Where Did The Summer Go?!

Well.  It’s been ages since I wrote a post and I do feel bad about it, honestly I do.  I’ve kept thinking about it and meaning to do it but somehow … you know how it is.  Sometimes life just takes over and before you know where you are, despite all your good intentions, you simply fall behind with the things you really want to do.  My intention with this post is to bring you up to date with what I’ve been doing over the summer – just an outline or I’d be here all day and you’d lose the will to live.  Future posts can go into it all in much more detail.  Here we go:

At Hartington Wakes with Mr P. A great day out.
This year’s apple crop – absolutely delicious!

The Allotment

It’s been a funny old year, hasn’t it, at least weather wise?  I don’t know what the hell’s going on but we had the most god-awful winter which went on forever, had no spring at all but skipped straight to summer and, no sooner had I started to think that was endless too, we then launched straight into full on autumn.  One minute we’d got 30 degrees C, and the next I was getting out my scarves and gloves, while some bloody no-life-numpty started bleating on about Christmas and isn’t it great that it’s only 20 weeks away or some such bollocks.  Well, no.  Frankly, it isn’t and it’s way too soon to be thinking about that.  And I’m getting sidetracked already!  The prolonged dry spell, with no mains water on site, affected the broad beans particularly badly; growth was stunted, resulting in a poor crop.  The new potatoes, likewise, were ‘all tops and no bottoms’ – the potatoes themselves were a reasonable size but there were too few of them.  I had better luck with the runner beans until a recent high wind ripped them out of the ground, leaving a right old mess.  The high points were the perpetual spinach – the plant that keeps on giving – the apples which are so much better than last year, and the plums which have been absolutely amazing; plentiful, juicy, sweet, and delicious.

Some of this year’s fabulous plums – I scoffed them shamelessly!
Supper!
Canes just make your allotment look so much better!

Preserves

I had to do something with all those plums, so we’ve got plum and cinnamon jam (sounds strange but delicious), and a plum and apple chutney which could well be Blow-Your-Bum-Off chutney, as I went a bit mad with the spices – we’ll see in about another four weeks’ time when it’s ready to eat.  Runner beans, gooseberries, and raspberries are in the freezer, along with stewed apple in various guises.

More Chickens!

Just over a month ago, I became the proud and slightly frightened owner of four rescue hens.  Liberated from a commercial barn environment, these girls had never seen grass or daylight, looked rather scruffy,   and were surprisingly (and rather alarmingly) feisty.  After being quarantined for two weeks, they were released to be with my existing flock who didn’t stand a chance.  Poor Hilda, Evadne, Ada, and Cissy were jumped on, pecked at and generally bullied into submission but this only lasted two days, after I threatened the new girls with the soup pot or being taken back where they’d come from.  In a bizarre display of chicken-ness, they are now all happily sharing a coop – I hadn’t intended this, and had spent ages renovating the wooden chicken coop for the new girls.  There’s gratitude for you!

Poor Hilda – fancy having that stuck up your no-no!

Chicken Nursing

Damn.  My first poorly chicken, poor old Hilda had the remains of a soft-shelled egg poking out of her bottom, with a soft-shelled egg stuck behind that.  Much TLC was required but she recovered really well and is now fine and dandy, and laying again.  I’m happy to talk more about this in another post if you think it’s of interest and don’t mind me talking about chickens’ bums and poo.

Work-Life Balance

Aha, now this is a definite positive!  As of the 1st October, I became a part-timer.  This is something I’d been considering for some time, talking to my (very supportive) boss, working out finances, worrying about the effect on my pension, blah blah blah.  In the end, I decided to just do it.  I had what turned out to be a relatively minor health scare earlier this year and, at the end of the day, it’s no use having a pension if I drop dead before I get to collect it.  I need to be happy now, instead of putting it off and saying ‘Oh well, I’ll do such and such, and be happy when I retire’ – I could be dead next week so I’ll take the gamble that I’ll have something better than cold baked beans to live on when I retire.  Tomorrow will be my first day off, and the first day of my new life.  I’ll keep you posted on how it goes.

Cake competition at Hartington Wakes. I could eat this and die happy.

What Next?

That’s sort of up to you!  I’ve decided to let you choose what I write about next.  Do you want to hear more about the allotment, the chickens or is there something else I’ve not covered which you think would be interesting or useful to read about? Please let me know – I love hearing from you!

Rural Poverty – guest post

I’ve finally managed to persuade Nick Pearson to write a short piece on rural poverty.  Nick has spent the best part of 36 years working in both the charitable and private sectors, advising on personal debt.  I’m hoping this guest post won’t be the last, as rural poverty is a depressing reality for many – Sarah.

You Can’t Eat The View – Nick Pearson on Rural Poverty

Visitors to the Peak District often tell me that it must be wonderful to live somewhere so lovely.  And they are right, it is.  It must seem to outsiders as if the 38,000 people who live within the Peak District National Park boundary are living the dream.  Most are. Compared with the rest of the UK, particularly urban areas, the level of deprivation is very low in the Peak District. Indeed based on every indicator of poverty, from crime levels to unemployment we are indeed fortunate. Government statistics for rural versus urban poverty across the UK show a similar picture – the percentage of households in rural areas in relative low income was 16%  before housing costs and 17% after housing costs.  In comparison, the percentage of households in urban areas in relative low income was 18% before housing costs and 24% cent after housing costs (“Rural Poverty 2016/17” DEFRA).

Below the surface, things are not always as rosy as they seem.  House price inflation caused by wealthy incomers buying second homes or simply moving to the area, the continued expansion of holiday cottage numbers, and a lack of affordable social rented housing make it very difficult for lower income families to be able to afford to buy property in the area. The Peak District is in fact a low wage area.  People who live and work locally are dependent on farming, tourist related services, (such as pubs and restaurants),  and the local quarries for jobs, most of which are low paid – if you don’t believe me look in the “Peak Advertiser” at the jobs on offer.  Better paid locals usually travel to work in places such as Manchester or Nottingham and sometimes beyond each day.

