Thursday, August 31, 2006

Quilt Show - day 2

This is a proper patchwork top - all made from reused fabrics. No £12/yard fabric here. My mum made it before I was born. Appropriately enough it is made using what is called "English piecing over papers", where you cut templates (in this case hexagons) from paper, tack the fabric pieces over the papers and then sew the hexagons together before undoing the tacking and removing the papers.

Mum taught me how to make patchwork this way when I was a child. When I began doing what might be termed "American patchwork" without papers she was fascinated - she hadn't known there was any other way of doing patchwork.

I treasure this top (it's not a quilt because it doesn't contain three layers - a top, a batt and a back - held together with stitches), because it's older than I am, because it was made by mum when she was a lot younger than I am now, and because it contains some really ugly fabric, even though it is rather a lovely top.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Quilt show

Living a sustainable lifestyle involves acquiring some new skills, and also applying old skills in new ways. One skill I already have is patchwork and quilting. The American pioneers made patchwork tops from old scraps of clothing and furnishing fabrics, even feedsacks, and used them to sandwich old worn blankets to make them last longer.

Nowadays patchwork and quilting is an expensive hobby, involving £12/yard specially printed cotton fabric and nearly as costly batting, thread, and special sewing machines. It's my most expensive vice.

I made the two quilts pictured here for a cousin who was expecting twins. Sadly, she miscarried the babies. One of the reasons I made the quilts for her was as a thank you to her mother, my aunt. My aunt made lots of beautiful knitted babyclothes when I had Thomas. She's a very talented knitter and needlepoint embroiderer, and I hoped to show my appreciation of her skill and her generosity by making a hand-made gift for her first grandchildren.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Washing day

I used to just fling all the laundry in the tumble drier, no matter if there was a lot or a little, even if it was sunny or breezy outside. I never ever dried on the line. I didn't even have a line. As soon as I started thinking about living more sustainably, cutting down on the tumble drier was a high priority.

But let's face it, not every day is a good drying day. June and July were beautifully dry and sunny, but August has been a bit of a wash-out. So I went shopping for an indoor washing line that wouldn't be an eyesore when not in use. We used to have one a bit like this, but it had got tangled and snapped so we threw it out when we redecorated. However I couldn't find one anywhere, so I decided to rig one up myself with a few wall hooks, an eyelet, a cleat-hook and some clothes line. It takes a full load of washing and dries it overnight whatever the weather. And when I don't need it, I can wind up the line so all you see is a row of hooks screwed into the wall.

I've got an A-rated (i.e. energy efficient) tumble drier, but I'm going to see if I can get by without using it much. That should cut my electricity bill, and of course do my bit to reduce global warming (not to mention sweater-shrinkage).

Click on the cartoon to enlarge it if you can't read the text. If I make it any bigger it messes up the sidebar.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Cold frame

Today is our 13th wedding anniversary. Traditionally one gives lace, but we agreed on our own rules for gifts this year, in keeping with our goals of self-sufficient living.

  • Maximum spend of £20
  • Gifts to be second-hand, recycled, or hand-made
  • Gifts to be thoughtful, personal and appropriate

I gave Ed some second-hand books I bought on eBay, by one of his favourite authors. He made me a cold frame out of recycled materials, for the allotment.

I am delighted with it and couldn't wait to find the right spot for it. I'll soon be filling it up with seedlings of winter veg, like winter cabbage. Already the weather is cold enough that little seedlings will benefit from the shelter.

I love my hand-made, recycled, thoughtful cold frame. Much better than any silly old lace knickers.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Steph's gone

As usual, we had a great time whilst my sister, Steph, and her two children were here. We were having so much fun I didn't get around to describing our visits to Alton Towers (probably Britain's biggest theme park in the grounds of a stately home), the Chestnut Centre (a Derbyshire wildlife centre with otters, owls, pine martens, deer and other species), the allotment, or the local outlet that might buy some recycled cushion covers from me which could turn out to be a nice sideline.

