was nothing that a damp cloth and the vinegar solution couldn't remove.

We spend around £25 on cleaning 'ingredients' every year, excluding the laundry - about £14 of which buys a five litre bottle of washing up liquid (the current one has done a solid 18 months and is just running out), the remainder going on soda crystals (which also go in with the laundry), bar soap (any hard soap will do), bicarbonate of soda, citric acid, vinegar and a bottle of thin bleach (used very sparingly it lasts a few years), along with the odd replacement scrubbing brush/broom head. All of the cloths are re-purposed from old socks, t-shirts and terry nappies.These simple ingredients, used in the right way, allow even lazy me to make things sparkle with relatively little effort. Also, if you are smearing your windows with expensive chemical laden commercial cleaners that carry a room ventilation warning, toddler labour is something you just can't engage, another great reason to invest in a few cheaper, greener cleaning basics...

How do you clean your house?

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

The mother of invention

As part of my winter preparations, a new hat is in order for yours truly - last year's acrylic crochet ensemble was a little too baggy tea cosy like, a little too garish and not warm enough. A browse of Ravelry led me to conclude that I wasn't going to find a suitable crochet pattern that (a) was big enough for my huge head (b) compatible with any of the stashed yarn I have to work with or (c) wouldn't look ridiculous on me. In the end I bit the bullet and begun to search the knitting patterns - ignoring anything with colourwork, cables, lace, fancy shaping or any other extravagance that could trigger another knitting related mental breakdown in me (though that happened later anyway when I happened across the bag containing the infuriating unfinished jumper that originally triggered it). I finally settled on this Wurm hat in Sublime Extra Fine Merino Wool DK.

Knitting in the round is one form of knitting that still holds some charm for me. I am mesmerised that the humans who came before me worked out how to create the most important extremity-protecting garments - the socks, the hats, the gloves - using just their opposable thumbs, a clutch of double pointed sticks (and particular kudos to the smart-arse that threw away all but two and joined them with a length of string) and some nifty shaping techniques. I like the fact that rows and rows of knit stitches form stocking stitch - no need for any awkward purling or turning or sewing up. I like the fact that thanks to the short needles it can be done, bleary-eyed, with a baby balanced asleep on my lap at 3am should the need arise - and last time around, the need arose fairly frequently. It's not crochet, but it is a beautiful thing nonetheless.

Unfortunately, during the great knitting revolt of 2010 and the great house decluttering of 2011, the DPNs and circular needles have been mislaid, bar a single set of 4.5mm circulars - which having found my pattern and being  itching to get started, is annoying. The cooler weather combined with my being unproductively beached like a whale on the sofa for much of my day just served to remind me that I have lots to do between now and autumn and I shouldn't be wasting more time than I have to. In desperation I remembered a set of kebab skewers that I had saved for use as plant markers and serendipitously they were 4mm in diameter, just the size required - a quick sharpen with a pencil sharpener and I was ready to cast on. They would be better if I could have been bothered to find sand paper; and five would be easier than the four I have, but beggars can't be choosers and they have performed admirably.

As I rarely need DPNs this wide, these will probably become my permanent set, saving me several pounds; I will have to trail the charity shops and eBay for my finer pairs - though I am now tempted to go the DIY route and make my own from dowelling. I hereby offer my apologies to my dearest OH for the rant about the evils of expensive preprepared kebabs I subjected him to when he brought home the offending pack from the shop as we have managed to get our money's worth. Happily, it looks like I will have warm ears this winter.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Preparing for winter part 2

Whilst we don't regularly suffer extreme weather conditions in the UK (last year being an 'extreme' winter for us), we do have four 'proper' seasons. I like winter weather, as long as I am prepared for it. I like the cosy feeling of being wrapped up and impervious to the gales and to the drenching rain. I like being swathed in layers of fabric and hats and gloves and scarves, big chunky boots and socks.

I am shockingly under prepared in the clothing department for winter this year. The dull winter coat that I have sported for the last two years, that I bought out of desperation just as cold weather set in, was never really that warm and never fitted my long top heavy frame properly. Last year's snow and slush was a miserable experience as the icy winds went straight through me - one of the reasons that I couldn't wait for spring to arrive this year. My lovely winter boots that have seen me through the last few years fell completely apart this spring - zip and soles - and the quoted cost of repairing them was astronomical. This year I need to replace almost everything and don't want to succumb to desperation and part with more cash for less value than I have too. 

Whilst Operation Preparing for Winter Part 1 isn't going so well (as you can see from all that still naked glazing and wispy curtains), clothing us is going rather better. I rediscovered the joys of eBay this week and for the princely sum of £21.78 (inclusive of P&P) I have bought my own and the kids' winter coats.

I didn't expect to find a full length wool coat, in my size and in mint condition, within 5 minutes of beginning to look - a coat I actually lusted after brand new a couple of years ago but that was way out of my budget, so this was obviously (obviously) meant to be. It certainly made the frustrating hour I spent recovering my long abandoned eBay and Paypal accounts worthwhile. The Boy is delighted with his faux-sheepskin hooded coat and has been parading around the house in it for much of the day. The Girl's coat is in the post and I am just hoping that she likes purple.  Buying second-hand clothing makes some people squeamish, but when it comes to expensive garments like outerwear that you want to last a few years, it makes perfect sense. It is also the way to go for children - The Boy's first coat cost an arm and a leg new, for just four months of wear. This coat should see me through several years - at least four or five, hopefully more - if I look after it. It is warmer, longer and more attractive than anything I could buy on the high street for the same price, if I could buy anything for the same price. It is definitely worth the time and effort of searching regularly (out of season) for whatever you need.