As with other rural areas, the average resident of the Peak District is c5 years old than that of someone living in an urban area.  Retired residents can sometimes be asset rich but cash poor, reliant on the state pension as their only source of income.  These folk are usually born and bred in the area and have to rely on family who still live in the area to get out and about.

Public transport services are few and far between as are local shops, many of which have now closed in Peak District villages.  You need a car or good neighbours to get to the supermarkets, doctors or shops in Buxton or Ashbourne.  If you need to go to hospital for something serious expect to be taken to Macclesfield, Stockport or Chesterfield, all of which are the best part of an hour’s drive away – if you have a car.

I don’t want to over-egg the pudding – compared to those who live in the inner cities, Peak District residents are indeed fortunate but as a local farmer said to me in the village pub the other night, “Aye, it’s a grand place to live but you can’t eat the view, lad.”

Nick Pearson is Head of External Relations at Gregory Pennington Limited.

A Weekend In The Country

I’ve been pondering this post for some time now.  Over the past few weeks I’ve considered all sorts of topics, with weather being at the top of the list for obvious reasons.  However, today is considerably fresher than the last few weeks and we’ve actually had some rain – hooray!  Anyway, there’s been so much talk about the weather on Twitter, Facebook, and the news that I eventually decided to be very un-British and talk about something entirely different for a change.  Finally, today it came to me.  This blog is supposed to be all about what it’s really like living in the country, and part of that is rural pursuits.

But what does that actually mean?  The phrase ‘rural pursuits’ conjures up images of rich people who really ought to know better galloping about the countryside on horseback, ripping animals to shreds.  Or just galloping about on horseback.  Or possibly weaving a basket before taking a break for high tea, complete with home-made cake and cucumber sandwiches.  Well pardon me but for most of us that’s just chocolate box fantasy so sit back with a cuppa while I tell it like it is.

My mornings invariably start around 7ish (give or take) when I roll out of bed.  Rather than Laura Ashley and tweed, I opt for usually grubby, paint-spattered walking trousers and a fleece.  Oh, and wellies.  I practically have them welded to my feet.  Thus glamorously attired, I can take the girls fresh water and feed, let them out, and hand pick the poo out of their house – this gets saved for the compost bin on the allotment.  There’s usually at least one or two eggs – I’ll collect the rest later – and it’s back in for breakfast.  This weekend it was the Monyash Quilters exhibition – “Quilts in the Peak”.  Held just once every three years, I had offered to help out in the kitchen on Sunday but I popped along on Saturday morning just to have a look while Mr P took the dogs out.  I have to say it was a pretty impressive display!

A few of the quilts on display.

From there I headed straight to Bakewell and Mr P went off to play cricket.  For those of you who haven’t been, Bakewell is very pretty in a quaint sort of way, with a few high street chains, such as Boots, Fat Face, and Costa but otherwise it’s mainly independent shops selling everything from clothing to bears, books, and kitchenware.  There are some real gems: Bakewell Cookshop, Birdsong (possibly the prettiest shop ever), and the Hartington Cheese Co.  For those who like to browse the charity shops, Lighthouse is set out like a French brocante.  I headed there first before legging it to my favourite place for coffee, Gallery Cafe, to try to avoid the lunchtime rush.  I celebrated losing a bit of weight this week by indulging in a homemade scone with clotted cream and jam (cream first before you ask!) and a large flat white.  It was a valuable bit of me-time accompanied by the book I’m reading at the minute – At the Existentialist Cafe by Sarah Bakewell, funnily enough!  It’s a good read and I highly recommend it.

Yum. What else is there to say?!
There’s nothing better than a good book.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t hang around too long as I’d got things to do at home but I did just swing by the Farmer’s Market where I picked up a couple of succulents to plant in the wall at the back of the house.  Given the weather lately, it seemed sensible to give them a try!  If they do ok, I can buy more at the market when it’s back next month.

 

Back home there was a load of fruit waiting to be dealt with.  I had gooseberries from my allotment and my neighbour on the next plot had given me a batch of whitecurrants.  I’ve never actually eaten whitecurrants before.  I grow blackcurrants on the allotment and there are two very productive redcurrant bushes in the garden which, to be honest, I don’t bother with.  The blackbirds are welcome to them – I’ve got enough on my plate (pardon the pun) with everything else!  The gooseberries just needed topping and tailing for the freezer, as I’d already made a batch of jam a couple of weeks ago.  It’s not my favourite job but it is quite absorbing and I sorted them into cookers and ‘ripe-enough-to-eat-raw’ as I went.  With those sorted and bagged up for the freezer it was time for the whitecurrants.  I always think currants are a bit of a phaff, quite frankly, and probably more trouble than they’re worth – at least if you’re bothered by the seeds.  I’m including a short video of the easiest way of getting currants off the stalks using a fork.

My allotment neighbour strains hers to get the seeds out but I really can’t be fannying about with all that – life’s just too short and besides, that’s what flossing is for.  Also, I don’t really have space for doing it in our little kitchen.  All our jam has to be made in the microwave because of the utterly useless piece of shit that is the Rayburn which masquerades as a cooker, water heater, and fires the central heating.  Even when it’s turned on it’s hopeless but in this weather the only option is to turn the whole thing off and just use the immersion heater for water.  This means we don’t have a hob and can’t even boil a bloody egg!  So the microwave is the only option for jam.  Or any kind of cooking at all.  All I do is bung the fruit into a large bowl, heat it til it’s a bit mushy, add an equal weight of sugar and stick it back in the microwave for a few minutes – I just keep checking it and stirring a bit til it seems about right.  It’s all a bit Heath Robinson but it seems to work pretty well really.  Luckily, I prefer my jam soft – it’s so much more versatile as you can spread it on toast, dollop it on scones, or slather it over icecream.  Or mix it with whipped cream.  Or custard.  Or … you get the idea.

One of the prettiest jams I’ve ever made.
Gooseberries bagged up and ready for the freezer.