She's gone home now, and Ed's holiday is almost over. But tomorrow is a Bank Holiday in the UK so he has one more day off work, and it's also our 13th wedding anniversary. This year we have agreed some rules for anniversary gifts - they have to cost less than £20, and they have to be second-hand, recycled or hand-made. I've got him some Raymond E. Feist books from eBay because he's reading his way through Feist's complete works the moment. I don't know what he's got for me but I've been banned from the garage all day and there have been sounds of sawing, drilling and hammering coming out of there, and when Ed came out for his lunch his hands were covered in what looked like wood preservative. Hmmm.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Cash crop

I sold some of my produce today, for the first time. A little while ago, the farm shop offered to buy any surplus fruit and veg off me, and today I took in three huge yellow marrows and the grocer gave me £2 for them. Now I'm a market gardener, instead of a subsistence farmer!

To celebrate, we all went to the Poynton Show, the largest agricultural show in the North West. We usually go every year and it's always great fun. Last year we missed it because we were at Disneyland Paris, which you'd think trumps the local agricultural show by quite a wide margin, but the kids were upset when they realised they were missing the Poynton Show.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Steph's here

My sister, Steph (who sometimes leaves comments here), came to visit for a few days. It's always fun when she comes, especially when she brings her two children TJ and Rebecca. We usually do something creative together. Today we made a big batch of chutney. Then after dinner we took all the kids to the park at the end of our road to pick blackberries and sloes.

It's 9 o'clock at night now, and the kids are theoretically in bed. They seem to be making quite a lot of noise up there though. We're just ignoring them. The chutney is still simmering, and Steph is strumming her guitar whilst I type this blog entry. There's a glass of red wine waiting for me when I'm done. The good life? I'm living it.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Bakin' a train, high on cocaine

Part of adopting a more self-sufficient lifestyle has involved considering what I am throwing out, and what I am buying in. For example, every now and then I used to buy a pack of sandwich bags for lunchboxes, freezing food, crafts and other uses. At the same time I used to throw out dozens of plastic bags a month - bread bags, the inners from packs of cereal, bags that fruit and veg had come in. When you stop and think about it, it's crazy. So now I have a cupboard stuffed full of assorted plastic bags waiting to be reused.

On the other hand, you can't hoard everything forever or your house would become unliveable-in, so you have to throw some stuff away. Or better still, give it away to someone who wants it. That's why I subscribe to freecycle, a free mailing list that puts people with stuff they don't need in touch with people who want the stuff the other people don't need.

It's one of those wonderful win-win things that give you a warm fuzzy feeling inside. On the one hand, someone came and took away my old chest of drawers for nothing, to go and be loved and used by someone else. And on the other hand I have collected some things I needed, like a huge chest freezer, or a vacuum cleaner, from people who didn't want them any more.

In the last few days I picked up a 3-dimensional train-shaped cake tin
and a large array of Grateful Dead cassettes. Now I suppose I need to find some stuff to give away, in order to rebalance the cosmic karma. Or just to stop myself from being crushed by my own clutter.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Kettle campaign

I'm really pleased by how many people have voted in my challenge to only boil as much water as they need in their kettles. I've been trying to do this all this month, and I've noticed as a side benefit that the herbs on my kitchen windowledge are looking healthier. If I accidentally put too much water in, I pour it over the plants.

I've been looking up some facts about the benefits of not filling the kettle each time you boil it. In a speech by the Rt Hon David Miliband MP at the National School of Governance conference, Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, London - "Public services and public goods: lessons for reform" - 6 June 2006 he said:

"If everyone boiled only the water they needed to make a cup of tea instead of filling up the kettle every time, we could save enough electricity in a year to run more than three quarters of the street lighting in the country."

And a press release from the Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) said:

"Each time we boil the kettle we use more water than we need, we also waste valuable energy and contribute to climate change. On average, we could all save 90 seconds each time we boil a kettle - by putting in only the amount of water we need. Such a simple action would also cut household electricity bills -
overfilling each time we boil wastes enough energy in a week to light our house for a day or run a TV set for 26 hours."