There is still plenty to be done. I need to dig out and launder the winter accessories. Gloves need to be strung together so that when they are inevitably lost, they are lost in pairs and won't feel lonely. The Girl won't be old enough for shoes and I feel a woolly-bootie craft project coming on. The adults in this house could probably do with some nice warm woolly socks too, though I have never actually finished any of the knitted pairs that I have started and there is no reason to suspect that this year will be any different. I am even considering giving primitive crocheted socks a go as I imagine that they grow faster and less complainingly than their knitted counterparts. Pyjamas and slippers and robes need to be sourced too as we are determined to keep the heating off as much as possible this year. The to-do lists are getting ever longer, but actually this one is much more manageable than the house prep - and the thought of being wrapped up in swathes of warm fabric when this lovely warm weather fades makes me almost excited about the prospect of a cold winter.

And yes, I understand that Sod's law dictates that this will be the mildest winter on record. Better to make hay whilst the sun shines, however, just in case.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Information is power

I have begun recording our gas and electricity meter readings again, on paper, once a week, in the hope that we will be able to set a realistic usage reduction goal. I have finally found a use for the 'set reminder' alarm function on my phone and now it beeps at me every Wednesday and tells me to read the meters. You can of course do this by looking at your bill statements - though if they are anything like ours, they probably appear to be deliberately complicated and misleading and it will be simpler to do it yourself.

Yesterday I moved our energy monitor from the dingy corner of the kitchen where it has sat virtually ignored for a year to a prominent spot on the living room mantelpiece. You don't actually need one of these gadgets to monitor your usage (I would never have bought one as they cost the best part of a weeks food budget) but if you can borrow one or get one free from your electricity company,  it is a conspicuous reminder that you are using energy constantly - and therefore spending money constantly. I had great fun going around the house turning everything off at the wall, trying to get the reading down to zero (yep, that is fun to me). In a few weeks when it has become second nature to do so, we won't need it any more and will save the money (admittedly pennies) that it costs to run.

My thrifty instincts are in overdrive at the moment - I don't know if it is the drop in income (though bouts of thriftiness do not necessarily coincide with bouts of necessity), or that I desperately want to get started on saving up for my little house in Norfolk, or just my utter contempt for a system that thrives on parting me from my life energy in the form of earned money - but it is good to be on the wagon. Many people may think that studiously tracking consumption is a waste of their time, but personally I find that it keeps me on track and usually opens my eyes to something I have previously missed that may cut our expenditure further. It is the first step to recognizing where your energy and focus actually goes - as opposed to where you think it may go.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

House proud

Now that my house is fairly uncluttered, keeping it tidy and clean has become easier - and more of a priority. I notice things now that didn't really bother me before - or if they did, they were dwarfed by the much larger piles of clutter and chaos looming in the background. One particular bugbear of mine? Kitty footprints. We seem to have the grubbiest footed cats in the neighborhood - rain or shine they bring dust, soil and other muck into the kitchen and across the lino. This is where we put their food bowls, so it gets particularly grubby particularly quickly. Or it did, until this morning.

I finished this rag rug last night - it is cheap, cheerful and recycled - all of my favourite things. I simply cut inch wide strips of old sheets and fabric offcuts and crocheted rows of double crochet (that's single crochet to those of you in the US) with a 7mm hook. With hindsight, 1 inch is probably excessive - it was quite hard work pulling the loops through which made my hands sore. If I were to make a bigger one I would use thinner strips and a larger hook - though it has made a substantial rug that doesn't slide around and will stand up to frequent washing. Did I mention it was cheerful?

OK, I have a long way to go before anyone could describe me as house proud. But caring about kitty prints is a start, yes? And doing something about it - even better?

Monday, 4 July 2011

Time to whip out the teapot?

I have always drunk both tea and coffee - one of my earliest memories is of being given 'tea' first thing in the morning - basically warm milk that had had a teabag dipped in it for a few seconds.

I went through a phase in my early twenties where I had quite a collection of loose leaf teas and used to brew them properly, but fell out of the habit. Tea drinking holds a special place in British culture (according to Wikipedia we have the joint second highest consumption in the world at 2kg per person per year - assuming there are 3g of tea in a teabag, that's roughly 666.666667 odd cups) - but like most things that have become cheaper and more convenient, we have paid it less and less respect. Some of the big main brands are just plain awful; and yet at work I have supped them mindlessly anyway. Sitting down for a cuppa is something that I know my nan did; and my great nan and my great great nan... and that is quite comforting. I doubt I will ever give up the caffeine entirely, but I would like to cut back and start treating it with the respect it deserves.

Every morning now one of us gets up and brews a cafetiere of coffee, which sets us up for the day. We stopped using instant coffee about two years ago as we found most of the instant fairtrade coffees didn't taste that good and were quite expensive. This has actually turned out to be more frugal and healthier for us, because we drink less coffee - one or two cups a day, as opposed to four or five - but what we do drink is better quality. There is something grounding about boiling the water, waiting for the whistle of the kettle, pottering around the kitchen whilst waiting for it to brew, before finally sitting down with a cup to drink. Our tea on the other hand is generally the bagged variety brewed in the mug. The mornings that we choose to have a quick cup of tea don't feel quite so...peaceful.  As a result, the coffee is generally winning out.

Last week I was in the shop where we buy our tea and coffee and they had a display of their fairtrade products. The bagged tea and loose leaf tea were sat next to each other and surprisingly, the shelf labels gave a price per 100g for both products. The loose leaf tea was about ten percent cheaper than the bagged variety - and of course, because it has room to properly unfurl and stew when loose in a pot, you actually need less than is packed into one teabag to brew a decent cup of tea. The loose leaf variety also removes an extra layer of processing and packaging which can only be a good thing, surely?

I have dusted off the teapot and will be buying a box of  loose leaf tea when our current store runs out. Does anyone else use loose leaf tea? Or a teapot? Does it work out cheaper?


Blogger is driving me up the wall at the moment. I have just realized I haven't replied to some comments in the last two months because I haven't been receiving emails about them. I will be checking the Blogger dashboard every few days to try and keep up!

I love hearing from you all, please don't take it personally if I have ignored you!