By the time I’d done all this I was pretty knackered as I’d been on my feet all day and it was around 4.30pm.  The dogs had already been out with Mr P for a good long walk but needed a quick ten minutes to stretch their legs.  And so on.  I still needed to get cracking on this blog post too but gave myself permission to watch an episode of Foyle’s War with a cup of tea.  I love Foyle’s War; Michael Kitchen is fab even if Foyle is just a tad dour, and Sam’s a female version of Tim Nice-but-Dim.  Having said that she seems to have a bit more about her in the later series.  I managed to fit in a bit of sewing at the same time – I’m currently working on dressing a bear in clothing inspired by Dolly Parton’s song “My Coat of Many Colours”.  This basically means I’m making a tiny patchwork coat – the pair of patched trousers are already finished.  Anyhow, Mr P came home from cricket and I got sidetracked into going to the pub around 9pm, where Echo started barking and had to be taken home in disgrace, while Basil did his impression of a starving dog for the benefit of the people eating dinner at the next table and combed the carpet for errant chips.  Somehow, in the midst of all this the girls were shut up in their house for the night well before I fell into bed long after midnight.

Close up of applique on a quilt.
Country themed quilt.

Today has been rather less busy – I’d volunteered to help out in the kitchen at the quilt exhibition so after dealing with the girls, I spent two hours washing pots.  A highlight was venturing out to see how things were going and meeting Jenni of @notreallyafarm.  It turns out we have plenty in common and a cup of tea is on the agenda.  There was lots of cake about and I bought a whole chocolate, courgette and coffee cake to take home, with a promise from the baker to let me have the recipe.  After a piece of cake and a cup of tea I managed another episode of Foyle’s War and then by 4.30pm felt compelled to take a nap! This isn’t like me really as I usually only sleep in the daytime if I’m ill but, since having been particularly unwell last autumn, it’s become a more regular occurrence than I’d like.

Courgette, potato, and feta omelette. Salad’s mostly homegrown too!

I really enjoyed my dinner tonight, partly because it was delicious, partly because some of it came from the sweat of my own brow.  An omelette with home grown courgettes, my own potatoes, and eggs from the girls only needed a little feta cheese to become a feast.  That was followed with a short walk with Mr P and the dogs, shutting the girls up for the night, and back to the blog.  Bed is calling and I won’t be able to resist for long.  Apart from the fact that I haven’t been to the allotment this weekend because of the rain, or walked with Mr P and the dogs because I was otherwise committed, this has been a reasonably typical weekend.

I suppose the point of all this is to say that there is plenty to do if you live a rural life but the days when I lived in the city and spent weekends meeting friends in town for coffee and shopping or going out for cocktails are long gone, and seem a million miles away.  Much of what I do now revolves around creating things, whether it’s an allotment, quilts, bears, cakes, or meals.  Dogs feature heavily, as do chickens.  Activities are weather dependent, and maintaining a social life is largely reliant on me making an effort to get involved in what’s going on locally.

In short, you need to be able to find things to do indoors on a wet weekend without relying entirely on the TV or heading off to your nearest shopping centre; you only get out what you put in.  A rural life is very much what you make it.

Dogs: Basil, Mr Kasta, and Echo

Our dogs are, quite possibly, the best things in our lives.  It’s entirely possible that Mr P loves the dogs more than he loves me.  When we first met, Mr P already had two – Basil, a Jack Russell-Manchester Terrier cross, and Mr Kasta, a German Shepherd-Border Terrier cross, both rescue dogs.

Basil’s been pushing his luck again!
Mr Kasta has the ‘Aw’ Factor!

I took to Kasta immediately – everyone did, he had something about him.  He had a way of looking at you that just made you melt, and I don’t think anyone ever looked at him without saying ‘Aw!’.  Basil, on the other hand, was another kettle of (dog)fish entirely.  He’s wilful, demanding, and unbelievably noisy.  We never really go anywhere without the dogs; they come to the pub, we take them on holiday, even when we go out for meals they often come with us!  Basil and Kasta would travel in the back of Mr P’s estate car, safely behind the dog-guard.  What wasn’t safe was our ears.  Basil would bark frenziedly and whine practically the entire time, reaching notes that Mariah Carey would envy, and that were substantially more nerve-jangling than nails on a blackboard or the thought of chewing silver foil.  Every now and then he’d shut up for a minute but would be set off again by the sound of the indicators.  After a while, the racket he made set Kasta off and they’d both start howling.  Also, he had the rather annoying habit of trying to hump poor Mr Kasta every time they got into the car.  It would be fair to say that I didn’t love Basil straightaway.  However, over a period of time, I did come to love Bazzer (aka Little Shit), and can’t imagine life without him somehow.  He wormed his annoying way into my affections, and is absolutely adorable in his own funny little way.

Our dogs go everywhere with us – even the cinema!

Mr Kasta was already elderly when I entered the scene and in January, we had to make the decision to let him go.  He’d become frail; even just six months earlier he’d seemed pretty fit, regularly walking several miles with us but he’d begun dragging his back feet and started to struggle with stiles, with Mr P having to lift him to get him over them.  He also developed dementia.  Never a particularly affectionate dog, he started coming to us for attention, and seeming to seek reassurance that he was in the right place.  He’d wander aimlessly from room to room, not sitting still, and standing staring into a corner.  In the end, he started to fall over on even very short walks and was obviously in pain.  We called the vet out and aged 17 he died, very quietly, in Mr P’s arms.

On holiday a couple of years ago.