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Hats off

We explored the attractions of Stockport today. You might think that Stockport doesn't offer much in the way of tourist attractions but you'd be surprised. First off we went to the Hat Museum. I must admit that a museum about hats didn't sound awfully promising, but it was really good. As well as the expected glass cases full of hats, information about hat making and hat history there were also lots of hands-on things, such as hats to try on, hats to make, there was a diorama of the Mad Hatter's Tea Party from Alice in Wonderland with empty seats to sit in and have your photo taken, and a yurt you could go inside (not sure why there was a yurt in a hat museum, but hey). We were also given a quiz to complete as we went round, and won a little prize at the end for finishing it. The museum was also free, so if you're in the area I do recommend it.

After that we had a look at the Air Raid Shelters. It cost £15 for us all to get and frankly I found less of interest to the family there than at the Hat Works. On the other hand I can see it must have cost a lot to fit them out as much as they have, with benches and bunk beds, toilets, nurses station and all the rest. They're probably half-way there to making it worth the entry fee. But perhaps I'm jaundiced because the kids got bored and started kicking off which isn't really the fault of the museum. It would have been better if they'd had a few more things like the Hat Museum - photo opportunities and things you can actually touch and try out. Sam really wanted to try the toilet for a start!

We never even got round to Staircase House or the art gallery, so we haven't exhausted the cultural attractions of Stockport yet. Which is pretty impressive, when you come to think of it.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Self sufficient - ish

The lovely Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in River Cottage Cookbook writes:

"Each household or family unit operates somewhere on a 'food acquisition
continuum' (a phrase I've just invented) from, at one end (the far right if you
like), total dependence on the industrial food retailers to, at the other (far
left) end, total self-sufficiency."

The point of this blog is to describe our journey from somewhere near the far-right of this continuum to somewhere closer to the left. Earlier this year we got an allotment and started producing some of our own fruit and vegetables. Later we got two chickens and now have daily home-produced free-range eggs. More recently we have been picking wild fruit in the hedgerows near our house.

But we're still a long way off being self-sufficient. You could describe us as "self-sufficient-ish", which is also the title of a rather good website.

Created by twin brothers Dave and Andy Hamilton it is a mine of informative and useful articles about how to bring a little self-sufficiency into the most urban life. For example, there's an article on "The Self-Sufficientish Office" and "Tips For Those Living In Rented Accommodation", as well as the more ambitious "No-tech Solar Oven" and the extreme-green "Home-Made Washable Menstrual Pads". There's also a very lively forum. I spend some time there most days, either reading articles or chatting on the forums. It's been in my Links section (in the right-hand sidebar) for ages, but if you haven't checked it out yet why don't you go and have a look?

Thursday, August 17, 2006

In the swim

Continuing our "vacation at home" theme today we visited the hotel pool. Except we're not in a hotel so we went to the pool at Stockport instead. It's a good one with an Olympic-sized pool and a nice shallow area with a jaccuzi, waterslides, plenty of fun floats and good changing facilities. I hate going swimming because I am a lousy swimmer and I am scared the kids will drown. The kids love it though and happily head off in all different directions, splashing and screaming and scaring me silly. I want them to be more confident in the water than I am and I really should take lessons to build up my own confidence but I can never find the time.

The pool is part of Stockport's "Grand Central" entertainment area which also has bars, a multiplex cinema and lots of fast food places. It probably has bingo and a bowling alley as well, I've never noticed, but they seem to be part of the package. So we went to McDonald's for lunch and then to the cinema to watch "Cars". It was rubbish but the kids liked it. I'm sure the animation was all very technically stunning, but that's not what I want from a movie. The plot was off-the-shelf, and the setting was designed to evoke nostalgia for a time and place I never knew, so it left me cold. It wasn't as bad as "The Spongebob Squarepants Movie", but it wasn't "Shrek" either.