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Upcycle this

I tend to agree with the statement that most of the best things in life are free. That dish marked 'Free' that comes with your Indian takeaway order, the one that is probably the ends of several different dishes mixed together? Quite often the tastiest one. This is my 'Free' of the month, pulled from the top of a neighbour's rubbish collection:

My friends and I used to derive great pleasure as children from pulling perfectly serviceable items out of the huge walk in skip that was placed near to our house for the Sunday market traders to dispose of their waste. To this day I have no idea why most of it found its way straight into the skip instead of a reduced pile, as this was the early to mid nineties when the majority were struggling economically (oh my how times change!). Amongst the cardboard boxes and rotten fruit we quite often found brand new items of clothing from the clothing stalls, slightly dented trays of juice drinks and even entire boxes of fresh fruits. I found a  plastic laundry basket once that was slightly scuffed - it served as our laundry basket for at least the next 10 years. I was most proud to take that home as the red colour matched our kitchen. For a good few years, we made a good living out of that skip, though our parents were tinged with more than a little shame at our activities.

I am still a Womble at heart and hate seeing perfectly good useful items go to waste. Unfortunately, many people balk at the idea of even donating their unwanted things to charity shops, let alone buying from them. No matter how many magazines and TV programs advocate 'upcycling', vintage living and thrifting - there is still a whole world of difference in many people's minds between those trendy pursuits and being seen to actually take something out of a skip or buy from a charity shop (and I am not suggesting that anyone needs to wade around in rotting garbage here). I haven't actually been criticised or looked at pityingly yet for this particular piece of scavenging, but previous instances loom large in my mind and there are plenty of people I know who wouldn't share my enthusiasm for it.

Shame shouldn't come from making good use of something discarded, something free for the taking - it should come from sending enormous quantities of useful things to landfill and sneering at those that would want to divert those things from the waste stream, whether out of material necessity or just because they hate waste. I live in a street where, luckily, vanity doesn't get in the way of common sense. People commonly leave unwanted items outside of their property for twenty-four hours with a 'free to a good home' notice, before they attempt to dispose of them elsewhere - and other people generally take them.

I suspect that the ongoing economic problems that swathes of the western world are experiencing will humanize us a little. I hope that the quite frankly vile lust for money, bling and superior social status that has been exalted by our culture for the last few decades will give way to a kinder, less wasteful society. A lot more people seem to be  reassessing their needs and just trying to get by - which in turn will lead to a greater respect for thrift and creativity and the conservation of precious resources. I hope, but then, I am a dreamer.

Anyway, two tester pots of paint and a few hours waiting for paint to dry and this is as good as new - and usefully storing all those little things that seem to clutter up surfaces for want of a better home. My year long  decluttering mission is now 'complete' - the rooms are relatively clutter free and now it is just the small task of finding the best place for our remaining possessions. T'is done. 

June harvest

OK - the allotment hasn't been going as well as we planned. By which I mean we haven't been sowing and tending as much as we planned thanks to Nick starting his work placement and me being increasingly tired and ungainly. The hellish end of May didn't help either. Still, a harvest is a harvest no matter how small; and June has been the first month where anything has actually made it back from the plot to our kitchen.

The tally so far, rounded to the nearest 100g -

Broad beans (The Sutton) - 4.5kg in pod, not including the several handfuls of tender young pods that never made it home as they were so nommable straight off the plant.  We eat the beans, the guinea pigs eat the pods. Next year we will devote a whole bed to these and pull a few plants as and when we need space for later legumes, because considering how little attention the 8 plants that took have had, they have cropped prolifically.

Garlic 'Solent Wight' - 2 bulbs so far harvested wet (about 100g). The rest will come up in about a month, if I can resist the lovely sweet bulbs as they stand now.

Courgette 'Black Beauty' - 2.1kg so far excluding one I forgot to weigh. 4 good sized tender courgettes and one heading for marrow-hood. Two of the three plants suddenly rocketed into action in the last fortnight and are thick with developing fruits. I hate courgettes from the shop, but fresh off the plant and sauteed with salt and pepper they are delicious.

Potato volunteer - 800g,  not from the allotment, but from a pot in the back garden. I was going to pull it but instead let it do its thing. We got a lunch out of it (a courgette potato rosti type thing) for absolutely no effort on our part.

TOTAL - 7.5kg. 

The sugar snap peas (Norli) were poorly supported and turned into a tangled ground hugging mass of knots, but The Boy got a few on-plot snacks out of them. They will be replaced by runner beans this weekend. The potatoes are almost ready to be lifted too and most other things seem to to be doing well. The tomatoes are sporting a few fruits. I get quite disheartened when I look at our little plot, it seems as though large swathes of bed are barren or weedy, waiting for stuff to grow and fill up the space. This year is a learning curve - next year will be better. That's my mantra and I am sticking to it.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Preparing for winter part 1 - gimme shelter

Yup, you heard right. The nights are drawing in once again and the days are getting shorter... I should have started preparing days ago : )

Which actually, I did. In one of the weird bursts of energy that punctuate these last few weeks of pregnancy, I finally nailed the replacement draught excluder to the bottom of the front door. I only chose this particular unfinished task of many because The Boy had taken to using said draught excluder as a rather expensive and sharp edged toy sword and I thought it better that it was nailed to the door rather than embedded unproductively (and expensively) into something rather softer - say, a cat. As the tool box was out I also filled a substantial hole underneath the door knocker and replaced the internal letterbox flap. So far, so self-satisfied.

Until I took a step back. The front door, now draught sealed, still comprises two panes of single glazing - and sits under a huge window extending from the top of the door to the ceiling. Draughts are the least of my hallway's worries. A glance around the rest of the house shows just how lax we have been about heat conservation the last few years. We have replaced thick-but-ugly-and-too-big curtains with flimsy-but-pretty ones. The cat flap in the back door blows open at the slightest breeze since our bruiser of a cat decided to crash through it when it was locked and break the mechanism two years ago. There are little cracks and crevices around the window frames that really do need to be sealed. The uninsulated kitchen extension has a concrete floor that you could spray with water and skate on in winter. All of the internal doors in the house have massive gaps underneath them or around them. The old fireplaces are not as amply stuffed with newspaper as they could be.