We talked about getting another dog and even half-heartedly looked on-line at some rescue centre websites but weren’t quite ready.  There’s always that guilt when you lose an animal you’ve loved; you feel as if it’s wrong to replace them.  But that’s not really what you’re doing, is it?  The greatest compliment you can pay to them, to anyone you’ve loved and lost, is to say “I loved you so much, it was wonderful, and I want to experience that again”.  Around the end of March we started looking a bit more seriously for another dog.  We weren’t looking for anything in particular, though Mr P was absolutely set against a ‘pure breed’ of dog, and I preferred a female since I’ve been outnumbered for so long!  We thought a small to medium sized dog would suit us, and probably something around 5 years old.  After much to-ing and fro-ing, we spotted a likely looking candidate at a rescue centre in Yorkshire (a two hour round trip), were inspected and approved, and made several trips there for ‘meet and greets’ but were disheartened by what seemed like a never-ending process.  It was always ‘oh, maybe one more meet and greet, just to be sure’.  Well, if you’ve ever had dogs, you’ll know that you can’t be sure of anything til you get them home, especially when there’s already a dog in residence.  Basil had met the other dog twice and they seemed fine together so we were getting pretty fed up.  The final straw came when we’d travelled up for another meet and greet, only to be told on arrival that we couldn’t go in because they’d got an outbreak of kennel cough.  Of course, we understood but were pretty annoyed we’d wasted two hours in the car!  On the way home, we decided it was time to look elsewhere.

Back home, strangely enough we both spotted the same dog on the Ark’s website.  Echo was described as a large, nine-year old labrador-collie cross who loved water and playing with her ball.  Plus, she had the most ridiculous ears I’ve ever seen.  She wasn’t what we were looking for.  I called the Ark immediately.

Our lovely 9 year old rescue dog, Echo.
Basil and Echo share a stick outside at the pub.

Turned out Echo had only just been brought in and needed to be assessed before anyone could see her but they’d call me back in a week.  Hmm, yeah right!  But they did!  On the Sunday, we drove over there with Basil in tow for a meet and greet and, within a couple of hours, we were on our way home with Echo in the back of the car.  She and Basil had hit it off straight away and it was love at first sight for me and Mr P.  Well, when I say she and Basil got on, they pretty much ignored each other which we reckoned was a pretty good start!  Basil was amazing really, and seemed to accept Echo with absolutely no problem at all.  As I said, you can’t tell until you get them home!  Now, several weeks later, they actually play together and steal food out of each other’s bowls.

As for Echo herself, she’s an absolute joy.  She’s more poodle-collie cross than labrador, with a very poodle-like curly coat and those silly ears which seem quite collie-ish.  She’s completely adorable and has collie traits.  She rounds Basil up when he’s piffling about on a walk, and does an out-run before dropping to wait for you to throw a ball for her. She’s commandeered the armchair, and likes to lean on you for fuss, which she can’t seem to have too much of.  She does love water but won’t swim in it, preferring to just splash about in the shallows.

Our girl loves water!

She’s a terrible food thief and can whip your dinner off your plate right under your nose like a super-hairy stealth ninja.  On a walk this week, I stopped off for a sausage bap and a latte.  I got almost to the bench when Echo pulled the old ‘I’m ravelled up in my lead’ routine, nearly tripping me up, and knocking the bap right out of my hand onto the floor, from where she scoffed it within a nano-second, much to the amusement of the other walkers and cyclists.  She’s pretty much forced her way into our affections – you can’t help but love her, much like Mr Kasta.  We can’t imagine being without her.

10 Tips For Moving To The Country

  1. Be realistic about country life.

It’s not all roses round the door.  You may come across the occasional dead lamb in a field.  Farmers sometimes shoot foxes and rabbits might chomp their way through your veg patch.  Mole catchers string their victims’ bodies on wires … no, seriously  – just don’t ask me why!  And petrol is more expensive in rural areas, as are other things.

 

  1. Consider your future needs before taking the plunge.

Are you likely to need regular visits to a doctor in the next few years?   Will you still be able/want to drive?  Is there a bus service? How far is the nearest supermarket or school, and will you be able to get there in bad weather? See tip no.1.

 

  1. Friends matter but don’t expect to make them overnight.

There are no shortcuts and you can’t force it; it takes time and effort.  https://countryrealist.com/tag/friends/

 

  1. The local community is crucial so get stuck in with it.

Unless you have people queuing up to be friends on your arrival, join the local bee-keeping club, wine circle or scuba diving club – whatever floats your particular boat, so long as you’re getting out there and meeting like-minded people.

 

  1. Support local events.

Help out with well-dressings, flower festivals, and fund raising events.  God knows what my offering for the flower festival will look like but it’ll be fun doing it.  If you’re completely cack-handed, turn up in person to buy cakes, second hand goods, and offer support of the pecuniary kind. Read more here https://countryrealist.com/tag/village-life/

 

  1. Avoid rocking the boat.

On Twitter recently, there was the story of a farmer whose new neighbours kept lodging official complaints about the smells emanating from his farm.  I mean, seriously?!  You don’t want everyone thinking you’re the neighbour from hell – make sure you know what you’re letting yourself in for before taking the plunge (see tip no.1).

 

  1. The country is a working place.

Farms do smell, and are noisy at times (tip no.1 again!).  Livestock represent a huge investment of time and money so treat cattle with respect and keep dogs on leads round sheep.  Ask visitors to park considerately; at the May Market, one visitor double-parked and caused chaos because farm traffic couldn’t get through.

 

  1. Chickens make great pets!

They’re no trouble to look after and just need a balanced food, fresh water, and a clean, safe place to sleep and lay their eggs.  With their funny ways and their little puk-puk noises, they’re so endearing.  Those amazing eggs are just a fantastic bonus.  Read more here https://countryrealist.com/category/chickens/

 

  1. The great outdoors is fabulous for your physical and emotional wellbeing.

I can practically feel tension and stress sliding off my shoulders when I’m on the allotment.  When I’m digging and pulling weeds I don’t think about work. At all.  Get your name on the allotment waiting list – you might get lucky like I did!  Read all about it here https://countryrealist.com/tag/allotment/

 

  1. Weather is king.

In a farming community it really does rule everything that goes on.  In good weather, silaging might go on til 10pm. In the snow we had early in the year, I couldn’t get to work, but had to defreeze the hens’ water every couple of hours (and we’re back to tip no.1!).  Follow the link to read more https://countryrealist.com/tag/weather/

 

This boils down to tip no.1 – being realistic and doing your homework.  If you’ve done that, and you’re convinced the country is the place for you, go for it.  It’s an amazing place to live – good luck!

 

I’m always a bit excited when someone reads my posts!  Please leave a comment using the ‘comment’ button below – woohoo!

