Friday, August 31, 2007

Wine in Progress

The damson wine is now in a five-gallon fermenting bucket with an airlock fitted. It's tucked away in a corner of the living room going blup occasionally.
I've got more damsons left. I think I'll make another batch.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Salute to Heath Robinson

What do you do if your computer stops working? Do you a) try to fix it yourself, or b) call the helpdesk immediately? What would you do if the handle broke on your dishwasher? Would you a) fix it with gaffer tape or b) buy a new one? How about if you needed to strain 5 gallons of damson wine? Would you a) go to the homebrew shop in the morning and buy a ready made wine straining apparatus, or b) rig something up with a plastic sieve, a kitchen chair and a few cast iron pans utilised as counterweights? If you answered a, a, b you have what it takes to be self sufficient.

The term "self sufficiency" has all sorts of nuances that go beyond "people who grow all their own food". One meaning of "self sufficiency" is "capable, practical, skilled at day-to-day problem solving". My grandfathers both had it in spades, and both my parents had it to some extent, especially my mum. She would have a go at anything. She was especially skilled at working with textiles and ceramics, but she'd try her hand at bricklaying (and also demolition), plastering, woodwork, sculpture, plumbing, carpet laying, you name it. It's a quality that's increasingly rare. People would prefer to call a tradesman to do their painting and decorating. Mum wouldn't have dreamed of it and neither would I.

On the other hand she was a fan of things like the Betterware catalogues. I hate those. A special gizmo for cleaning down the back of the fridge? A doohicky that cracks eggs? Something to store your dishcloth on when it's not in use? I can solve those problems myself without paying someone £10 for a bit of plastic to do it for me. Because I'm self sufficient.

Rag Rug

I made a rag rug out of all my old maternity dresses and the dresses my mum adapted for me so I could breastfeed wearing them (you wouldn't believe how breastfeeding limits your clothing options). I feel I should be able to say something meaningful about the symbolism of that, but I can't. Perhaps it's as simple as this - they weren't any use anymore so I made them into something else instead. This is how I did it.

  1. Cut each dress into one long continuous strip. Each strip should be roughly two inches wide, but for heaven's sake, don't measure it - just do it by eye. You might be able to cut all the way around the dress in a long spiral, like peeling an orange. Or you might have to cut in a sort of zig-zag, as in the diagram. When you get to tricky bits like sleeves etc., use your own ingenuity. If you don't have any ingenuity, just buy a damn rug instead. Then roll the strips into balls. This step takes hours and hours. Making rag rugs is not a quick project by any means.

  2. If you are a neat freak, you can press your strips so all the ragged edges are hidden. You do this by folding the two raw edges to the centre, then folding in half so the raw edges are enclosed, then press. But I don't mind a raggy look - it is a rag rug after all. If you do press them, this stage will also take hours and hours.

  3. Take three strips and stitch them together at the top. Then fasten them to something like a chair and start braiding the strips. When you run out of one colour, or you want to change colour because you're going out of your mind with boredom and you're desperate to break the monotony, sew the new strip to the end of the old strip and continue. Roll the braid up into a ball until you have enough to start stitching the rug. Guess what? This stage takes hours and hours.

  4. Coil the braid into a spiral and sew it together with the toughest thread you can find, such as upholstery thread. Work on a flat surface such as a large table or your rug won't lie flat (we didn't do this and had to "block" the finished rug with steam and then stitch it to a hessian backing - if you work on a flat surface these stages will not be necessary). If you have a friend or a sister to work with, one of you can braid whilst the other coils. Funnily enough both stages seem to progress at approximately the same rate. Needless to say, this stage takes hours and hours.

I can't remember exactly when Steph and I started the maternity dress rag rug, but it was about two years ago. We've worked on it in fits and starts, sometimes quite intensively but often putting it away for months on end. I don't know how many hours we spent on it altogether, but it's a lot. This is no weekend project, it's much longer than that, but the end results are worth it.

It's finished now and is on the floor of my bedroom. It looks lovely, and is warm on my feet when I get out of bed. It's also full of memories - memories of my pregnancies, memories of breastfeeding the babies, and memories of working on the rug together with Steph. To me it's better than the finest Persian carpet could ever be.

Rabbit and Scrumpy Pot

Rabbit and Scrumpy Pot

First catch your rabbit. We bought two frozen dressed1 rabbits, two frozen dressed pheasants and a frozen dressed duck in the greengrocer in the village for £10. You can't complain about those prices.