This is not to say we have been profligate with our space heating, our bills are well below average. What it does mean is that we have allowed the heat to dissipate faster than it needed to and made ourselves more uncomfortable than is really necessary. Both OH and The Boy 'run hot' and I grew up in a freezing cold old house with no central heating, draughts everywhere and no running hot water - I have a high tolerance for discomfort in this area. Except of course, I don't actually have to tolerate the discomfort any longer, I am in a position to do something about it - we just always seemed to have other priorities. This year, a combination of reduced income, energy companies making record profits and still raising their prices; and far too much reading about peak oil and economic turbulence; have inspired me to action.

We have had some genuinely uncharacteristic cold snaps (as you can see above - and yes I know that most of you, especially you North Americans, laugh in the face of such a light dusting). Late last year the country was brought to its knees by unseasonably cold weather and snow that persisted in some parts for months. I live on the south coast and in previous years, thanks to the Gulf Stream, have been able to venture to the corner shop on a December evening in a T-shirt without feeling too much discomfort. Besides, I know from experience that when we move to Norfolk, winter weather will be less clement, so I might as well get some practice in with the insulating and conserving.

We are lucky on several fronts- we have double glazing and there is loft insulation in the main part of the house. The carpets are underlaid. We rent, so the changes we can make are fairly superficial. Now is the perfect time to begin, not least because the costs of projects like this tend to increase with the urgency of completing them. A five month head start is good enough to get something done.

So, in the next five months I need to:
  • Line or replace existing flimsy curtains, or install window quilts throughout the house. This will also help with the light pollution - and would actually be useful now in keeping the house cool during this mini heatwave we are experiencing.
  • Install curtains or quilts at the front door and window - these must be removable in the day to allow daylight into what is a dingy passageway and living space.
  • Install a magnet operated cat flap that will stay closed.
  • Make draught excluders for the front door and for the door leading from the kitchen to the living room.The kitchen, with its lack of insulation and heating, is always going to be a weak link, so cutting it off at night seems like the best option. 
  • Do a feather test and replace missing sealant around the window frames.
  • Find a hard wearing washable rug for the kitchen floor.
  • Pack the old fire places tightly with newspaper to stop draughts and convection currents - and try to make peace with the fact that the hollow chimney breasts are funneling heat straight from the walls and  out of the house anyway. Sigh. 
I think that I need to acquire a sewing machine. I think I should have started two years ago. I think that one day I will learn important lessons about not putting off till tomorrow what you could do today. One day.

Anyway, some useful resources I have stumbled upon in my quest for inspiration:
Preparing for Winter I and  Preparing for Winter II  forum threads over at Money saving Expert. Very long and chatty, but some good lists of things to do to prepare and lots of resources relevant particularly to the UK.

Draught proofing  information from The Energy Saving Trust

Make Window Quilts with these instructions from Many Tracks.

How to make a draught excluder from the Guardian of all places.

The Integral Urban House - worth borrowing from the library, this American 'Appropriate Technology' book explains in simple terms how heat moves and is lost in buildings and some ways to deal with it. Also lots of information about growing food, composting, rainwater harvesting and related self reliance topics.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Simple sewing

I am no sewer - sewist - seamstress? - what name do you talented people that turn yards of flat fabric into useful objects go by? I have failed many a time when I picked up a needle and thread - catastrophically so if it involved a sewing machine too - and so have not generally bothered, apart from to affix the odd button. You may remember that I gave away most of the vast aspirational stash of notions that I had accrued over the years, when it finally sunk in that I would probably not be picking up needle and thread for a very long time, if ever again.

Well, times are a'changing again. I wrote over at The Co-op of my desire to be a better stitcher. Being able to cut and sew 'waste' fabric together is one frugal and green skill that is worth its weight in gold. I think this might also be a case of pregnancy hormones affecting my brain again - I keep seeing pretty sundresses and hats everywhere and thinking (probably somewhat over-optimistically) 'I could make that...'.

Patchwork has always appealed to me precisely because it was traditionally all about creating useful items from meagre scraps at a time when fabric was expensive and waste wasn't seen as beneficial to the economy. In more recent years it has been turned into an art form - fabric being bought, cut and patched together to to fulfill a preconceived design. The results are usually beautiful, but it is the roots of the craft that appeal to me, rather than the potential for artistic greatness. So as not to ruin my chances of successfully completing something, I am starting out really simply with a stack of old jeans. Really simply:

1) Wash the jeans and cut along the seams so that you have nice flat long swathes of fabric to use - the legs. Iron said swathes.

2) Cut out a square template of the desired size from an empty cereal box and reinforce the edges with sellotape. Be happy that your Other-Half has taken to eating prepacked sugared-cardboard breakfast cereal again instead of nice wholesome-but-minimally-packaged oats.

3) Lay the template on to the fabric, lining up the edge of the square with the grain of the fabric as best as you can, avoiding the worst of the tears, paint and mud stains. Draw around the template using one of your child's (sharpened) colouring pencils in a nice contrasting visible colour.

4) Cut out the square leaving a 5mm seam allowance around the edge.

 5) Place two squares, right (unmarked) sides facing each other, and pin together at the corners, ensuring that the pin passes through the marked corner points of both squares to align them. Add a pin in the middle of the line for good luck, again ensuring that it passes through both marked sewing lines. Sew together along the pencil line with a crude running stitch which will improve with each attempt.

6) Repeat with a third square along opposite edge to form strips of patches 3 squares in length.

7) Iron  the strips so that the seam allowances lie flat all in the same direction. Stand back and be impressed they are even vaguely straight.

8) Pin the strips together in the same manner as for individual squares, ensuring the corners and marked lines match up. Sew the strips together into blocks and iron once again.

9) Stand back and be disproportionately proud of your slightly lumpy skewiff handiwork.

10) Work out what use you are going to put them to. I am thinking a rugged picnic blanket eventually, perhaps with some embroidered motifs, though I will need a lot more denim than the four pairs of jeans I have gathered. This could be a WIP for several years.