You can't really take pictures in the swimming pool (without either wrecking your digital camera or getting arrested), or in the cinema, and taking pictures in McDonalds just seems, well, tacky. So todays picture is from our visit to Chester zoo. I've tried to keep the swimming/animated movie theme going, though.

We're going to the zoo, zoo, zoo

Ed has a couple of weeks holiday but we decided not to go abroad this year. Instead we're going to explore the local tourist attractions, and save our money. We might put it towards buying some land, if we ever form a coherent plan for doing that, or we might go away at Christmas.

Yesterday we went to Chester Zoo. It's a great zoo. It's huge - over 100 acres. And it has a vast range of animals. It's also really well-planned and laid out. And it's family-friendly; it seems that every time the kids are getting tired you come across a play area, or a grassy lawn, or a picnic area.

The highlight for me was watching a small snake eat a whole (dead) rat by dislocating its own jaws. They only feed about once a week or even less, so we were lucky to get to see that. The orangutans were good, too. I love orangs very much. The low point was Eleanor and Sam becoming hysterical in the bat cave. The bats are kept in a large free-flying cave which visitors walk through whilst bats fly over and around them. It was amazing. You don't get to see them close-up as you would if they were in little tanks, but we had plenty of opportunity to peer at creatures in little tanks and this was a different experience. We persuaded the younger ones to give it a go, and patiently encouraged them. They seemed to enjoy it and I was proud of them for bravely doing something they were initially reluctant about. But at the end there was an airlock-type thing between the cave and the exit proper and a small bat had become trapped. It was panicking, and Ellie and Sam panicked too, screaming the place down so that keepers came running over to find out what the fuss was about. It took a while to calm the kids down but a life-sized model of a rhino that peed impressively (although an addition of some steam would have added to the verisimilitude) once a minute was a sufficient distraction.

The drawback is it costs an arm and a leg to get in. We only went because we'd got a couple of "child goes free with a paying adult" vouchers, and a half price child's ticket, so we got in for £30 instead of the prohibitive £60 it would have cost otherwise. Once inside there were many other attempts to part us from our money, and we made it very clear to the kids that we had brought a packed lunch and plenty of drinks, and would be buying no ice-creams, balloons, hats, car stickers or soft toys. They accepted this pretty well. We did go on the zoo monorail when we found a queue shorter than 45 minutes. I was disappointed though that there was no way to bring home any zoo manure, as you can at some other zoos. I'd have got a kick out of putting elephant dung on the vegetables, and it would have been a better souvenir than any of the other tat on offer.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Damson harvest

Damsons are funny things. Last year our tree gave enough fruit to make two poxy jars of jam. The year before wasn't much better. But this spring we had an inkling things were going to be a bit different when the blossom was stunning. My neighbour noticed the same thing with his damson trees, so I think the late, wet spring must have suited them.

Yesterday I picked over a stone (15lbs or 7kg) of damsons from our one tree and I only got about half the fruit down (the tree's quite tall). And my neighbour promised me all her fruit earlier in the year. So I'm thinking a big bucket of damson wine.

Sam and I went to Congleton farmer's market. We actually made it this time. Shouldn't have bothered - it was a big disappointment. Most of the stalls were bog-standard British manky market variety - cheap bathtowels and mobile phone fascias etc. We did pick up some home-made cakes and some ostrich sausages from the few genuine farm stalls that were there. We also bought some cheese in the covered market from a trader who was very surprised when I asked where the cheese came from, and if I could taste it before buying.

Monday, August 14, 2006

In the news part 2

Just over a month after the last BBC News item about allotments, they're in the news again. This latest item is about the danger to allotments from property developers. It seems prescient in the light of this story about some allotments in London which are due to be bulldozed to make way for the 2012 Olympic Village.