Brown the rabbit in a frying pan with some butter. Place in a slow cooker or casserole dish with one chopped carrot, one chopped parsnip, one chopped onion and a few peeled shallots. That's just what we happened to have knocking around. You could use potatoes, turnip, swede, leeks, celery, the possibilities are endless.

Also add about an ounce of chopped pancetta and half a black pudding, sliced. Again - this was just what we had in the fridge. You could substitute bacon, chorizo, ham, sausage or anything like that.

Finally add a dried bay leaf and some fresh thyme (or rosemary, marjoram or whatever you have) and about a pint of scrumpy (or real ale or stock or wine - you get the picture).

Cover and cook in a moderate oven for roughly two hours, or until the rabbit is cooked through. If you are using a slow cooker, cook on high for an hour and then on low for five to seven hours.

1 Not dressed in blue waistcoats with buttons. It means they've been feathered, skinned, and had their guts, head and feet removed. It means something similar to "oven ready".

Wednesday, August 29, 2007


Ed found my camera cable. We'll gloss over exactly where he found it. Suffice it to say, it was neatly put away (which narrows down the suspects to two - the kids never put anything away), but it was neatly put away somewhere I didn't know about (which eliminates me from the list of suspects). But anyway, I'm very glad he found it. Eventually. After I had turned the house upside down. But before I had bought a new one, so that's something.

To celebrate, I've included a photo of the black hen enjoying a mouthful of grass in the back garden. I'll write about the rag rug and the rabbit recipe and so on tomorrow.

Busy Weekend

I'm annoyed because I can't find the cable that connects my camera to my computer. I took loads of photos whilst Steph was here of all the things we did together. I'd like to show you photos of Steph and I blackberry picking, and a great one of 3-year-old Rebecca's face when she had eaten all the blackberries she had picked, I'd like to show you the rag rug we finished that we've been working on together for about two years, the Christmas card I made from a rather anoying kit, and just what was so annoying about it, the footstool we bought in a junk shop, a recipe for tea wine, a recipe for rabbit and scrumpy pot, a recipe for black forest gateau made with home-made cherry jam, the chickens free-ranging in the back garden, and other things. I've already shown you lemon gin, sloe gin, blackberry vodka, cheery jam and damson wine. Not bad when you consider our lovely long weekend together was interrupted by a stomach bug.

If the cable doesn't turn up today I'll buy another one from PC World. But it makes me cross. It has to be around here somewhere, and the house is pretty tidy so it's not hard to search. And yet wherever I look - it's not there.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007


I was once a told a story about someone who moved into a new house and asked a friend of mine "What can I grow in my new garden that's edible but also decorative, and is quick and easy to grow?" My friend suggested nasturtiums, and the would-be-gardener's face fell. "But I just dug a whole load of those out!"

Nasturtiums are beautiful, and extremely edible. The leaves have a mildly pepper taste like watercress and make an excellent salad green. The seed pods are also peppery and can be eaten like capers. And the flowers are a colourful addition to salads.

They're annuals so they die each winter. But they're very easy to grow from seeds, and will self-seed so you may find you can develop a perennial patch without the effort of planting them yourself.

They'll climb up any framework such as a wigwam of canes, a lattice screwed to a wall, or through a hedge. They also tumble attractively and I like to drop a few seeds into hanging baskets or window boxes. In Ireland I saw lots of them grown in clumps in people's front gardens.

I love them very much, even though I'm not normally a big fan of flowers. Oh, I like to see them when somebody else has grown them, I just can't be bothered to grow the darn things myself. But nasturtiums are undemanding, unpretentious, pretty, and edible. Now that's my sort of flower.

Normal Service Will Be Resumed Shortly

Sorry for the unannounced break in transmission. I spent the only sunny bank holiday of 2007 with an unpleasant digestive disorder. I'm back to normal now and I'll have something to say about our family's dearch for the good life later in the day.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

I Believe...

I believe in fires at midnight,
when the dogs have all been fed.
A golden toddy on the mantle,
a broken gun beneath the bed.

Now listening to Songs From The Wood by Jethro Tull. Progressive folk rock par excellence.

When Life Gives You Lemons...

The cherry jam we made yesterday needed lemon juice, and as we are very frugal and hate to see anything go to waste, we used the lemon peel to make lemon vodka. Steph found the recipe on a blog called The Cottage Smallholder, which I had never seen before but I'm really glad she found it. It's right up my street.

