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.

Allotment: Weather & Wildlife Woes

Don’t get me wrong.  I love my allotment, I really do but just at the minute it feels like I might as well be banging my head against a brick wall.  It’d certainly be less frustrating!  I’ve been working hard on my plot for the last year, battling against waist-high weeds to try to carve out something even vaguely resembling a productive patch of ground.  Until relatively recently, I had felt as if I was getting somewhere; I’d had much of my patch under thick black plastic for months on end, I’d manured a couple of areas last winter ready for planting in spring.  Over winter, when anyone possessed of their sanity was keeping warm indoors, I was trogging up to the plot and digging over as much of the ground as possible, removing the roots of perennial weeds feet long, and picking out what seemed like a quarry-full of stones, setting them aside for use around the shed.  I ordered seeds, three blueberry bushes which overwintered in the shed, and dreamed and waited for spring.  And waited.  And waited …

Spring never really arrived.  It seemed that one of the worst winters I can remember surrendered abruptly to the advent of summer.  And what a summer – it looks set to rival 1976!  Our allotments, you may recall, have no running water and we are entirely reliant on what we collect from our shed rooves into water butts.  My water butts were full but, with no rain to speak of in over two months, they’ve run almost dry.  In desperation I ordered four 10-litre jerry cans.  Now I wish I’d ordered twice that.  Today I made two trips to the allotment, each with the jerry cans and half a dozen 2-litre milk containers saved for the purpose – 104 litres in total – in an effort to top up at least one of the five water butts.

Jerry cans at the ready!
Everything’s stunted, including these broadbeans.

At this point I’d like to stress that I’m not filling these straight from the tap but have pressganged Mr P into joining me in putting the plug in the bath when we have showers, and saving the washing up water.  Doing this makes you acutely aware of how much water you use in the space of just one day, and much more careful not to waste any – I’ve found I can wash my hands perfectly well with just a trickle!  However, as regards the allotment, with the best will in the world all this dry, hot weather is taking its toll.  Basically, things are refusing to grow, and any produce I might have expected or hoped for is puny to say the least.

Hope the voles don’t notice these swedes coming though!

Raspberries are tiny but very raspberry-ish.  Broadbeans are stunted so are producing very little though, again, what they are giving me is very tasty.

Voles leave these tell-tale signs – the little buggers!

On top of all this, I’m having a god-awful time with voles.  The sodding things are tunnelling their way through every  bed, chomping on seeds and seedlings as they go, leaving holes everywhere.  Moles are burrowing underneath and disturbing my planting, and my broadbeans are afflicted with blackfly.  Like I said, banging my head against a brick wall!  The old chap on the allotment in front of mine says he’s been doing this allotment lark for fifty years and can’t remember a worse year for growing produce.  God only knows how farmers are managing.  Mr P and I ran into one of the village farmers the other evening in the pub and got a bit of the lowdown.  Grass isn’t growing and is so dry there’s little nutrition in it so livestock are having fodder taken out to them.  Water pressure is lower than usual and troughs located uphill from the farms aren’t filling so farmers are having to take water out to them.  What’s happening on arable farms and with vegetable producers I can’t imagine; apparently lettuce stops growing above 30-degrees centigrade.  I think we should all prepare for having to cough up more for fruit and veg over the coming months.

Blackfly have destroyed this broadbean plant.
Slim pickings but better than nothing!

Basically, I’m feeling frustrated, and a bit pissed off to be frank.  I’m caught in a gardening Bermuda Triangle of worries relating to weather and wildlife.  It would be easy to give up and hand over the allotment to someone on the waiting list.

But it’s still a beautiful place to be, it’s still the place that keeps me sane, and besides, I’m not a quitter.  To paraphrase Scarlett O’Hara, 2019 is another year!

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.

 

 

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.

Chasing the dream: Keeping it real

Like a lot of people who love the country, I dream of running a smallholding.  Nothing fancy or too big – just an acre or two would do it; just enough space for a couple of pigs, a handful of sheep, more chickens, and a vegetable plot and fruit trees.