 

 

 

 

Chickenopolis: Phase 2!

The girls now have free range of the piece of land behind the house and they love it.

A while ago, I talked about how we went about getting our chickens and how we’d been given a hen house by a very kind farming neighbour.  Well, the chicken bug has well and truly bitten and we’re now thinking (well, I am!) of getting a few more.  Just three or four and then that would be it.  Honestly!  I was initially thinking of going for pure breeds, perhaps one of those which are particularly rare and/or local, such as the Derbyshire Redcap or the Marsh Daisy.  However, I then saw something on Facebook about ex-battery hens and felt compelled to rehome some of those instead.  After having a totally horrendous life confined to a cage the size of a sheet of A4 paper, they deserve to see daylight and feel grass under their feet.  Besides, most of them are ‘disposed of’ at around 17 months old and have plenty of life, and eggs, left in them.

This means that my current coop isn’t big enough to accommodate both my flock as it stands and any newcomers.  On top of that, you can’t just introduce new hens into an existing flock; the incoming birds need to be quarantined to avoid them possibly bringing in an infection or disease, and to prevent them being bullied by the current flock members.  This, of course, all means just one thing. A new hen house.

Chickenopolis! The wooden coop will be moved out of this enclosure and renovated.

Choosing a new hen house is a big deal.  It needs to be practical; big enough, easy to clean, red mite resistant, attractive and comfortable for the girls, and so on.  Because everyone I know has told me horror stories of major red mite infestations which caused them to give up on chicken keeping, I was perhaps a tad paranoid about this and made it my mission to find a suitable, affordable, plastic coop.  Plastic is, apparently, less attractive to red mite than wood but plastic coops tend to be less attractive to me.  Eglu is a practical brand but I don’t find them at all attractive and they’re expensive.  There are chicken arks made from recycled plastic but, again, they’re just not attractive in my opinion.  I did locate one plastic coop which combined all the practical benefits I wanted but with a traditional look.  However, this came at a price.  Almost £600 to be precise!  This was way beyond my budget.  Eventually, after a couple of weeks of researching I found something which seemed to fit the bill; a coop made of recycled plastic and wood fibre with a relatively traditional appearance, at a more affordable £180.00.  This is, of course, still a chunk of money but with a bit of luck it should last years without rotting.

The front of the coop with the nest box to the left.
The rear of the new coop.

There was a bit of a delay in delivery but eventually it arrived in one large, flat box with over 40 pieces which needed fitting together.  No tools were required to do this though an extra pair of hands would have been nice.  Unfortunately, Mr P chose this moment to go and have a nap, leaving me to it.  It actually went together without too much trouble, apart from the nest box which I thought should have been done at an earlier stage in construction (instructions aren’t always well thought through, are they?).

So, what do I and, more importantly, the girls, think of this new hen house?  Well, the girls seem to quite like it!  They refused to go in it the first night so the following night I put them in it but let them go in the old house the next morning to lay their eggs.  After that, we closed off the old house and they’ve been using the new one ever since, with no trouble at all.  After that first night, they went in it on their own and laid in the nest box straight away.  As for me, well I think this chicken house is in need of a redesign.  The roof doesn’t lift off for easy cleaning as you might expect of any hen house.  To access the inside you have to unscrew the bolts at the sides of the roof and slide out a couple of the roof panels.  I now don’t bother putting the bolts back in as it’s a pain.  The roof to the nest box does lift up though …   The roosting bars are too narrow, at about 1″ wide and are positioned so low that in winter, if you’re deep littering, they will soon be useless.  I’m putting in a homemade roost bar instead.

The roof is sectional and can be pulled out for cleaning.
The left-hand roosting bar and the nest box. This is too narrow for a roost.

This house is easily big enough for four to six hens (my four girls free range so only sleep and lay eggs in theirs) but there’s only one nest box which isn’t big enough to divide in two – -luckily, my girls don’t seem to mind sharing!  Having said all that, if you can live with the deficiencies or make some alterations, it’s probably worth the money.  It’s miles cheaper than other plastic houses, is easy to put together (I did it on my own in about an hour and a half but, as I said, it’d be quicker with a bit of help), and I’m hoping it will help avoid the dreaded red mite.  It’s made from recycled materials which appeals to me too.

The nest box – the girls will insist on sleeping in it!

The plan now is to renovate the old wooden coop for the incoming girls until I’m in a position to afford another new, plastic coop.  But that’s something I’ll cover in a future post!

 

Do you keep chickens, what sort of coop do you prefer?As always, please do contact me and share your thoughts on this.  You’ll need to sign up as a user in order for your comments to appear under the post.  I’d be delighted to hear from you.

 

 

Peak District Colour: Monyash May Market

Monyash has a thriving community spirit and there’s usually something going on.  Today it was the annual May Market.

Pommie band in action. Note the new bull under the sign!
Skittles on the village green.

Held every Spring Bank Holiday, this has been going on for as long as anyone can remember – the village was originally granted a charter for a market and fair back in 1340 but sadly this is the only market remaining.  We met a family today who, though they no longer live in the village, retain local ties and had come specifically for the market today.  They remembered the market as a big affair, with over 40 stalls, a pet competition, and much more.

Mr P’s in charge of the shopping bag!

Today’s market is a much more low-key affair, with just a handful of stalls selling second hand goods in support of local causes, such as the primary school and the small park behind the pub.  But everyone has a good time and certainly doesn’t go hungry!  There is a rather splendid barbecue, from which I enjoyed an absolutely massive hot-dog which deserves a much better name, featuring as it did a fantastic Critchlow’s sausage completed with fried onions and mustard.  It was hot, juicy, and incredibly delicious.  Mr P hardly ever eats meat so missed out on a real treat, I reckon.  Yah boo sucks to him!

The best hotdogs in the world!

The May Market also coincides with the well-dressings, which take place at the same time all over the Peak District.  This is the result of an awful lot of hard work, with volunteers staying up til midnight to puddle the mud and get the petalling completed in time but the results speak for themselves.  It’s great to see these old traditions surviving in a world where the screen seems to dominate everything we do.