From the website:

About Us
We live in a pretty 16th century cottage in an English village on the Cambridgeshire/Suffolk border.The cottage cast includes three Miniature Pinscher dogs, one Maran hen, four bantams, 70,000 bees, fifty three fish and an Old English carp called George.
This diary charts our haphazard journey towards self sufficiency and beyond.

They've got bees, chickens, they forage from hedgerows - basically they sound just like us and I'm glad to add them to my blogroll. Why not pop across and read the latest entries?

Friday, August 24, 2007

Chegg for Trees

When I was a student, I used to sell my old textbooks at the student union for a pitiful sum, and buy next term's books used at the same place, for, well, less than they would have cost new, but a damn sight more than I had received for my old ones. It saved me money and yet it still felt like a rip-off. Somebody somewhere was making a killing.

We didn't have things like eBay and Craigslist in those days, or Amazon marketplace, or I would certainly have used them to sell my old textbooks myself, and buy others directly from the students themselves. Still, I often find that the cost of postage adds considerably to the price, sometimes making it more economical to buy new instead.

What would be a really good idea would be a sort of local Craigslist in each university. Students could advertise their old textbooks - and also stuff like laptops, mobile phones, bicycles, furniture, all the things that students need. And they could search for textbooks and stuff they needed, and then arrange to meet the seller in the pub to complete the transaction, thus saving on postage. That would be brilliant.

It turns out it's already been done, in the USA at any rate. is an online marketplace for students, arranged by campus, so students can buy and sell textbooks and stuff they need. I love the internet - isn't this sort of thing fabulous? It saves students money, it saves the planet, it's a win-win arrangement.

But it gets even better. came up with, a textbook rental service for students. This sort of scheme can have a great benefit on the environment because paper production is very damaging. The chemicals used to bleach and treat the paper are serious pollutants, including dioxins, some of the most toxic substances known. I find this very depressing as I have a heavy book-buying habit myself.

There's a service called Eco-Libris, where you can plant a tree for every book you buy. Trees can't remove dioxins from the waterways, and the wood cut down to make books ought to come from managed forests rather than ancient forests, so tree-planting for books strikes me as more of a token than a genuine way to correct the harm done in paper manufacture. But hey, trees are nice. I'm not going to complain if someone wants to plant a bunch of trees. When you sign up to the service you get sent stickers to stick on your books saying "One tree planted for this book".

Just to wrap the whole thing up neatly, TextBookFlix has recently formed a partnership with Eco-Libris so that one tree is planted for every textbook rented. Isn't that nice?

Cheery Jam

Just so you don't think that we're obsessed with making booze, we also made seven jars of cherry jam today using home grown cherries from the freezer. I mislabelled one jar "Cheery Jam", and liked it so much I wrote that on all the remaining labels.

We'll be using one jar tomorrow to make Black Forest Gateau.

Review: First Steps in Winemaking

In the past I've referred to certain books as "the bible", the final word in their field. Well C.J.J. Berry's First Steps in Winemaking is undoubtedly the home winemaker's bible. I first started winemaking as a student, to knock up large batches of cheap falling-over-juice, and I've had this book ever since then. The pages are heavily annotated (and stained) and there are other recipes scribbled on scraps of paper stuffed between its pages.

The book has hundreds of recipes, organised by month. This is a really neat feature because if the winemaking mood takes you, you can easily look up what is in season at the moment. In the winter months it gives recipes for things like wheat, tinned fruit, and Ribena wine. If you're searching for a particular recipe there's an index in the back.

Berry (who in life had a really impressive moustache) teaches you not only how to make wine, but also all the "whys". By following the book I developed an understanding of winemaking which allowed me to experiment with my own brews. I think my all time top success was a 5 gallon batch of "everything the greengrocer was chucking out on Saturday afternoon", which resulted in a fabulous wine very like a good Cabernet Sauvignon. Sadly I never wrote down the proportions and so the recipe was unrepeatable. But then again Berry advised me to always keep scrupulous records for this very reason, so the fault lies with the student, not the master.

I don't have any other winemaking books and I don't feel I need any. First Steps in Winemaking has everything I need.

Sloe Gin

At the bottom of the freezer we found a bag of sloes and a bag of blackberries we picked last year. So we defrosted them and popped them in clean bottles, until the bottles were about 1/3 full. Then we covered them in sugar until the bottles were 2/3 full. Then we labelled them.