I liked the quote from Claire Willis of the National Society of Allotment and Leisure Gardeners (NSALG)

"It's becoming much more of a community activity. I see my neighbouring allotment holder bringing his children, so they can watch how to cultivate vegetables and seeing the distinction between growing food and buying it from a supermarket"

I never realised I was part of a trend.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Who knows where the time goes

Cropredy 2006 was a good 'un. The weather was unusually cold, and we left our tent poles at home which didn't make for a great start to the festival. But the music was great. Steeleye Span with Maddy Prior, Dave Swarbrick and Flook were highlights. The food was also good - Leon's has been the best food on site for many years now, but I also enjoyed Molly Moon's Vegetarian Pies - new this year, hope they'll be back. The beer flowed freely. The shopping, as always was great. I picked up a couple of pairs of hippy baggy pants and some groovy tops, and the kids enjoyed hunting for bargains at the car boot sale.

But of course the bext thing about Cropredy was catching up with old friends. My sisters, Stephanie and Lindsey are pictured. Also there in 2006 were TJ, Andrew, Shona, a trio of Steves, Leila, Thomas, and Cropredy virgins Elaine and Amy. Absent friends this year included Jim and Catrin amongst many others.

It all seemed to be over far too soon but the dampness in my Doc Martens and the lingering smell of patchouli will keep the Cropredy spirit alive for a little while yet.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

It all comes round again

We're off to the Cropredy Festival for a few days. It's a big 3-day folk/rock music festival and we've gone every year for the last 15 years. We camp out, meet up with old friends, listen to great music, shop at hippy ethnic stalls and just generally have the best time we have all year.

A neighbour will be chicken-sitting for us. The allotment can manage without any attention for a few days.

We'll be back on Sunday with lots of photos, suntans, lovebeads and muddy shoes. Hope you have a good weekend too.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Bean sprouts

Ever wondered why this blog is called Bean-Sprouts? Well the main reason is that the name wasn't already taken. If you've ever set up a website or blog yourself you'll know that it can be really hard to find a name that's available. I got to the "random strings" stage but pulled back from the brink of starting a blog called and went back to typing in meaningful names until I hit on one that noone else had registered.

I tried "bean-sprouts" because for over fifteen years I have sprouted my own beans for salads and stir fries. It's very easy: soak some beans in plenty of cold water overnight, then put them in a sprouter. I use a three-tiered sprouter like this one but you can use a jam jar just as well. Rinse the sprouts once or twice a day and in a few days they will have started to sprout. You can eat them when the sprout is about the same length as the seed. I put them in salads and sandwiches and they taste really fresh and alive, which they are. You can also cook them in soups and stews and stir fries. I always have sprouts on the go.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Sam's marrow

Sam picked his marrow today. All the kids chose a courgette a week or two ago, and scratched their names into them with the point of a knife. We've been watching them grow. Sam's one won. He proudly showed it to everyone on the allotment.

As squash art goes it's not a (pumpkin) patch on the ones here. The link is to The Potimarron Project, a guy who will send free pumpkin seeds to anyone who agrees to give part of the crop to their nearest homeless shelter. I think it's a wonderful idea and I'll be participating next year.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Flea market

We tried to go to Congelton farmer's market today but we got the wrong day and it was a flea market instead. Never mind. We had fun browsing and each of the kids brought home a new toy, so it wasn't a wasted trip.

I was busy in the kitchen all afternoon making 24 cheesey potato scones, 10 portions of chicken soup and a large batch of gooseberry and marrow chutney.

It's encouraging to see a lot of people have voted in the poll on this page challenging you to only boil as much water as you need. The challenge was inspired by Andy Hamilton on He emailed the customer service people from Typhoo, Yorkshire Tea, Tetley, PG tips and Twinings to suggest they include advice on their packaging or adverts not to boil too much water, and he asked other people on the Selfsufficientish forums to do the same. I emailed them and got replies from Yorkshire Tea and Tetley. If you're sitting at the computer with a few minutes on your hands (and I'm guessing you do - you're not reading this blog for your work are you?) why not click on one of the links which will take you directly to a "customer comments" page and ask them to advise tea-drinkers to help save the planet. Coffee drinkers beware - we're coming after you next!