So far I have four blocks and have been too busy to cut any more patches this week. I think I will cut all of the fabric in one go so I have patches on hand in my spare moments. I have realized just how much I like denim - the faded, nubby surface of worn denim is quite beautiful, yet it doesn't appear anywhere in our house bar the wardrobe. It still has years of life left in it, albeit in a new form. The squares actually only take a few minutes to pin and sew each, much much quicker than I was expecting - and even when I made a mistake, each length is so short, it wasn't too much of a chore to unpick and resew. The strips can be stacked up and ironed in batches when the mood strikes. In short, a perfect pick up and put down project, which is good as my crafting time is about to get even shorter and fragmented.

So, what are you all working on at the moment? Feel free to leave a link if you have blogged about it - I enjoy being nosy looking for inspiration : )

Thursday, 16 June 2011


I am three weeks from my due date and mental and physical energy really is escaping me now. I have to confess I haven't done much of anything this last week. I have pottered about, I have tried to keep on top of all the things that need to be done - but mostly I have done an awful lot of lazing around. The nesting instinct is still strong and housework is getting done in short bursts of activity. Walking anywhere seems to take three times as long and sap my strength 3 times as fast.  Mostly I don't feel much like leaving home, or the sofa for that matter.

I have taken the chance to socialize a little the last few weeks, forcing myself even, when necessary. I regret that in the past I have been reluctant to socialize regularly, partly out of shyness, partly laziness, partly that my house was too messy to have people round - even close friends. A barbecue, a few evenings with friends, a visit to the local community arts cafe today, even dinner out with Nick - a once a year occurrence these days - have all been enjoyed, even if they have left me shattered. New babies don't leave much time, will or energy over for socializing, so we might as well make the most of it whilst we can. I am naturally a bit of a homebody, but once I am out of the house and amongst good company I am as happy as the next person - something I will miss out on perhaps for the rest of the summer.

One of my focuses for the next year will be to become more involved with my local community. I am quite reserved and find it hard to just turn up to things where there are big groups of people, but it would be good for me to involve myself a little more. We have good friends, we know a few of our neighbours, but I can't describe us as being embedded in a community. I am yet to take The Boy to any form of structured toddler group and know very few people with children locally - and as a result have probably made this parenting lark a lot harder for myself than I needed to. Now I want to go out and make connections with people and better late than never.

On Saturday we went to a healthy living picnic event at a local park. Considering my lack of energy I surpassed myself and we took along a bean salad, vegetable sticks, sweet potato wedges with homemade smoked paprika mayonnaise, homemade bread and some fruit and ate a leisurely picnic amongst all the other families, surrounded by trees, healthy living stalls and children tearing about in sack races, making the most of all the sunshine. The Boy had his first go on a bouncy castle; a terrifying ten minutes for me; thankfully he just giggled every time he came close to being flattened by the overly energetic seven year olds sharing it with him.

This week has been a good one, for which I am very grateful.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Well that's annoying

To put it mildly. I did write and publish a post yesterday, which published as if I had finished it in May (when I first started it). Then it disappeared - completely, not even a saved draft. It was definitely there yesterday. I liked the new Blogger interface, right up until this morning when I realized what it could do in my absence.

I hold out hope that it will reappear, in the meantime I will write something else. Teach me not to back up my posts offline.

Friday, 3 June 2011

That was the fortnight that was

I am a person that doesn't relish drama. I know lots of people do, many of whom would deny it to the hilt; but drama - emotional, financial or social - really doesn't do it for me. I go out of my way to avoid it. This has been a fortnight full of dramas, hence my absence here - I really didn't realise it had been so long. Good stuff has also been happening, I just haven't had the enthusiasm or energy to report on it what with all the annoying distractions.

The dramas are mostly dealt with and things are looking bright, so hopefully I will back here in a few days with a little more energy and more interesting stuff to report.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011


As in metaphorical carrots - and sticks. Delicious orange crunchy carrots are also good and we should talk about them someday - but today I want to talk about metaphorical carrots.

Sticks are all well and good. The big stick in our case was a fear that we wouldn't be able to provide for our baby son during what we thought would be hard times, labouring as we were under a pile of debt. As a result we began to budget, live a lot more frugally and organized our finances to pay off the debt as quickly and cheaply as possible. In time it was possible to re frame that initial impetus into something resembling a carrot - living within our means has bought us a much more interesting, productive life in many ways. Home cooked food, brewing, DIY, thrifting, handicrafts, gardening and the knowledge that there is cash left in our accounts come the week before payday all make for a much more satisfying life than one lived on the never-never. The fruits of our labours became goals in themselves. We had made the transition from living frugally out of sheer necessity, to making it an enjoyable way to live.

The initial motivating  fear remains and resurfaces every so often - when we have overstretched ourselves, or forgotten a bill payment was due, or know we have to find money for a big purchase. It rises irrationally when we still have money to spare but can't afford to make an overpayment on debt - a completely irrational fear for someone who two years ago didn't even have a budget for debt overpayment, or anything else for that matter. Still, I tend to go a little berserk at these times and start devising ways that we can live on stale bread crusts and sell our remaining possessions to make ends meet, until someone (usually the person having their ear bent at the time) lends me a little perspective on matters.

Since we decided on a vague plan of action for the future that I could feel enthusiastic about - moving to Norfolk - the carrots have multiplied. I have had to rewrite the budget this week having missed out a glaringly obvious expense on the original; and my first reaction was not fear of financial doom, or recourse to my stale crust recipe collection, but sheer annoyance that we would have less money to put aside towards our move in a few years. Then came the fear of doom, but that was fleeting and besides the point. Now that I have a long term goal to work towards, an alternative to just plodding on as I am forever, I have a renewed enthusiasm for all things frugal.

This has been a week of tracking all of our spending down to the last penny. We have baked and eaten bread almost every day with gusto, soaked pulses and dug out half used packets from the back of the cupboard for frugal meals, religiously switched off appliances at the wall and I have earmarked large swathes of my remaining craft stash for various money saving baby projects for The Girl (even going so far as to break out needle and thread once again, which is never my natural inclination). Every little money saving action feels like a gallop in the right direction; and I am making the most of it whilst my energy levels and enthusiasm hold up. At the same time, I have to remind myself not to go to far with the all austerity - the goal is to get to Norfolk in five years and continue to live a good life in a new setting with new activities, not to put off living until we get there.