I've put them by the kettle so every time anyone makes a pot of tea they can give the bottles a shake over the next few weeks. The flavours from the berries will infuse into the sugar and result in a thick syrup which can be blended with cheap gin or vodka (the berries can be discarded - or made into fruitcake). After a few months the liqueur will be ready, but it will be even smoother if you can wait another year.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Winemaking Supplies

Joanna said:

I used to make my own wine, and would like to make some this year (plum, do you think? If damson is good, why not plum?). But I no longer have any equipment, and the shop I used to go to is no more, there's a huge shopping mall where it used to be ... any ideas where I can get the stuff I need??

I'm lucky to have a fantastic winemaking and homebrewing supply shop just a few miles away - The Brew Shop. But I don't get all my supplies from there. For example, you can scrounge 5 gallon buckets from chip shops and take aways. They get their oil delivered in them and are happy to give them away. You can sometimes find demijohns in charity shops and on Freecycle.

Big branches of Boots sometimes have a homebrewing section, and so does eBay.

If all else fails you could try one of the online winemaking suppliers, such as:

If you Google you'll find many more. Good luck with your home winemaking - plum wine sounds lovely.

Damson Wine

My sister Steph is visiting us again, and today we picked 17lb (about 8kg) of damsons from the tree in our front garden. I'm pretty short and Steph's even shorter, so we used a broom to pull the branches towards us. Then we sat in deckchairs and roughly cut them all and chucked them into a 5-gallon bucket with about 2 1/2lb of barley. We covered it with boiling water, put a lid on it and tucked it away in the kitchen.

When it gets cool we'll add some pectin-destroying enzyme, to make sure we don't end up with 5 gallons of damson jam. We'll give it a stir every day for about three days, until we have several pints of damson juice. Then on the fourth day we'll strain the juice off the pulp, and add some yeast and sugar, and let it ferment.

17lbs of damsons will make 5 gallons (about 30 bottles) of damson wine, which will be ready in time for Christmas.

What's Sprouting

This blog isn't called Bean Sprouts for nothing. I love sprouting dried seeds and beans, and almost always have something sprouting on my kitchen windowsill. At the minute there's some good old mustard-and-cress.

Eleanor helped me prepare this batch, by placing some damp paper (kitchen roll, blotting paper, whatever) in our bean sprouter, but you could use a saucer. Then she sprinkled mustard and cress seeds liberally but evenly on the damp paper. If we keep it moist, in a few days we'll have lovely fresh mustard and cress to eat.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Green Fly Control

Not GREENFLY control, although they're a pest as well. I'm talking about fruitflies, mainly. I left a bag of rhubarb in the kitchen when we went away on holiday and when we got back the kitchen was full of fruitflies. I don't really want to use poison to eliminate them, so instead I got rid of the rhubarb and anywhere else they could live, such as the compost bucket, and hung up flypapers.
If you're not familiar with flypapers, they're incredibly sticky strips that you hang up. As soon as a fly blunders into one, it gets stuck for good. Frankly, they're a bit gross, but they're better than having flies everywhere.
One final thing - under no circumstances allow small children to "help mummy with the dusting" anywhere near them. Last year Sam was playing with my genuine ostrich feather duster and got it tangled with the flypapers. By the time I had cut all the sticky bits off my duster, it was so badly maimed I was forced to do the merciful thing.

I'm Back

The BBC has been asking where do climate change protesters go on holiday? Well this one went to Ireland by ferry. We stayed at my dad's house near Abbeyfeale (thanks, dad). He has an old stone-built cottage set in 2 1/2 acres with stunning views of the Mullaghareik mountains, where he gets to watch swallows and hooded crows, wild hares and pheasants, and gets nettled when I point out there's good eating on some of those. He isn't connected to mains water, but when he turns on his taps he gets spring water that rises on his own land. He isn't served by mains gas, either, nor does his rubbish get collected so he has to be careful about what waste he produces.

Unfortunately it rained every day we were there. We braved the weather to visit Bunratty Castle and Folk Park. It's a fabulous place to visit - they have restored the 15th century castle there, and recreated lots of 19th century dwellings such as a fisherman's cottage, or a wealthy farmer's house. There is also a 19th century street recreated with a sweet shop, drapers' shop, pub etc. I especially enjoyed the walled gardens and the watermills.

We had better luck with the weather at Craggaunowen, which goes back further to prehistoric times. It has recreations of neolithic dwellings, including a ring fort with a souterrain (underground storage for food and valuables), which provided the highlight of the whole trip. Ed spotted a small cluster of bats roosting in there, and we got to watch them from extremely close up. I don't know what's going to happen to them now, as I believe they are protected in Eire as they are here in the UK. Either they'll have to be moved, I guess, or the souterrain closed to the public. Either way we were extremely fortunate to see them.

