We had friends to stay last weekend, and they brought the sunshine with them. It was utterly glorious, and we spent the whole of Saturday outside - until I landed up at the local hospital, with a swollen hand and fingers that wouldn't move as a result of a thorn in the back of my hand (I'm fine now, after a dose of industrial strength antibiotics).
Anyway, before that, we had a lovely time wandering about the fields and pottering in the garden.
We spotted a toad in a drain near the house, and our impromptu pond was seething with more tadpoles than I've ever seen in one place before.
It also became apparent that I'm going to need to decide what to do about the grass pretty soon.
I'm pretty set on a manual lawn mower for the little bit of garden round the house, although I am warned from all corners that our uneven ground will make mowing rather difficult. For the fields, there are a couple of options. The local farmer has offered us a few cows to munch on the grass, and in a couple of weeks a nice man is coming to show me how to use a scythe.
We had a visit this week from another nice man from the national park. He was quite excited about our fields, which are full of broadleaf plants (if you were after an actual lawn, you'd likely call them weeds). Apparently they're evidence that our fields are 'unimproved', which is quite clear by how much greener the surrounding fields are. This means they won't support much livestock - but they will support a lot of wildlife, which suits me just fine.
He's gone away to see if he can organise a botanical survey. I'm pretty excited. We'll see.
In the meantime, our battle with the wildlife inside the house continues. We're using humane traps for the mice in the loft, and have removed twelve mice in the last couple of weeks (plus an imaginary mouse, which we thought was in the trap, and which turned out to be a handful of sultanas rattling around).
I don't know how long this will go on for - much as I don't want to kill the little furry menaces, I'm getting rather sick of trekking up into the attic and down the back of the sofa each morning and several times during the evening to check the traps, and then down to the bottom of the fields to release the occupants. There's only so much more I can take. I can hear one up there now, running from one side of the loft to the other, wilfully ignoring the trap. Several have been witnessed actually escaping from the traps.
I'm pretty sure they're laughing at us now. We'll give them a few more days before the killing traps come out.
I went on a dry stone walling course today. It was just an introductory day, run by the local authority. The wall was limestone, same as ours, but the stones were more irregular and blockier than ours, and the walling style described as 'random'.
The wall we were working on looked rather dilapidated when we arrived.
The first job is always to strip out the stone, and in this case, it was so higgledy piggledy we took it right down to the foundations.
We found a couple of fossils, although perhaps not as many as we expected as limestone is often full of them.
Finally we got down to the ground, and rebuilt the foundations.
We were a small, inexperienced group, and by the end of the day we were pretty chuffed with the short section of wall. I'm used to the more regular blocks of limestone, so to my eye this still looks a bit like a pile of stones, but I'm assured it's an actual style of walling.
I was pretty tired when I got home, but after a couple of hours on the sofa, and after planting out the rest of my raspberry canes, I took a deep breath and started to tackle my own bit of collapsed wall.
Hmm. My wall is both taller and wider than the one we did on the course, but I was heartened by my stones being easier shapes to work with. It's always a bit of a challenge knowing how much to strip out though - you're meant to get to a bit that's sturdy enough to build on, but my entire wall feels like it's about to fall down. This might be a long job.
There's a definite air of spring around here right now. I'm so glad these crocuses survived the move, planted around the base of the apple tree. They make me smile every year, they're just so very stripey. They actually flowered a couple of weeks ago, and have gone now - I've never seen anything like them before and can't even remember where they came from.
We're settling in more here now, and I've gone from the initial sense of discombobulation, through a bit of mild panic, to feeling a bit more like normal life can carry on again. I've not dug out all my craft stuff yet, so no knitting or sewing for the time being, but I was running low on shampoo and thought I might have a go at making some shampoo bars.
I've made soap several times now using this simple recipe - I'm probably not as attentive to temperatures as I should be, and I don't have a stick blender, so it doesn't always look perfect, but it's always been usable. This time I thought I'd have a go at making hot process (rather than cold process) - partly for a change, and partly because I'm near the end of my shampoo bottle, and hot process soap can be used immediately, unlike cold process, which has to cure for several weeks.