You might wonder why I’m not already doing this and I’m afraid the answer is boringly predictable … money or, rather, the lack of it.  When I divorced, I had sufficient cash to buy a flat and not doing so is one of my biggest regrets.  I didn’t do it because it would have taken all I had, I was a student at the time (very mature, of course!), and any income from renting it out wouldn’t have been enough to live on.  Now, with hindsight, I think perhaps I could have found a way to make it work.  If I’d done that, I might have made some sort of profit which could go into a new place with Mr P.  But I didn’t, so that’s that.  I just wasn’t brave enough I suppose. Anyway, after that, I took the money I had and invested it in an education, studying for a PhD full-time.  I was self-funded and I did take on teaching work when it was available but it’s amazing how fast your nest-egg gets depleted, not to mention depressing and slightly scary.

Today, of course, I’m happily living with Mr P in our rented cottage which is fine for the time being but can’t be a permanent solution.  You’d think two divorcees might be able to afford something rather nice but our means, as well as our aspirations, are modest.  Though I’m a full-time academic earning relatively good money (but probably not as good as you think) and Mr P is something important sounding, prices round here (and our respective ages of 52 and 53) mean we can’t look beyond a terraced cottage with a couple of bedrooms and a back garden.  For instance, a small terraced cottage in the village, which is in need of everything doing, is up for sale for £260k.  A one and a half acre parcel of grazing land is for sale just a mile up the road for £17k.  As for getting a house which comes with land actually attached to it?  Well, they’re not easy to find and I doubt we’d find anything for much less than £500k.  Certainly we won’t be in a position to buy the house and couple of acres we’d really like, unless one of us has a long-lost relative who’s somehow made  a million without us knowing!

So, in the absence of miracles, I’m doing what I can, to get as close as I can, to The Dream.  There is ‘The Plan’ for a start.  This is essentially a notebook dedicated to The Dream, divided into sections such as and trying to come up with ideas and schemes for making it work in the event of The Miracle.  Importantly though, breaking down The Dream into smaller chunks means I can see which parts of it I might be able to achieve without divine intervention.

A section of The Plan – you know what they say? Failure to plan is planning to fail!

 

Just having The Plan makes me feel better and I add to it now and again as things develop.  For example, I have the allotment and the girls – both of which will be covered extensively on my blog as time goes on.  For the time being, I’m spending time on both of those projects and, to be honest, I have my hands pretty full with them!  The allotment was very overgrown when I took it on last May and hadn’t really been productive for some time so, as a complete beginner, it’s a steep learning curve.  As a novice chicken-keeper, I had a lot to learn when the girls arrived last July.  Saying I’m a beginner, and a novice, is really code for “I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing”.  On the other hand, my chickens are thriving and producing an egg a day each, despite the Arctic-like conditions we’re currently experiencing.  Plus, the allotment is getting clearer all the time and I’ve even managed to put some manure on some of the beds!  Nevertheless, my lack of knowledge IS an issue and has led to something of a crisis of confidence when it comes to actually planting anything.  It’s one thing to draw up allotment plans on graph paper, dig up weeds, and chuck a load of shit about, and another thing entirely to start planting things.  I mean, people will be able to see what I’m doing and my mistakes will be on public display.  In front of experienced allotmenteers.  Bloody hell!

So, what does an academic do when faced with a lack of knowledge? Books, books and more sodding books!  I could single-handedly stock a library section on allotments, vegetable growing, and poultry-keeping.  Here are some of my favourites:

This is the first book I bought and I’ve read it cover to cover many times. Incredibly useful and highly recommended.
Bought in a charity shop, this is great for a beginner.
Completely inspiring and very, very, down to earth! It even shows you how to butcher your meat.
The classic, updated. The go-to book for losing yourself in a good daydream.

 

Of course, I also need practical, hands-on experience.  With that in mind, I’ve booked myself on a lambing course in just over a week’s time, and have thereafter volunteered my services to a local farmer whose lambs are due in April.  I can’t say yet whether all this research and planning will pay off but if I ever do achieve The Dream, I’ll perhaps be less likely to make a complete cods-up of it, and it certainly makes me feel better.  Plus, being the geek that I am, I really enjoy it!  It gives me the sense that I’m doing something, moving towards the kind of future I want, taking control of it, rather than just sitting and wishing and waiting.