We also visited King John's Castle in Limerick and saw a trebuchet being fired, went swimming in Tralee Aquadome, the kids played in a den with a rope swing my sister Steph had made the week before among dad's hedgerow, I played traditional music with my sister, Lindsey, who was there at the same time, and we enjoyed cooked Irish breakfasts every day, and delicious home-cooked food every evening. Even the mini-bar was free. It beat staying in a B&B hands down.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

And We're Off

We're off in the morning to visit my dad, Bill, in Ballaugh, Republic of Ireland. If you're wondering why I'm blogginf in the middle of the night, I just got up at nearly midnight to change a load of washing over - remind me never again to get back from a music festival and then catch a ferry the following day.

We'll be back in a week with tales to tell, I'm sure. See you then.

I'm Gonna See All My Friends

Just got back from Cropredy 2008. To all those who missed it - I hate to do this to you but it was an absolute corker. Unbroken glorious sunshine, fantastic bands, interesting stalls and yummy, varied food, the usual great organisation, plus a few new extras.

Jools Holland played a fabulous set on Thursday night, and Richard Thompson was his usual stellar self on Friday, after Fairport played the whole of Liege and Lief with the original line-up (so far as possible). Dave Swarbrick was amazing. He's a new man following his transplant op. The last time he played Cropredy, he was wheeled on stage in a wheelchair with an oxygen tank behind him. This time he walked on, played standing and bopped about with the best of them. Needless to say his playing was peerless.

Cropredy festival now has a fringe. The two pubs in the village booked several acts (including some of the bands who performed on the main stage last year) and put on their own concerts. Also there was a huge screen behind the main stage on which they showed live images of the band, the crowd, and some cheesy videos (the one for Hiring Fair was especially cringe-able). It was great for a shortie like me, who has never really seen much at the concert, to be able to see what was going on onstage.

The highlight, however, came on Saturday night with the video for Matty Groves - in Lego. If you don't know what I mean, it was done in a similar style to The Brick Testament. Simon Nicol sang it absolutely deadpan, although the audience were all hooting with laughter at the video. They followed it up with the usual medley, played with even more energy and zip than usual, and the drawn-out ending was thoroughly silly and fun. I can't imagine how they're going to top it next year.

The only disappointment, for me, was the large number of absent friends. Our family met up with my sister Lindsey and her husband Andrew, and Lindsey's friend Steve and his kids, and we had a great time. But we missed Steve H., Jim and Catrin, the Roses, Shona, Ford, Christina and Alan, and especially my sister Steph who couldn't make it this year. Please, guys, do your best to make it next year. "Meet on the Ledge" just isn't the same without you.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

A Holiday, A Holiday

We're off to the Cropredy festival again for the weekend, and when we get back back we're going to visit my Dad in Ireland for a week.

Behave yourselves whilst I'm away, won't you?


Here's a quick quiz - how many large vertebrates have gone extinct in the last 50 years?

The answer is none. Plenty of large vertebrates are endangered and even critically endangered, such as Siberian tigers and Sumatran orangutans. And species are going extinct all the time, but they're mostly plants, invertebrate animals or small animals - toads, snakes, moths, birds.

But now the baiji, the Yangtze river dolphin, is probably extinct. There used to be thousands of this unique species in the Yangtze river in China, but pollution and river management led to a decline in its numbers. The last one was sighted in 2004, and a recent survey failed to find any at all.

All life is connected, so the extinction of the Essex emerald moth is just as important as the gentle baiji. But it should give us a wake-up call to think that we humans have driven this animal out of existence.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Hot Chilli Peppers in the Blistering Sun

The green peppers I planted as an act of defiance against the wet weather have set fruit, and are beginning to ripen. I feel so vindicated.

A small prize will be awarded to someone who can identify the song which inspired the title of this article.

More on the Trail-Gator

I've taken my bike for a spin with the Trail-Gator attached. A quick explanation - the Trail-Gator is a telescoping pole that fixes to the seat-post of the adult's bike. It can then be extended and quickly attached to a mounting that you fix to the front of the child's bike. The adult can then tow the child and the whole thing pivots, kind of like an articulated lorry, when you go round corners.