Monyash’s well dressing 2018

The local school hosts afternoon tea but I’m afraid all I could manage was a piece of rhubarb cake and a cup of tea.  Mr P had said “Just get me anything” then when I got back a piece of lemon cake for him, claimed that was probably the only thing he didn’t really like. Didn’t stop him eating it though.   I had rather hoped for a piece of a cake I’d seen being carried in a few minutes earlier but it turned out to be intended for the cake competition.  Drats!

 

 

Results of the cake competition – how did the judges restrict themselves to such small pieces?!
The school all decked out for the occasion.

We also managed to buy a picture of the Peak District, which is already hanging in the hallway, from the stall in the Methodist Chapel, where I also bought a big Pyrex roasting dish just the right shape and size for a chicken.

Our latest purchase. £5 well-spent and for a good cause.

This year, we actually won a bottle of wine from the ‘Wine or Water’ stall (last year it was water), and picked up an Alchemilla Mollis for the grand sum of 50p.  There were skittles on the village green, and cade lambs in the schoolyard.  Music was provided courtesy of the Pommie (Pommie is the nickname for Youlgrave) Brass Band.  The weather was fabulous, which makes a change from the previous year when it was sodding awful.  Fingers are crossed for next year!

Coming soon – my review of our new chicken coop. Try not to get too excited!  Please contact me if you’d like to comment – it’s always great to hear from you.

 

Allotment Worries And Woes: A Sense of Inadequacy

My website is connected to Twitter and Facebook.  These days I don’t use Facebook as much as I once did, not necessarily because of the Cambridge Analytica data scandal (though that is a concern), but because Twitter has suddenly grabbed my attention.  In part this is because it’s awash with shepherds, farmers, gardeners, and allotmenteers all tweeting away with useful hints and tips, not to mention cute pictures of lambs.  It’s also because I’m somewhat obsessed with anything to do with rural life and am somehow living vicariously through other people’s seemingly wonderful lives – even though I know that it’s all bloody hard work.  Yes, rural life is more about feeding the soul than the bank account, this I know.

Lambs having fun getting into the hay feeder.

There’s a fly in the Twitter firmament though.  All these gardeners and allotmenteers, whose tweets and blogs I read, enjoy, and inwardly digest, are annoyingly good at it, far more organized than I am, much more experienced, and, quite frankly, I’m getting just a little bit pissed off.  Everyone’s wonderfully supportive and helpful but, even so, I’m starting to feel just a little bit inadequate! Don’t they ever have seeds which fail to germinate?  Don’t they ever buy completely the wrong tool for the job?  Or suffer attacks of the heebie-jeebies worrying if they’ll ever produce anything at all that’s even vaguely edible once they’ve cut out the manky bits?  Don’t they ever feel like, well, like a fake?  I definitely do.

All this is putting me very much in touch with a sense of my own inadequacy; what if I’m not up to the job and actually don’t produce any edible crops?  I don’t want to fail, who does?  However, to date my successes are few and far between.  When I took over my allotment, about a year ago, it was a beautiful, tangled mess of wildflowers and weeds.  There was no shed, no water; you couldn’t even really see where beds had been.

I do like an organized shed.

Now, there’s a brand spanking new shed, on a site I levelled myself, complete with shelves I put up myself (do yourself a favour – don’t buy metal shelving units from B&Q), hooks to hold my tools, and a kitchen unit/butchers’ block bought from a charity shop to act as storage/potting bench.  There’re blue plastic barrels bought for £2.50 from the local brickworks which act as water butts.

Blue plastic barrels. Cheap and cheerful.

I’ll admit I was grateful to Mr P for carrying them up the sloping site but I could’ve done the guttering and downpipe myself if he’d let me.  I connected the barrels together with a bit of plastic pipe … basically, I did pretty much everything myself.  I don’t want to eat chemicals so I’m clearing the site the hard way … by hand, digging out the most enormous perennial weeds – nettle, dock, couch grass, and dandelion.  It’s back-breaking work but strangely satisfying and it has a practical purpose – to feed us.  I’m proud of what I’ve achieved on my own.  But oh, it is taking time to get going.

Apparently it can take up to 21 days for broad beans to show their faces.  I planted some at the allotment and about 10 days later, as a sort of experiment, planted some in loo roll innards (I wish someone would come up with a one-word name for them) and put them on the window sill in the sitting room.  A couple of days ago I came home and was beyond excited to find that a broad bean had finally germinated.  I was so excited I couldn’t do anything except point and say “broad bean, broad bean, broad bean!!!”  The trouble is, nothing’s happened since.  And I do mean Nothing.  Nada.  Ne rien.  What am I doing wrong?!

A lone broad bean …
Leeks are germinating!

It’s not that everything’s refusing to grow.  I’m having some success with anything floral; the nasturtiums are going great guns, the sunflowers are coming up trumps, and the French marigolds are doing well too.  But the tomatoes were looking very leggy and weedy so I’ve planted them deep in their 3″ pots, and the squash aren’t looking as if they’re going to do anything at all at the minute.  Ok, so the leeks are doing really well and I’m happy to plant more but Mr P and I can’t just live on nasturtiums, sunflower seeds, and leeks (if anyone’s got a recipe which requires all three, please let me know).

The question is, what can I do?  I can only keep going I suppose, try to be patient, refuse to be browbeaten by vegetables, and resort to alcohol.  I’ll have a ‘Pissed as Arseholes’ cocktail, thank you very much.  Well, it is a bank holiday weekend.  Chin chin!! 

‘Pissed as Arseholes’ – a subtle blend of champagne, raspberry & blackcurrant vodka, and fresh raspberries.

 

Please feel completely free to contact me about anything at all.  All gardening advice gratefully received or we can just talk about cocktails we have known and loved.

Chickens: A Love Affair Begins!

I was in two minds whether to write about dogs or chickens this week but I have better chicken pictures than I do dogs.  That might not be a very good reason to choose to write about chickens but I don’t care!

The girls’ first day! See how small and pale their wattles and combs are?