I used this recipe, and the first thing I will say is DON'T DO WHAT I DID. I substituted coconut milk for the water, as I'd read somewhere else it was good for using on your hair. However, I really do recommend following the actual recipe, to the letter, especially if you've not done it before...
I used coconut oil, so first of all it needed melting as it's solid at room temperature. I just did this in the slow cooker itself to save messing up another pan. In the meantime, I mixed the lye with the coconut milk - and again, I should have used water, as I think it started to saponify (turn into soap) at this point because of the amount of fat in the coconut milk. You can see how it's slightly grainy - it shouldn't be, and it never really lost that texture.
You're meant to mix the two concoctions together with a stick blender to bring them to trace, the magical point where the chemical reaction takes place and your oil and lye start to turn into soap. I don't have a stick blender, so did this with a whisk, which takes forever and a day. Again, NOT recommended. And also my coconut milk and lye mixture was still a bit lumpy, so it didn't all combine quite as it should.
I carried on for probably over an hour, whisking, leaving for 10 minutes, whisking again, until I got bored of the whole thing and just left it heating up in the slow cooker, figuring I'd probably have to melt and rebatch the next day anyway. Eventually it did what it was meant to, and bubbled up the sides and folded in on itself. Hooray!
It never did go smooth, but I decided to take a chance and pour it into the mould anyway. This is what it looked like the next morning. Not exactly promising.
In fact, it was rather like a pork pie, with a layer of jelly around the outside - probably because the extra fat in the coconut milk meant that not all of the oil was saponified by the lye.
I cut a slice off the end and used it to wash my hands - hot process soap does benefit from leaving for a week or two but you can use it straight away if you want to. It lathered beautifully! I've cut the rest into pieces and left them to dry out on a windowsill, and they're gradually losing their slightly greasy residue.
They're not pretty - I need to sort out a better mould - but I've washed my hair a couple of times with the first one and it seems to work perfectly well. It's good as normal hand washing soap too.
So that's one less plastic bottle to buy next time, and I hope will be slightly kinder on the septic tank too. We'll see.
Over the years I've amassed a collection of knitted dishcloths, mostly that I've made myself. I like knitting, and these are small, easy projects that can be made over a few days, and I do like making useful things.
None of them are quite right though, and I tend not to use any of them for washing dishes at all. Most of them are quite misshapen now, as I don't tend to flatten them properly when I dry them.
I first started knitting dishcloths when I read about them on the Down To Earth blog. The one on the left was my first, a kind of waffle pattern, and it's the one that's the best size for generally wiping around the kitchen. The next one along came swiftly afterwards, and then the one in the bottom right, which is just straightforward garter stitch, and the one that dries the quickest and is the most flexible to use, but is also far too small.
The big one in the top right is made of thicker cotton - garter stitch again, but the cotton is too heavy, or the knitting needles too small, and it doesn't dry very quickly.
The multi-coloured one at the bottom was made for me by someone I don't know, a partner in an online swap. At first I wasn't sure as it's not cotton, but actually it's really hardwearing and feels far more robust than any of mine. She described is as a 'scrubbie' and that's really what it does.
I'd like to make a few more - enough that I can have a big pile in the cupboard and just put a clean one out each day, without drawing on an unsatisfactory succession of shop bought ones. The cotton I have at the minute is the larger stuff, so I'm going to experiment with bigger needles for a looser weave.
I do wash the shop bought ones, rather than throwing them away, but they still don't last as long as my own knitted ones. I need to figure out a better place to store them too, so I'm not rummaging around with the tea towels every time I need a new dishcloth.
I am looking forward to knitting again though, it's been a while.
Yesterday was lovely, a brief respite in a week of gloom and perpetual mist (which has descended again today). I was delighted, and spent most of the day outside, rebuilding the greenhouse.
The frame itself was still mostly intact - a few poles had come out of their sockets, and I had to fix one of the connectors with some electrical tape, but that didn't take long. The frame is so light I can move the whole thing myself standing inside it, which makes it easy to find the right position.
It's not too far from where it was before, but is a bit more protected from the prevailing wind by that dry stone wall. Of course, the wall itself is a source of potential danger - if you look carefully you can see part of it has collapsed a bit further back. I left enough space so that another collapse wouldn't actually hit the greenhouse (hopefully...), and plan to rebuild that entire section of wall soon anyway.