The process of hooking the two bikes together, or unhooking them, is very quick and simple and requires no tools. When the bikes are unhooked, the pole telescopes down and clips to the frame of the adult bike, out of the way. So on a long journey you could tow the child a while, then let them cycle a while, then tow them a little more, hooking and unhooking when necessary without too much trouble.

If you have a look at the Trail-Gator website hopefully all will become clear, or just look at the pictures with this post which show it in action.

Getting the thing fixed onto your bike in the first place is a bit trickier. The explanations are extremely clear - in retrospect. Beforehand there is much scratching of the head and peering at the photos on the box to figure out what it all means. I am no mechanical genius, but I'm not a total numpty either, and I managed it. It also involves taking apart parts of the bikes I had never considered taking apart before. For example, I had to remove Sam's front wheel entirely, and disassemble my rear brake assembly. If you're a bike nut, it'll probably be no trouble at all. I'm not a bike nut and I found it a bit daunting, but I got there in the end.

So how does it ride? I've only taken it up and down the crescent a few times, but it seems OK under those circumstances. It's heavier than cycling alone, obviously, and getting underway from a standing start is harder. The child has to sit fairly still - if they sway from side to side, or waggle the handlebars violently, the whole apparatus wobbles and the adult has to use their weight to keep it all upright and going in a straight line. And you have to drum it into them not to apply the brakes, because that gets really annoying.

I've also found it a problem that it's attached to the seat post because I'm a stumpy little thing and I had my seat in the lowest position. Now it's slightly too high for me, which exacerbates the "starting from a standstill" problem because my toes are at full reach at the bottom of the stroke.

I'm not ready to take it out into traffic yet, I want to practice a bit more in a traffic-free environment, first.

Light Pollution

My prediction has already been proved wrong. So far ten people have voted in the Lights Out Challenge poll, and it's equally split between those who never leave the light on, and those who pledge not to do it anymore.

I've been researching a bit about the effects of leaving lights on. I was looking for some figures about how much money we could save if we switched them off, or how much excess carbon we produce by leaving them on. But I got sidetracked when I discovered a website about light pollution.

The picture to the right is a composite photograph from space of the earth at night. You can clearly see densely populated places that glow at night from countless millions of lights. Now being able to see at night is a wonderful thing, and I think that street lighting, car headlights, lighting in our houses and so on are all of such great benefit that the energy is well spent. But shooting all that light directly up to space is not a good use of energy. Our lights should be better targeted, so the lighting illuminates only what we need to be illuminated, not the whole surrounding area. My bedroom window looks towards Manchester, and the orange sky-glow on cloudy nights is a saddening sight.

The lack of visible stars is also a loss. In 1999 we went to Cornwall to view the solar eclipse. I was heavily pregnant with Eleanor and so made regular night-time trips from our tent to the toilet block. At 2am I noticed the sky. My God, I had no idea there were so many stars. I had lived in the city my whole life, and had probably never seen a star with a magnitude less than about 2 or 3. The eclipse was a wonderful phenomenon, but that view of the cloudless night sky was just as memorable.

It is also believed that light pollution may disrupt the lifecycles of animals such as insects and birds. Many people are familiar with midnight robins, who sing under streetlights, mistaking night for the day. And everyone knows that moths and other night insects will gather around a light. When the night is filled with lights, what effect does this have on their behaviour and lifecycles? Bright lights are thought to confuse migrating birds and hatching sea turtles. And of course, astronomers hate light pollution.

I will find out about the cost and the carbon implications of leaving unneeded lights on at some point. But until I do, reducing light pollution is another compelling reason to turn the lights out.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Foot In Mouth Disease

I've just been reading the BBC's Have Your Say forums on the foot and mouth outbreak. The degree of ignorance about farming and where our food comes from makes my blood boil. Here is a typical comment:
Can someone tell me why farmers say they get so upset about their animals being slaughtered whenever that is the purpose that they keep them for in the first place?

I just can't get over how ignorant that comment is. Other frequent comments state that farmers are wealthy and lazy. People honestly seem to believe that farming is basically like working in an office, but with better scenery.

It drives home how detatched most people are from the foundations of human existence - the production of food. A recent survey showed that 22% of 1,073 adults questioned did not know bacon and sausages originate from farms. The President of the National Farmers' Union, Peter Kendall, said people were "blinkered by the bright dazzling lights of their supermarket".

They fail to see that British farmers are working hard behind the scenes to provide the nation with 60% of its food supply, produced in an environmentally and welfare friendly way.