So, I would be interested to know, what motivates you to live frugally and manage your resources - carrots, sticks or something in between? Do you ever take it too far?

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Frugal fun

I have had a week off from work, which for once coincided with family visiting - which in turn, for once, coincided with another week of fine weather. Usually we end up spending a small fortune when we visit people or they visit us, possibly because we feel like kill joys if we say no. A steady stream of eating out, coffee and cake, small gifts and visiting various attractions that are usually less entertaining than the blurb suggests gradually eats away at our budget and leaves us short for the rest of the month. This was not a month however for overspending our budget and we explained the situation with as positive a spin as we could.

Sometimes (funnily enough, usually always coinciding with time away from my paid employment) I manage to get my act together, make a plan and stick to it. A few hours work resulted in our contribution to a delicious and frugal picnic lunch, all made from scratch (mayonnaise and all, including the first salad pickings from the garden). In a word, I am...smug.

We ate the picnic lunch in the garden of the holiday cottage and then paddled in the sea at a lovely sandy beach in Sussex. We tried to engage toddlers in a sandcastle building project that was blatantly more fun for us adults than it was for them. We went to the woods for a barbeque that didn't get rained off.  We have spent a fair amount of time driving around beautiful countryside, just as the hedgerows are in full bloom and the spring babies are out in the fields. We had cream tea in a quaint little tearoom followed by (slightly wistful)  window shopping around an equally quaint town.

In short, I have spent more time gadding about in nature than I normally would being city bound - and I realize I need to make an effort to get out more to green leafy places. I have eaten more strawberries and whipped cream in one week than I normally do in a whole year. All very frugal, all very relaxed, all great fun; which is just how I remember my childhood holidays to be.

What frugal fun have you had this week?

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

It rained

I feel I can actually take full credit for the heavens opening up. On Friday I decided to felt the jumper and coat I had been debating the fate of for months. Apparently no offering to the rain gods  is quite as effective as putting heavy felted wool garments on the line to dry - that night it poured. I should say no offering except of course the smell of charred meat, because the barbecue I was due to attend on Saturday also ended in a washout. An hour before I was due to leave work to go to said shindig, the heavens opened and tropical amounts of rain fell. I aquaplaned in flip flops across the courtyard to the car and we crawled straight back home through standing water.

I am not complaining at all (granted, pulled pork and homemade burgers would have been a lovely end to my working day) - the lack of rain over the last few weeks has been worrisome, a sign of things to come perhaps? The rains will bring relief to those who have been battling wild fires across the country and to those farmers who have had to irrigate early. On a personal note, I have loved lying in bed listening to the thunder and waiting for the odd flash of lightning, knowing that the allotment isn't wilting without my attention. It is interesting that I grew up in one of the driest counties in the country - and am now intending to go back there - and yet a few weeks without rain now makes me distinctly uneasy.

Everything in the garden looks green and perky too. My efforts with a watering can during the dry spell just weren't good enough; and what was really needed was a sustained thorough soaking over a few days. The honeysuckle is finally budding (after three years of waiting), very happy in its new pot against the south facing wall. The salad has rocketed over the last few days and is ready to be picked. The herb bed has really taken off this year too - including the tarragon, which I had assumed had been lost to the snow and ice last winter, that finally poked its head through the soil this week. The water butt has had a chance to recoup its losses from the last few weeks, in preparation for what could be a long hot summer - or a complete washout (this is Britain after all) - but its best to be prepared.

Friday, 6 May 2011


I finally bottled the 3 gallons of rhubarb wine that have been calling out for my attention for the past three months - I am a starter of projects, not necessarily a finisher. Once I had begun, of course, it wasn't so bad. I think it's the washing and sterilizing of the bottles that I usually find so tedious, though I now do them in small batches, standing them upright in a large brewing bucket of sterilizing solution, which makes the job much easier (and uses less water) than when I used to fill the bathtub, desperately trying to remove all of the trapped air bubbles.

After that is done, the sound of wine swooshing through a siphon and swirling into bottles is very soothing, as is the squeaky pop the cork makes as it slides into position  (once you overcome the sense of impending doom that quite rightfully accompanies leaning all of your weight onto a fragile glass bottle neck, of course).

The whole process is almost as soothing, in fact, as the sound of wine glugging out of bottles into glasses - but that will be a few months yet. In the meantime 'Rhubarb 2011' no longer needs my attention. What to ferment next?

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Where to go, what to do, who to be? A goal

In so many ways I have reached a level of contentment in my life that I didn't think was possible given the direction I took. Aged 25, still living in the UK, with a 'husband' (for want of a better word - though as yet no contracts have been signed or expensive receptions thrown), a toddler and another child on the way, working  part time in a job that really is just a job, on a relatively low income, no prestige, no glory. Not the conditions for contentment - a career, adventure, international travel, lots of money, passionate love affairs (and quite probably eventual infamy, 'cause I am that sort of girl) - I predicted as a teenager. I used to change my mind a lot about where, who and what I wanted to be - which might explain why I have arrived so far from any of my visions, such was the meandering path I took. All in all I have ended up in a good place. I know enough about myself to make where I am a comfortable place to be, whilst at the same time being able to see where things could be made so much better.

This state of contentment has crept up on me over the last year, sometime after I quit the misery inducing navel gazing and stressing about what I should be doing with my life and just got on with actually living it. I started writing this blog to motivate me and to record my progress - which it did - and we got on with the business of decluttering our lives. We have paid off thousands of pounds worth of debt. I have given up a few hobbies that no longer fulfilled me and replaced them with activities that do. Our house is mostly decluttered and vaguely tidy on 3 out of every 7 days. Progress indeed, but the biggest changes were internal - ridding my mind of the chatter that caused me to stumble at every turn was harder work. Even then, giving up giving a crap what other people thought (or even what I thought they thought) was the easy part as it turned out - I can take the most snide criticism these days and still usually enjoy the rest of my day. But letting go of all of the conflicting visions that I have held for myself over the years is a lot harder, which might explain why I had such a seemingly irrational attachment to that desk.