I wanted to make the foundations somewhat more secure, so I dug them into the ground.
Looking at the pictures, I'm not sure I've left enough space by the wall after all... although it seemed like plenty when I was out there. I'm not moving it again, so it'll have to take its chances.
It was actually quite warm yesterday, and I'm full of cold, so I kept breaking off my digging to have a sit down. I'm very much appreciating that folding stool/kneeler that I picked up in a charity shop before we moved. At one point I decided it would be fun to get the storm kettle out to make a cup of tea outside.
I managed it eventually, but it took about five times longer than just going into the kitchen (and I had to go back into the kitchen several times anyway, for tea bags, milk, and a mug, and then matches to replace the useless lighter, and then some dry kindling, as everything outside was too wet. Good job there wasn't really a storm...
Eventually the foundations were ready, and the greenhouse moved into place, tent pegs hammered in round the frame, and the turf put back upside down.
I'm hoping the turf will all compost down nicely and be a nice crumbly soil to plant some tomatoes in.
The plastic cover had acquired a few tears in the previous incident, and I had to sew a couple of the tags back on.
It was ready eventually though, and, having made a muddy mess out of the grass down the middle, I raided the outbuilding we demolished recently (I use the term 'we' very loosely) to start making a path.
Finally I weighed down the cover with breeze blocks, and I hope all that will be enough to keep it in place.
Of course, because I've dug it into the ground, the door is now lower, and I have to duck to get in, which is rather irritating - I'm quite short and not at all used to having to duck. I think I'll dig myself a step or a little ramp.
I didn't actually plant any seeds yesterday. Instead, I stayed outside in the sunshine, and started dismantling the collapsed wall ready for a rebuild. I've been reading a book about dry stone walling (and trying to remember the course I went on about twenty years ago). You're meant to lay out the different types of stones in different places so you can see what you've got to work with.
I got tired after a while. I'd been out for hours, and my sniffly cold was taking its toll, and there are an awful lot of stones to shift. Once the sun dipped below the horizon I finally packed up my tools and went back inside.
I was hoping to get my seeds planted today, but it's been so gloomy and drizzly that I only ventured as far as the car for a little trip to the cafe for pancakes.
I'm working at home tomorrow though, which means I'll have plenty of time before and after work to potter about. Good job, as I've spent most of today sitting down reading a book.
Remember my last post, when I talked about sowing seeds in my flimsy plastic greenhouse?
The greenhouse is a plastic one, and while I've weighted it down as much as I can with large stones, the plastic does flap about quite a bit, and I suspect is in danger of catapulting the seeds off the shelves if I don't place them carefully.
Well, later that very day, the greenhouse came adrift from its clearly-not-very-secure moorings and flipped on its head.
The pots, and the seeds, where everywhere, some in a heap under the greenhouse itself, some blown half way down the drive. I fully expect to see tomatoes popping up in the middle of the road in a few weeks.
The greenhouse itself was remarkably intact, and as far as I can tell, only one plastic connector is broken.
I've earmarked a more sheltered spot, and was going to rebuild it today, but got sidetracked by a trail race and unexpectedly joining the local wind orchestra.... So it'll have to stay on the ground until next weekend. Hopefully the weather will be a bit warmer by then anyway.
I've had slightly more success with my attempt at building a series of compost bins.
These are just a few pallets I found in an outbuilding, various bits of wire fencing, and some breezeblocks encouraging the whole thing to stay upright. I'm slowly bringing the hay from the outbuilding round and layering it with fruit and veg peelings.
In other news, we had a fatality in the garden yesterday... I nipped outside to give the grubby front door a wipe, and disturbed what I think was a sparrowhawk feasting on these feathery remains.
We're going to have to get used to being rather closer to nature out here. There's currently at least one mouse galumphing around in the loft at night (it's never just one...). We've put a humane trap up there, and it's got a few more days to jump in before we take more drastic measures. Not ideal, but I'd rather the livestock stayed on the outside...