If you have a few minutes, please read this account of the only slaughterman to be employed by Defra throughout the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak. He is extremely articulate and I found his account educational and very moving.

People think slaughtermen are big tough guys, we're not. I'm 6ft 2in and 17 stone but I'm still human and I care. The people who say foot-and-mouth disease doesn't affect humans have no idea what they are talking about.

I Believe...

I believe that green shopping is a red herring.

We can't shop our way out of ecological catastrophe (or spiritual emptiness).

The green revolution is not just for the middle class who can afford to pay extra for trendy fair-trade organic recycled chic. The middle class habit of buying far too much stuff is the problem, it can't be the solution.

The solution is to buy less stuff. Just buy less. It's not expensive. It's not hard. It's not rocket science.

Stuff. You don't need it.


I spent yesterday afternoon fixing a Trail-gator to mine and Sam's bikes. It's a device that allows an adult to tow a child's bike, but the connection can easily and quickly be unhooked. For example the adult can tow the child's bike to school and then cycle home unhindered. Or the adult and child can set out on a ride together, but the adult can tow the child when he becomes tired.

I need to build up my own cycling skill before I'll feel confident doing this on proper trips, but getting it fixed up already gives me the impetus I need to actually get my a**e in gear and get cycling.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Now Drinking...

Westons strong organic cider. I'm still trying to find somewhere near me I can buy proper cider - cider with bits in, cider you can't see through. I may have to make my own. But until I get round to it, this will do nicely.

Review: You Can Save The Planet

My daughter, Eleanor, has decided that she is an eco-princess after reading You Can Save The Planet by Jacqui Wines. It's a book for children that explains about energy saving, water conservation, pollution, reduce reuse recycle and so on. It focuses on things children can do, or encourage their parents to do.

For example, there is a checklist to see whether the house is energy efficient:
  • I have taken a look and our loft is/is not insulated
  • I tested each window in our house for drafts by holding a feather in front of it and seeing whether it fluttered. ___ windows had drafts.
  • We have ___ lightbulbs in this house. ___ of them are low-energy bulbs.

... and so on. Eleanor has made a poster saying "If it's yellow, let it mellow. If it's brown, flush it down." and stuck it up in the loo. Lovely.

I had an ulterior motive in buying this book for the kids. Often they thwart my attempts to be green - they can't be bothered to turn lights off, they can't be bothered to separate the recycling, they'd rather take the car than walk or cycle places. When you've got an eco-mum, this is how you rebel, I suppose. But this book makes being green seem like subversive fun. The back of the book says "Your parents' generation have wrecked the planet. Now it's up to you to make them fix it again". It seems to be working, on Eleanor at least. If I want Tom to read it I'll have to slip it inside an Artemis Fowl cover.

Saturday, August 04, 2007


I love this - waterbutts in the shape of, well, butts. Because living green was much more fun when it was a slap in the face of the establishment, not just the latest middle class trend. Personally, I'd like one in the shape of the Manneken Pis.

Let the Train Take the Strain

Generally speaking, I'm not a fan of so called "green taxes", but I'm in favour of the Liberal Democratic party's plans to put an extra £10 tax per ticket on internal flights in Britain to help fund improvements to the rail network.

I was interested in this because I've just been researching the cost of taking my family to London for a two-day break. If we travelled by train, the cheapest tickets I could find cost a whopping £787. But we could all fly for £79.10.

Is it just me, or is that stark-raving utterly totally bonkers? Just how dedicated a greenie do you think I am, that I could afford to pay almost £700 extra to travel by train compared to flying? A £10 tax per ticket on the flights wouldn't be enough to swing the balance though. It seems to me that train ticket prices need to come down considerably - like by a factor of ten - to encourage people to let the train take the strain.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Woodturning Lathe

I told you I had a go on a friend's woodworking lathe last week. Well he just sent me some photos and a short movie clip of it.

Switch Off Lights

I'm going to make a prediction - the results of this month's challenge poll will be:
  • I was already green! I never leave lights on in empty rooms! 100%
I'm always walking round the house and spotting lights left on in empty rooms. I blame the kids, but to be honest I do it, too. So this challenge is really just for me. I'm going to drum it into the kids' heads that they have to turn lights off. Maybe we'll all make posters to remind ourselves to do it. And I'll give them permission to chastise me if I leave any lights on.

So go on, prove whether I'm right or wrong? Am I the only one with this shameful secret? Vote in the poll today.