Yesterday we made the decision that our goal for the next five years would be to move to the county of my childhood, Norfolk, and try to build a good life.  The details will be thrashed out in the next few years but it is exciting to have a direction to strike out in finally, a new reason to be living the way we do. We have discussed at length over the years where we should go when we are done with Portsmouth - home or abroad, city, town or country - an almost infinite range of exciting possibilities - and the end result of years of deliberation is that I will be returning to my roots.

Norfolk is one of the most beautiful places in the UK, has a great climate and offers us a range of options as to small city/town/village/hovel living, all of which would allow us to lead a wonderful, simple, outdoorsy lifestyle if we design it right. Going home makes a lot of sense, but up until now I wasn't able to admit it. When I left, I had no real thoughts of ever returning, fond as I was of the place. I went away, failed at everything I set out to do and eventually came to make my peace with that. All of the visions that no longer fit have been let go of and returning to my roots doesn't feel so much a failure, but an opportunity to create something new and exciting. Today is a good day.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Letting go and making do

I have always been a sucker for stationery. My favorite time of year was always September - the start of the new school year, the time of fresh exercise books, brand new pencil sets and tins - in essence, a chance to turn over a new leaf. I have a truly deep attachment to writing papers and implements and objects that aspire to 'organize' stuff - files, labels, highlighter pens and journals. Long after I left university, the obsession with fresh notepads and office notions continued, to the extent that you could probably run Whitehall from my dining room, so well stocked is it for bureaucracy.

I estimate that we have got rid of around one third of our possessions since late last summer, which is when the decluttering began in earnest. We have made a fair number of journeys to car boot sales, the recycling centre, charity shops and friends houses with stuff that we no longer needed. Things that I never thought I would let go of - books, craft equipment, personal mementos - have gone without a pang of regret. Today was the day to purge the 'office' - the scattered corners of the dining room that host the computer, books and stationery. The purge that I thought I would struggle with more than any other.

The first item on the agenda:

I bought this old teacher's desk for a song a few years back and spent two days stripping it of horrible yellowed varnish. I sanded and oiled; and I thought that it would be my forever desk. It fitted perfectly in our flat. I had plans to eventually re-oil or paint it and line the drawers with brightly coloured paper. I had plans that the top of it would always be uncluttered, bar some beautiful items of stationery. I had plans that great things would be written from this desk- university assignments, journal entries, letters, perhaps one day a blog.

Fast forward a year or two and we had moved into a small terraced house. The forever desk has sat awkwardly in a corner of the dining room, at right angles to an alcove it is infuriatingly millimeters too big to fit in to, a tangle of cables trailing across the top and down the sides (and across the dining room for that matter), the drawers barely opening before they hit a wall. The only thing to be written from this desk, apart from this blog, was the occasional bill payment. All of this of course was a recipe for clutter, frustration and down right ugliness, not to mention backache as our dining chairs were too short for the height of the desk.

Enter this much despised oak dining table:

I have hated this table with unswerving passion since the day we inherited it from family, but it was only last year that we felt we could let it go - though luckily it never made it from the garage to the car boot sale. It didn't fit anywhere in any room and wherever it was, it was too tempting a spot for dumping clutter on. Today it came back from the garage to temporarily serve as a desk. Because it sits in another alcove, right next to the Internet connection and plug sockets, there are no wires across the desk or floor. The flap comes out for extra work room and folds back down. Our dining chairs are the right height to use at the desk without crippling us. I love having a desk next to the window instead of a dingy corner. I don't despise this table any more. This table rocks. This table is in fact my new forever desk.

The lack of storage underneath the new desk is not a problem. My new improved stationery store is one third the size it was this morning. I no longer feel the need to keep 3 boxes of paper clips, 2 pads of graph paper, a second hole punch, a tub of drawing pins (we don't even have a noticeboard), a wad of report files, 3 set squares or 3 different 50 packs of envelopes - amongst many other things. I know I don't need these things, because I haven't needed them since the day two years ago they were stuffed into the old desk's unopenable drawers never to be retrieved until today. My new stationery store is a small shelf in a sideboard, cut down to size with a little bit of everything that we might need to run a household, not a government. The worst part of the decluttering is done and it really wasn't so bad.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Running to seed

Bar a single half hour long 'shower' where the sky acquiesced and misted a few drops of rain down on those gardeners below carefully tending seedlings, the last three weeks have been dry. Dry - and baking hot (for the UK) - and oh so glorious. The weather held even for the bank holiday weekend, traditionally a good enough time as any for the sun to lose its nerve and retreat behind dark heavy clouds not to be seen again until June. It looks like the good weather may well continue through this weekend's festivities too.

The perpetual spinach that has served us through two winters has finally bolted, just in time for the chillies to take its place. I am truly grateful for all this plant has done. It germinated readily here even in November (way too late according to the packet) and it continued to produce servings of green leaves (even when cut right back to its base) whenever I needed something 'green' to go with dinner. The rainbow chard will no doubt be following suit fairly soon, another vegetable that has performed beyond anything I expected. We will definitely be resowing these again this year and in far greater quantities.

The lamb's lettuce that I planted last year receives a less than glowing report. It was slow to germinate, slower to grow - even when it was in full swing, the compact rosettes of small leaves couldn't be described as prolific. I think that I used a handful of leaves in a salad once; and that was that. It too has given up in the sweltering heat; and not before its time. If I can say nothing else good about it, I can say that its profusion of the tiniest white flowers were a delight to find today. But unless we acquire significant acreage any time soon, it probably won't be making an appearance on our seed list again.