One of the things I planned to do with my two weeks off work was to make a start on sowing some seeds in preparation for our vegetable garden. My plans have been thwarted somewhat by a lack of greenhouse, an excess of snow, and rather a lot of visitors, but on Monday, thanks to more snow, one of our visitors had to cancel, and I used the time to start thinking about what to grow.
I've grown veg before, on an allotment of my own, in a community plot, and in our tiny city garden at our old house. It's always been a bit hit and miss. I didn't get to the allotment often enough, so I never had a reliable crop there. In the tiny garden, there wasn't much room, and we were often beset by slugs, which could demolish an entire garden full of veg plants in one night. I had far more success with herbs and soft fruit there.
Here, though, we have fields, and I've earmarked one of them for growing veg in.
I'd amassed quite a stash of veg seed, but a couple of years ago, when we decided to work towards moving house, I gave it all away. I knew I wasn't going to plant anything that year, or possibly the year after, and didn't want it to go to waste. So I'm pretty much starting from scratch here.
Except that I'm not really starting from scratch, because several lovely people have seen fit to give me seeds as gifts. What a cheerful idea! My auntie has even saved some of her own, which is most impressive, and which I have so far neglected to photograph, but I will do before I plant any of them. Others have come free with magazines, and I found a couple of packets I'd picked up cheap in Aldi a few weeks ago before we moved.
I've got quite a stash already. Two varieties of tomatoes, purple sprouting broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, three types of chilli peppers, basil, coriander, cauliflower, lettuce, mustard greens, beans, and six varieties each of courgettes and winter squash (might have to get creative come harvest time with that lot).
I planted a few things out in the greenhouse the other day - I'm not sure what will germinate as it's not heated in there. I bought compost, but I've used plant pots I found lying around and the insides of toilet rolls to plant them in. I've also used a cut up milk carton for the labels (apart from the ones that came with some packets of seeds - what a brilliant idea that is!)
The greenhouse is a plastic one, and while I've weighted it down as much as I can with large stones, the plastic does flap about quite a bit, and I suspect is in danger of catapulting the seeds off the shelves if I don't place them carefully. It's also not really transparent, so once you're in there, you can't really see out.
I'm reserving judgement, but it'll do for now while I wait for a decent sized one to come up on Freegle.
I'm trying to think about what else to grow. Not onions, as they're a bit finicky and also cheap to buy. But I might try some potatoes - we've got plenty of room and they're good for turning the soil over. I definitely want a few more varieties of beans and some peas. We eat a lot of kale, so I'll need plenty of that, sown in succession to keep us going through the winter I think, perhaps a few different varieties. And leeks. Some lettuce, and rocket, and I'm tempted to have a go at watercress given the amount of water that's round here. Garlic, rhubarb, and a load of soft fruit - gooseberries and raspberries for certain. I've got an apple tree in a pot that I want to plant in the ground, and it would be good to have plums too.
I'm not sure about root crops. I love carrots and parsnips, but they've always seemed like quite a bit of trouble. Mind you, I went to a talk recently by someone who's won competitions with parsnips that were 5 foot 5 long, so maybe I should follow his tips and give it a go?
Today was the first non-snowy day without visitors for a while, so I finally retrieved my bike from the garage, pumped the tyres up, and set off for a cycle down one of the old railway trails that criss cross the national park.
I used to do this fairly regularly before, but they're a lot closer to home now. Our old house was on top of a hill and surrounded by city roads, and our new one is perched on the side of a hill surrounded by narrow roads with windy bends, and on the whole I prefer my leisure cycling to be flatter and involve a lot of stopping to take photographs.
I did question the wisdom of choosing today for a bike ride. It was raining all morning, and I squelched about the garden as I got my bike ready. But there was a brief break in the clouds which convinced me that it might not rain all afternoon, and I set off (clad in plenty of waterproofs).
The sky was at least a little more interesting than the blank dull grey that it's been recently. I do like to see scudding clouds (although I prefer little fluffy white ones scudding across a blue sky). There was a lot of water on the trail too, and at times it was like I was cycling through a river.
Needless to say, between the rain coming down, and the puddles coming up, I was drenched. I don't actually mind being drenched on a bike ride, as long as I can dry off and get warm straight after, but this was quite ridiculous. Even after removing my (supposedly) waterproof walking boots and two pairs of socks, my feet were still leaving wet footprints on the floor.