Herb Garden

What can you do with old wellies that children have grown out of? I usually give them to charity shops so other children can wear them, but sometimes I use them as novelty plant pots. Once I planted Flaming Katies in a pair of child's wellies and gave them to granddad as a gift. Granddads like that sort of thing. Recently I planted up several pairs with herbs and put them by the kitchen door.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Carnival of Natural Family Living

There's a new blog carnival, the Carnival of Natural Family Living. It was started recently by Tiffany at Nature Moms and the first edition features my recycled cake stand. It's an exciting new carnival, and I'll be hosting the next edition here at Bean Sprouts.

If you don't know what a blog carnival is, it's a regular round-up of lots of the best posts on a certain topic - in this case natural family living. If you're a blogger, submitting your best posts to a relevant blog carnival is an easy way to boost your readership, and hosting a blog carnival is also a boost although that requires a bit more work. If you're not a blogger, then following a blog carnival on a topic that interests you is an easy way to find the best posts on that topic, and discover great new blogs.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

How to Make A Mosaic

Steph (not my sister) asked how we made the mosaic fireplace. It's exactly the same process as tiling but much more fun.
  1. Prepare the surface by cleaning it and removing any loose material.

  2. Smash some old plates, cups, ceramic tiles or whatever into small pieces (it's all fun and games until somebody loses as eye, so do wear safety goggles).

  3. Our design was random, but if you want to make a pattern mark it out on the surface before you start.

  4. Using a grout spreader, spread readymixed multipurpose grout over part of the area to be tiled. We didn't grout the whole area in case some of it dried out, so we just did a square foot or so at a time. If you're making a pattern, mark it into the grout by dragging the edge of your spreading tool, to make a line so you can see what you're doing. (At this point I should say that grout is very caustic so wear gloves. But we didn't.)

  5. Press bits of crockery into the grout. Ours slid about a bit but they didn't fall off so we just kept going. Keep the spaces between them about 1/8 - 1/2 inch or so. You need some space to get grout in, but you don't want big white areas.

  6. Let your design dry overnight. We found at this stage there were some big lumps of grout sticking up but they rubbed off fairly easily with our fingers after only a day. They'd probably have gone harder if we left them longer.

  7. Rub more grout into the spaces between the tiles. Work it in well taking care not to leave air gaps. Rub the grout more-or-less smooth with your fingers, and don't worry about getting it on the surface of your tiles. you can wipe it off in the next step.

  8. With a moist sponge, wipe over the surface of your mosaic to remove excess grout and smooth the grout lines. Allow the grout to harden overnight, then give it a final clean up with an old toothbrush.
This is known as the direct method of mosaic making, as opposed to the reverse method where you arrange your design back-to-front on a piece of paper and apply it later then soak off the paper.

Bear in mind that the end result is more decorative than practical. You can't make it level and smooth no matter what you do, so it's not really suitable for tables, trays etc. You can't easily clean it because stuff tends to get stuck in the grout recesses so it's not really suitable for bathrooms or kitchens. Suitable projects include house number plaques, garden ornaments, mirror and picture frames, "sculptural forms" etc. Or you could mosaic entire buildings, cathedrals and public parks if you are an insane genius.

Riddle Answer

The answer to the Anglo-Saxon riddle posted yesterday was a butter churn. It comes from the Exeter Book, a tenth century collection of Old English literature.

Go and wash your mind out with soap, Andrew!

Carbon Footprint Challenge Results

Thirty-two of you voted in July's Carbon Footprint Challenge. Here are the results:

  • I've gone green! I calculated my carbon footprint! 15 votes
  • I was already green! I know my carbon footprint! 13 votes
  • I don't want to! I'm scared how big it might be! 1 vote
  • I'm greener than thou! I've been carbon neutral for ages! 3 votes
Thanks to everyone who voted.

I found it an eye-opening exercise to calculate my carbon footprint. Although I score well in some respects, apparently my household electricity bill is higher than average. So that gives me a clear target to focus my energy-saving efforts.

A new challenge for August will be posted soon.

Mosaic Fireplace

I said that Steph and I were being creative with old china plates. The cake stand was just the start of it. Our main project has been tiling the fireplace in the living room with a mosaic of smashed crockery.

It was great fun to do and I love the end result. So much nicer than the nondescript brown tiles that were there before. It was also a frugal makeover as Steph found the plates as a job lot and they cost less than new tiles from B&Q would have done.

Steph has gone back home to Sunderland now with my young nephew and niece and I miss them already.