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!

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!

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

Country Life and the Day Job: Finding Balance

This is a more personal post than my usual.  After my post last week, I was asked to say something about how I manage my work life alongside my life in the country.  So far I’ve shied away from talking too much about myself, partly from a fear of giving too much away, and partly because I haven’t wanted to bore you!  But, since I’ve actually been asked to talk about me, well … you asked for it so here goes!

If you’ve read my other posts you might have gathered that I’m an academic.  To be precise, I’m a psychology lecturer.  No, I can’t read your mind, no, I’m not analysing you, and no, I can’t offer advice on your issues!  I’m not that kind of psychologist.  I work full-time and it’s pretty full-on a lot of the time.  Lectures don’t just materialize out of thin air, ready to be delivered; I only wish they did!  Preparing a lecture can involve weeks of research, reading, writing, and putting slides together.  Related seminars also need to be put together, and this often means having to put together activities designed to engage the students and to consolidate and build on what’s been covered in the lectures.  It’s a lot of work to get to the point where we’re delivering lectures but our face-to-face teaching time is just the tip of the iceberg so far as workload is concerned.  I’d say 70% of my time is spent on admin.  Emails, meetings, and increasing layers of administrative red-tape can drive you crazy.  Marking is incredibly time-consuming and stressful.  We have just two weeks to get all our marking done once it comes in, before it goes off for moderation.  This fast turnaround means we’re marking in the evenings and at weekends.  On top of all this, it takes me the best part of an hour to get to uni by car.  There’s no other way for me to get there in that time frame.  I have to leave at 7am or wait til 8.40am if I want to miss the traffic.  And I absolutely loathe driving in the dark which makes winter particularly difficult.

The question which was put to me last week, then, about how I manage to balance this with my life in the country was pretty apt.  I’ll be honest here – it’s difficult, and at times I think I must be mad to even try.  But actually, I’d be mad if I didn’t do it.  It’s the allotment, the chickens, dogs, and sense of community (not to mention Mr P) that keep me relatively sane.  So how do I do it?  Well I wish I could say it was all down to some amazing organization on my part, but I’d be lying, I’m afraid.  Basically, I just squidge things in where I can.  I’ll try to give you some examples.

OK, so in the morning I roll out of bed, and without bothering to take off my night things, I just tuck them into my walking trousers, mooch downstairs and, pushing my feet into wellies, I head to the chickens to let them out of their coop, feed them, and give them fresh water.  Luckily, they’re handily located on a bit of land just behind the house – I can see them clearly from my sitting room and bedroom windows, so this doesn’t take more than about ten minutes.  Except in winter when the outside tap’s frozen … Anyway, then it’s off to work after a quick breakfast.  

In the evenings, the chickens (aka ‘the girls’) go into their coop as soon as it starts to get dark and they need shutting up then to keep them safe from the fox.  The rest of the evening is mine so depending on the time of year I might be reading about allotments, planning the allotment, sowing seeds for the allotment … you get the picture!  Now that the lighter nights are on their way, I can get up to the allotment after work for an hour or two before the girls need putting to bed, which works really well.  On Tuesdays I have the quilting group for a couple of hours before meeting Mr P in The Bull’s Head for a quick drink.  One night a week, Mr P plays squash, so I take advantage of that quiet time to write my blog post, and take Basil for his evening constitutional.  I’m often able to work from home one or two days a week (depending on teaching commitments, meetings, etc.,) and this offers a little more flexibility.  For instance, because I don’t lose up to two hours travelling on those days, I’m able to take an hour or two to work on the allotment or clean the girls’ coop, maybe sow a few seeds, and still fit my work hours in.  At weekends, I’m usually desperate to get out for a walk, so I generally join Mr P and Basil for a good couple of hours’ walk before coming home to either work on the allotment (!!!) or maybe do a bit of baking, reading or sewing.  We generally head to the pub at least once over the weekend, often heading to The Flying Childers at Stanton-in-the-Peak, which is a pub I can’t recommend highly enough – http://www.flyingchilders.com/  

You have probably gathered by now that I’m pretty busy most of the time but I think that without my life in the country, I wouldn’t be able to keep going with the day-job.  That time spent on the allotment, in the fresh air, with fabulous 360 degree views, is one of the things that keeps me on the level.  Digging, hard work though it undoubtedly is, stops me from thinking about any problems I might have.  Pulling up weeds keeps me in the here and now instead of worrying about the future.  At some point, I hope the allotment will provide me with more than just raspberries! Spending time with the chickens keeps me entertained and supplied with fresh eggs daily.  The quilting group ensures I have female company, and helps me learn new skills.  I suppose, in a nutshell, my life in the country acts as a counterbalance to work.

Because, let’s face it, it’s all about work-life balance.  For me, that means that my life is what happens in the country.  My day-job is just that; it simply facilitates my country life.  It provides me with the means to replace the roof on the chicken enclosure after it was blown off in the recent high winds.  It enabled me to buy a shed for the allotment when I was desperate for somewhere to store my tools and shelter from the wind and rain.  It pays my share of the rent on a cottage in a beautiful part of the world.  I’m grateful for my job. But it’s not my life.

What does work-life balance mean for you?  I’d love to hear from you so please drop me a line.