 

I’d always rather fancied having a few chickens as part of The Dream, and I knew someone who kept a few in her back garden, so I was at least aware that you didn’t necessarily need acres of space for them.  When I moved in with Mr P, and there was a patch of land at the back of the house which was completely covered in weeds, it was practically begging to be occupied by a flock of feathery friends.  This bit of land – I can’t tell you how big it is because I’m hopeless at visualizing measurements and distances.  It’s no use telling me to drive a couple of hundred yards before turning left because it means nothing to me; but I can park like a pro!   Mr P says it’s about 600 sq.yds.  But he also said we needed 100 metres of chicken wire to fence it off; we’re now trying to sell the excess 50 metres.  Anyway, yes, we thought this bit of land must come with the cottage we rent – turns out we were wrong but that’s a story for another time.  The next-door neighbours had tried to buy or rent the patch behind them but without success.  Neither were they allowed to do anything to it, which seems rather harsh and not terribly sensible, especially as in summer the weeds sent out their seed all over the place, including into all the neighbours’ gardens.  It seemed like the obvious place to put chickens, as the garden at the front of the cottage would soon have been churned up by them.

The girls’ first home – compact and bijou but it has all they need.

 

Chickens don’t need a great deal to be happy.  They need fresh water, a properly balanced feed, a secure coop, and space to move about.  Obviously, the first thing was to get a coop sorted out before getting the chickens themselves.  You might remember that I discussed the importance of making friends in an earlier post, and this was really important when it came to getting both the coop and the hens.  It was a farming contractor friend and his son who offered us a coop they weren’t using, and also offered to get the chickens for us.  Basically, all I needed to do was let him know when we were ready, what kind of chickens we wanted, and he’d order the girls for us when he was ordering chickens for himself.

I’d bought a book on chickens and had been reading about them for some time which helped me to decide to go for hybrids rather than pure breeds.  I’m slightly obsessed with doing the research first, which might be a method of procrastination … Anyhow, the pure breeds look beautiful but the hybrids are supposed to be more robust and better layers.  On the advice of our contractor friend, we opted to have four girls since any fewer would be more likely to squabble and peck at each other – that’s where the term ‘hen-pecked’ comes from.  Apparently it can turn really quite nasty, so we decided on two brown, one white, and one black; I now know the brown ones are Warrens which are the kind you find in a battery situation, and the others are a White Leghorn hybrid and a Black Rock hybrid.

This book has been really useful – I recommend it.

The girls needed picking up from the farming contractor’s yard and he opened the door of the chicken shed and said “just catch the ones you want” – er, right!!!  The nearest I’d been to a chicken was shoving one in the oven on a Sunday.  He took pity on me in the end and just caught four of the right colours, put them in a cardboard box, and off I went, over the road with it.  I was so relieved when I got them to our place without dropping them, I can tell you!  They were duly installed in their little house, where I shut them in for a few hours – this is so they realize that this is ‘home’ and it’s safe.  Later I was able to let them out to scratch about on the little patch we’d originally fenced off for them.  The next day I went and let them out but just minutes later I was absolutely horrified to realize one had managed to fly over the fencing and had done a runner.  Because Mr P hadn’t been home when I’d collected the girls, I hadn’t been able to clip their wings.  After a few minutes of heart-in-mouth we managed to retrieve the naughty girl and, with Mr P holding them, I managed to clip their wings.  This doesn’t hurt them – you just trim the flight feathers on one wing – it’s like you cutting your nails.

I had wanted to name the girls after famous feminists – Betty (Friedan), Germaine (Greer) … you get the idea.  But Mr P vetoed that (though since I am the one who does all the chicken-related work, I don’t know why I let him get away with that one!) so in the end we went with Evadne Hinge, Hilda Bracket, Cissy, and Ada.  I think you need to be a certain age and definitely British to understand that!

As a chicken-novice a major eye-opener was chicken poo.  You’ll probably be relieved to hear I don’t have any pictures!  Chickens poo – a lot.  Their poos are enormous and you wonder how on earth something that size could come out of such a small bird.  I had a major panic when I noticed that some of their poos were a bit runny and brown whereas their ‘normal’ poos were brownish and topped with white (the white is chicken-pee).  After a frantic search on the internet, googling ‘runny chicken poo’, it turned out these runnier ones are ‘cecal’ poos and are totally normal.  I hadn’t realized either that chickens poo, wee, and lay eggs out of the same opening.  In case you’re about to go off eggs for life, I should add that when they lay an egg the opening for poo closes off so the eggs come out clean.  Actually, they also come out with wet coating of anti-bacterial stuff which dries within about a minute.  This is why you shouldn’t wash eggs as they don’t stay fresh for as long without the coating on them. But we didn’t have any eggs yet …

The girls were only young when we got them, roughly 18 weeks old.  This is called ‘point-of-lay’ and just means that they’re starting to mature and should be starting to lay within a few weeks.  At first, their combs and wattles are pale pink and quite small but, as they mature these get redder and larger.

The girls inspect their new home.

I was checking every day to see if they’d started laying and after a few weeks of nothing, was starting to wonder if I was doing something wrong.  They had a safe house, plenty of food and water, and access to outside space to do their chickeny thing, and I spent time with them every day, picking them up to check they were healthy.  Ok, that’s a bit of an excuse really – they’re actually really endearing and you just want to pick them up for a bit of a cuddle.  They’re surprisingly light – they’re not table birds and there’s just no meat on them so they’re really very skinny underneath their feathers – but they feel lovely to hold; their feathers are really soft and nice to touch.  Eventually, after a month or so, they did start to lay of course and I can’t tell you how exciting it was to discover the first egg, or how wonderful it feels to pick up a fresh egg, still warm from the hen’s body.

Our very first egg!

It’s still lovely now, months later.  In future posts, I’ll definitely be talking about chickens again, including how we coped over the appalling winter we’ve just had, and our plans to have just a few more …

I’d love to hear from you, whether you have questions about the girls, have some advice for me, or just want a chat.

The Allotment: In the Beginning …

I can recommend this book!