Friday, August 04, 2006

Vpud - the verdict

We had a huge vegetarian fry-up for dinner last night:
It was delicious, and the Vpud was the star of the show. It's very similar to normal black pudding in taste and texture, which is important because some vegetarian meat-alike foods have the taste but not the texture. The Realeat Vege Bacon is an example, it tastes like bacon but has a rather nasty paste-like texture. It's great in pasta carbonara but not as good in a BLT. The Vpud however was a very convincing replica of meaty (or should I say bloody) black pudding, I reckon you could slip it into a meaty fry-up and the carnivores would never notice.

Potato Scones

Boil 1lb floury potatoes and mash them. Add a generous knob of butter, plenty of sea salt and freshly ground black pepper and enough wholewheat flour to make a dry, rollable dough. Split the dough in half and roll out into two half-inch thick circles. Cut each circle into six wedge-shaped slices with a knife and fry in butter for a few minutes each side.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Vegetarian black pudding - no kidding

The sun came out again today. Hooray! I hoed off all the weeds on the allotment, and the rain has done all the plants a power of good. I sowed some spinach and a few more radishes in some spare ground next to the spuds. Meanwhile the kids had fun squirting each other with the hose. Sam was the only one relatively dry by the end so I guess he was the prime squirter.

On the way home we went to the farm shop nearest us to get some fruit and other supplies. Whilst buying locally made cheese (though not Cheshire cheese, confusingly) I picked up a vegetarian black pudding. We'll have it for tea tonight and I'll report back, but if it's anything like the vegetarian haggis I had once it could be delicious.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Grey day

We're into the third day of grey rainy weather. The chicken coop has turned into a bit of a quagmire, and the weeds are coming up strongly in the allotment. The plants are even stronger though so I don't mind, but I'll have to get over there for some serious weeding soon.

I've been getting on with jobs in the house instead. I made some hot redcurrant and chilli jam using another Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall recipe (from the Children's Cookbook) which is really delicious. I also made gingerbread men with the kids and chicken soup from the carcase of the chicken we had at the weekend. I painted a built-in cupboard Ed made to house the gas meter ages ago, and I reupholstered a dining chair.

What I haven't managed to do is figure out how to upload the photos from my mobile phone into the PC, nor fix my broken digital camera, so I can't show you any of those things. You'll just have to take my word for it. Hey, if I had wanted to lie I would have said I had met Nelson Mandela, run a marathon and played a live gig to hundreds of thousands of people in Hyde Park. But I didn't. Think about that.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Delightful peas

There are a few new feaures on the site. In the sidebar on the right is a poll. This month I'm challenging people to stop boiling a kettleful of water when they only need a cupfull. It's a really easy way to boost your green quotient, it doesn't cost anything (in fact it saves money), and it doesn't take any time (instead it saves time). Vote in the poll and tell me if you're up to the challenge.

You'll have to scroll right to the bottom to see the other changes. First of all is the Rustle The Leaf comic strip which I believe will be updated once a week. Click on the link if you want to view the older strips. Whilst you're at it, you could also click on the One Million Europeans Against Nuclear Power banner and sign the petition. I know it's a contentious issue and some people think nuclear is the best non-polluting alternative to fossil fuels. If that's how you feel, don't sign it, I won't mind!

Down on the allotment I picked a couple of peas. The peas were tiny, too small to pick really but I couldn't resist. I even tempted Tom to try one and he said they were "delightful". I agree - they're astonishingly sweet, downright sugary. It's funny, they're much sweeter than the blackcurrants we picked a little while ago, and far sweeter than the morello cherries.

One of the childhood memories that kept coming back to me when we got this allotment was of a visit to some friends of my parents. They had a pea patch in the garden, and my sisters and I absolutely ravaged it, stripping it of peas and eating them on the spot. I don't remember getting in trouble for it, but I don't remember ever being invited back either. I won't mind if Tom and the other children eat all the peas straight off the plants. It'll just be nice to see them getting vegetables in them.