I'm quite pleased I lasted for 11 miles. I've not been on a bike for months, and while this was flat, it was also quite hard going with the rain and the wind and the puddles. I was quite pleased to get home and dry though, and gained a new appreciation for the rain when I spotted this double rainbow behind the house.
Rainbows aside, I'd quite like things to dry up a bit soon. Between the rain and the snow, and our many visitors with their extra cars, we've ended up with quite a churned up moat outside our front gate. I'm very grateful for my wellies right now.
I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with running. I've been doing it for years on and off. I've done all manner of races, including two marathons, three triathlons, and goodness knows how many half marathons, and odd-distanced trail races. I've come last in most of them - because while I love a good race, I'm not very consistent in training...
I enjoy running while I'm doing it, and I love it when I've finished and am back at home in the shower, but I find it difficult to lace up my shoes and get out there sometimes.
I often enter races with my sister, and we try to use them to motivate ourselves. We're currently in the middle of a series of four trail races that aren't too far from my new house - we came dead last in the first two, and I don't have much higher hopes for the last two. Still, they've been quite scenic, and a good way of getting to know some different paths (if a little muddy at times).
This morning I finally got round to going for a little training run. Just under three miles, round the block as it were (although 'round the block' takes on a different meaning out here). I didn't venture off road today - everywhere is quite soggy after yesterday's snow. Mind you, the roads themselves weren't exactly dry.
I can't say it was a great run. It was drizzly and grey, the hills were shrouded in mist so there wasn't much of a view. I haven't been able to find my running watch since we moved house, and I hadn't had any breakfast so it was a bit hard going. But running (and walking) is a grand way to get a feel for a new place, and there's always a sense of achievement to being out and about that early in the morning.
Wandering about the lanes is also a great way to see what your neighbours are up to - one of our neighbours seems to have alpacas who were as curious about me as I was about them.
Our next trail run is this Sunday, and I fear that our goal to be 'a bit faster than last time' may be rather ambitious. Although this one is flat, so who knows.
It does feel good to be getting back out there though. Next job is to fix up my bike and get out to some of our off road old railway trails. I might try that in the morning if it's not raining too much...
We've had a lot of visitors this week. I've been off work, and it's been the Easter weekend, and in the last three days we've had an assortment of children, grown ups and dogs running around the place. Some visitors even offered to do some work, and we've had two trips to the tip, potholes filled in, a path laid, and an outbuilding demolished.
I managed to put up a temporary greenhouse, with the hopeful vision of one day being able to plant some vegetables. New greenhouses are so very expensive, and while they do come up on Freegle fairly regularly, I wanted to get going this week so we bought a plastic one to use temporarily. I can actually pick this one up on my own while it's fully constructed, so it should be pretty easy to move to a new site if necessary. It does feel like it sticks out a bit where it currently is, but it was the best placement in terms of sunshine so I'm going to leave it for a bit to see how it feels.
I've not actually managed to sow anything yet, as since I built it we've had visitors every day (and they've mostly been helping with heavy duty tasks), and now it's snowing again. Still, I suppose its not snowing inside the greenhouse, so I should really stop making excuses.
We were meant to have another visitor today, but the buses were cancelled, so instead we donned wellies and not-quite-enough waterproofs and went for a stroll round the block.
I think this is going to be a lovely little route of a summer evening, but today it was just cold, wet, and uneven, with a grey sky making the normally spectacular view seem a bit flat.
I'd love to say we came home to these Baileys cheesecake chocolates that my mum made, but sadly we finished them yesterday so it was just a cup of tea and a biscuit.
The mist has descended again and we can barely see past the end of the garden now, so it's definitely a day for inside tasks. I've unpacked all my gardening books, so I need to read up on what to plant when, and I promised myself when I moved I'd do some more baking and batch cooking. I repotted my houseplants, so I need to find new homes for them, and there's always a bit more unpacking to do...
Sit down and make yourself comfortable. I'm Jenni, and I write here about our new foray into country living, which includes growing food, knitting, baking, wandering around the fields, and seeing which local cafe serves the best cake.