In the beginning, there was a woman who had always wanted an allotment but was thwarted at every turn in her attempt to get one.  Great word, ‘thwarted’, don’t you think?  Anyway, this woman had tried council run allotments, privately run allotments, had literally knocked on doors and asked “Please, can I have an allotment?” but all to no avail.  Eventually, discouraged by this and by frightening stories of waiting lists years long, she gave up and told herself it just wasn’t to be.  Then, one day, just as things seemed hopeless, she moved to a Peak District village and, almost overnight, everything changed …

Ok, this isn’t really a fairy story though things really did change in what sometimes seems like a miraculous way.  Basically, about 15 months ago I moved to Youlgreave, which is a really lovely village of about 1000 people.  It has a thriving community, there’s lots going on, there’s a Post Office, a vegetarian bakery ( https://www.peakfeast.co.uk/ ) a village shop with a cafe, and best of all so far as Mr P is concerned THREE pubs!  Yes, that’s right, a village of 1000 people with three pubs – fabulous!  Of these, The Farmyard ( http://www.farmyardinn.co.uk/ ) was our favourite as it does really good food (I can recommend the beef shortrib) and has a great atmosphere.  But I digress.  I moved there because Mr P and I wanted to see more of each other but weren’t ready to live together yet.  A few months later we did move in together but at the time I really thought I’d be in Youlgreave for at least a year to 18 months and I wanted to feel settled there.

Youlgreave (or Youlgrave) in the spring sunshine. Last year obviously!

Mr P may have been impressed by the pubs but, for me, the exciting thing was that there were allotments.  More than one lot of allotments in fact!  I immediately put my name down for one in what I thought was vain hope rather than in anticipation of success.  Anyone who has ever tried to get an allotment knows that it can be a terrible waiting game and is often a case of ‘dead man’s shoes’.  To say I was amazed to get a letter offering me a plot just a few weeks later would be an understatement.  I got back straight away to say I was interested, and arranged to meet the Parish Clerk at the allotment site.

At this point, for anyone reading this who doesn’t know anything about allotments, I’ll give you a potted history.  An allotment is a small plot of land, traditionally measured in ‘poles’.  Most plots are 10 poles in size which equates to around 2,700 sq.ft, and generally laid out as a rectangle of 33 x 82 ft.  This is pretty generous and can be a bit much for a lot of us so many are divided up into half or even quarter plots which means people can stay on top of them and more of us get to enjoy them.  These plots of land can be used to grow fruit, vegetables, and sometimes flowers, depending on the rules of each particular allotment site.  During the 18th century people were increasingly prevented from accessing what had been common land by the Enclosure Acts, thereby being denied the ability to grow their own food and graze their animals.  More and more land was closed off from ordinary people who became understandably peeved about this.  Eventually, the unrest made posh people nervous so councils began allotting pieces of land to those in need.  In 1906 this was enacted into a law which decreed that ‘allotments’ must be set aside for the poor in both the countryside and the towns.  Things really took off during the two world wars.  People had to be fed and the WWII ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign had people digging up their gardens, while allotments numbered a staggering 1.5 million – that’s a lot of veg!

Image result for dig for victory Things tailed off somewhat once things picked up in the 1960s when people had more money and food was cheaper but, more recently, allotments have experienced something of a renaissance, hence the waiting lists which, in some areas, can be years long.  However, that doesn’t mean things are looking rosy;  allotments are under the ever-present threat of development, and there are fewer sites than previously.  But there is a clause in the law which states that if enough people (understood to be six or more) submit a written request for an allotment, the council must provide them.  Whether this actually happens I don’t know – it might help if people wanting allotments could band together and keep track of how many people have asked for them so that they can pursue the matter with the council if they don’t get a satisfactory outcome.

Anyway, to get back to the matter in hand, I trogged up to the allotment site to view what I understood was a half-plot. It’s actually 58 x 38 ft.  I hoped to find a patch of land in relatively reasonable shape, perhaps even with a shed.  What I was faced with was, to say the least, rather daunting.  A shed had stood there once but had been dismantled and been left to the weather, while annual and perennial weeds stood almost waist high in places so that it was nigh on impossible to see where the beds were.  But oh my … that view!

The view from my allotment shed. Beat that if you can!

Situated on a south-facing slope, these allotments have a 360 degree view; behind us are fields of sheep and lambs, ahead is the view across the dale, while in the far left distance are the moors, with wooded areas to the right.  On a gloomy day it’s lovely and relaxing, but on a sunny day it’s near-tear inducingly beautiful.

 

 

Where the hell do you start?!

Also in its favour was the fact that, buried under the weeds, were things I would have planted myself; a handful of immature fruit trees which might produce in future, blackcurrant and gooseberry bushes, and both summer and autumn fruiting raspberries.  So I said yes, paid the princely sum of £12 for a year’s rent and the plot was mine!  All I had to do now was clear the plot of weeds, get the soil in shape, buy a shed, organize a rainwater collection system, plan the plot, learn how to grow things …!

The main bed covered with black plastic held down by pallets begged from a building site.

Unsure where to start with all this, I decided the best plan of attack was to just start by strimming down the weeds so that I could see where the beds were and stand a chance of being able to clear them.  Right from the beginning I knew I didn’t want to use chemicals, so there were no weedkillers, and I resisted advice from some quarters to rotavate the beds; if you’ve got perennial weeds, a rotavator just chops the roots into little bits, each of which can become a new plant – yikes!  In the end, I dug up as many of the weeds as I could and covered the beds with thick black plastic.  I bought this from B&Q and it’s the stuff builders use as a damp-proof membrane under concrete floors so it’s really thick.  This is important for blocking the light out so the weeds can’t grow.  At this point, I then left most of the beds covered like this for months while I concentrated on finding a shed.

In my next post about the allotment I’ll be talking about the shed, how important it is to me, and dealing with the difficulties of a site with no running water or electricity.

I’d love to hear to hear from you with feedback, comments, and will do my best to answer any questions.  If you have experience of growing your own produce, I’d really like to hear about it – I have so much to learn!  So please do use the form below to get in touch.