Meanwhile everything else is blooming here, even yours truly, who usually wilts in warm weather such as this. Hope you are all enjoying good weather too, whatever that means to you.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

A new budget

Maternity leave is rapidly approaching; July is shaping up to be the last month I will receive my full salary. Our joint income is due to shrink by slightly over one fifth - incidentally, the amount that we have begun to put aside in savings. The aim is to continue to put money aside each month, though I doubt we will be able to afford such a proportion. Depleting our meager savings over a relatively trivial reduction in income is not something I want to contemplate in Austerity Britain 2011, at the very least I want to be living comfortably within our monthly earnings. Needless to say, I have had a few sleepless nights worrying about our finances.

The first step to calming financial jitters is to sit down with a pen and paper and rationally assess the situation. So yesterday we sat down to go over our budget. There are two versions, one for the four paydays up to the end of July; and one for the following nine months when our income will be reduced. Every non-discretionary expenditure is listed - rent, council tax, utilities, contract repayments - and the monthly payments tallied. Where payments are annual (for example our water supply bill) the figure is divided by 12 and highlighted - this is an amount that needs to be put into savings ready to pay the bill when it finally arrives. We have got out of the habit of saving monthly for these one off expenses and have suffered a few uncomfortably lean months as a result of large bills arriving.

The next section of the budget is discretionary spending. Some essentials, such as food, are included here, because there is a great deal of flexibility in how much we can spend. The food section is broken down further - there is the monthly expenditure for fresh goods; and as we plan to return to bulk shopping, a store cupboard fund, which is put aside ready to do a bulk shop every few months. Fuel and transport costs are now part of our discretionary spending - though we will budget for a tank of fuel a month - as neither of us will need to make regular 'essential' journeys once I have finished work. Many of the items on the lists will take the form of monthly savings set aside to be dipped into as needed throughout the year - payments to a holiday/fun fund, gifts, clothing, household and gardening expenses.

We will keep a copy of the budget on the wall above the computer. Last time I got creative with colouring pens and star stickers - anything to make sobering financial restrictions more appealing to look at. It makes a big difference to keep the budget prominent, as opposed to tucked away in a notebook, as it is the cornerstone of financial (and therefore household) well being. Last time we placed our debt repayment tally next to it - ticking off payments as we made them was very satisfying; and we could directly relate that to the effectiveness of our budget. Anything that motivates you to keep to your budget, whether that be a picture of your one-day desert island retreat, or a decreasing mortgage balance sheet, will have the same effect.

Now the budget is in place, we have to decide how to organize the practicalities of it. We plan to set up standing orders to our savings accounts for both our long term savings and irregular expenses, to go out at the beginning of the month. We will continue to use direct debits for our regular monthly payments. For all day to day expenditure except fuel, we will use an envelope/jar system and pay cash (if I am feeling particularly virtuous, or time rich, I will make some hard wearing, beautiful pouches such as these ones over at the Co-op). The bulk shop, which is usually done online, will be paid via debit card, as will fuel. Any small change left over from the envelopes will be put into our change jar and eventually paid into our savings accounts.

Just having written it all down has calmed my jitters and made me realize we are not screwed, as I had previously thought. Any tips would be very much appreciated by the way, especially if anyone has experience using the envelope system. It all sounds so simple on paper, but no doubt there will be a few false starts over the next few months. A plan, combined with a continuing quest to trim down budgeted for expenses in any way possible, makes us a little more resilient to whatever life, or a new baby human, can throw our way.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Lazy crochet day

Today I woke up with absolutely no get up and go. I completed a handful of chores, but mostly I lazed around, a lot. I had a days leave booked, which I normally spend doing the same old household stuff that I do most days, so I didn't feel particularly guilty this afternoon about lazing in bed with my newest crochet project, a bag. I fell asleep after an hour, but progress is progress. That is indeed a pile of laundry you can see waiting patiently at the end of the bed for my attention. It's still waiting now.

The pattern is loosely based upon a pattern in Susie John's Crochet for Beginners, but I have changed the yarn, dimensions, added a buttoned flap so that it can be closed; and will also probably add a lining. I am no embroiderer, so the embellishment will be different too. So far I love it. It's worked in Tunisian simple stitch on a Tunisian hook (a 35cm long crochet hook with a stopper at the end); working back and forth without turning the work. On every other row, you end up with a whole hook full of stitches, which you then work off the needle, before picking them up again on the next row.

The only complaint I have about regular crochet is that the fabrics produced tends to veer towards lacy and open, or dense and heavy, seemingly with no happy medium. This technique seems to change all of that. It has often been described as 'like knitting, but with a hook', which I naturally resent as someone with knit related trauma issues - this is very much a crochet technique. I will however get down from my precariously high amigurumi horse to recommend this technique to knitters that struggle with the 'loopiness' of crochet - and obviously to crocheters who want to learn a new skill. The fabric is drapier than double crochet, but not in the least lacy or 'holey' - although their are hundreds of stitches to learn including some open work and mesh.

Last year I promised myself I would not buy any more craft materials until I had worked through my stash. My excuse is that the recipient of this bag wanted a purple bag; and I didn't have any purple. Still, it does mean I have found a new natural fibre yarn - King Cole Bamboo Cotton - for when I do need to restock. This comes in very economical 230m balls, excellent value for a bamboo based yarn. It is soft with a lovely sheen, though it is loosely plied and liable to split if you aren't paying attention. I also had to buy the needles - I bought a set from Purple Linda Crafts (no affiliation, this just happens to be one of the only shops on the web to concentrate primarily on crochet - hence it is one of the only places you can buy Tunisian hooks for a reasonable price - and in shiny brightly coloured metallics no less).

If you want to have a go, I used the instructions in Jan Eaton's Encyclopedia of Crochet Techniques, a well explained and illustrated reference book to have in your library. There is a good clear video on Youtube, but unfortunately a Google search seems to throw up a minefield of confusing or poorly illustrated written instructions. If you do want to have a go, a normal round crochet hook (a size larger than you would normally use for your yarn) with a ball of Blu-Tack stuck on the end will allow you to practice a short width (about 8-10 stitches) before you decide to splash any cash on hooks.

Two posts in two days, internet connection and brain holding up well. I should take siestas more often.


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