Monday, 30 June 2008

A weekend miscellany

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I thought I would sort out some photos of what was going on yesterday, from wine-making to Car Boot Sale booty.

The big heavy horse shoe I found in the stream by Lime Kiln Field this week. It would have been made by the blacksmith who lived at the bottom of our hill.

The lovely butter mould I got at the Car Boot Sale yesterday for just £3. It is French (has 225 grams written in a lovely Copperplate on the bottom), and I intend to give it a good wash and use it.

This shows how it opens up to release the butter pat.

Plants waiting to be planted - Penstemon, Geum, Phygelus (?), Verbascum, etc.

A double lot of Elderflower Champagne.

My Sloe wine - I'm trying to empty the freezer a little bit. I shall put it in the demijohn this week.

This is an excellent craft book I picked up for £1 at the Car Boot Sale yesterday. It has information about hundreds of crafts - sufficient to get you started anyway. It might be way out of date on the designs, but the practical side is still relevent.

Here's the excellent book I bought at the Centre for Alternative Technology on Friday. I am looking forward to trying out some of the recipes and techniques.

Saturday, 28 June 2008

Mini meme

(Click to enlarge) On the way to Machynlleth yesterday:

Nancy has tagged me for this, so here we go:

  • Where I was 10 years ago:… here, in Carmarthenshire, still doing up our rambling old farmhouse. My mum had moved in with us two years earlier; I had lots of poultry and was in the 2nd year of my Archaeology degree at Lampeter University.

  • 5 things on my to-do list today: Try to stay awake past teatime!; make a final batch of Elderflower Champagne; do the veg to go with our evening meal (the other half of Friday's Lamb Cobbler); take Itsy-pony out for a walk; do some weeding in the veg. plot.

  • Snack Food I like: oh dear - CRISPS; Peanuts; yoghurt-covered blueberries.

  • If I were a billionaire I would: Help several friends of mine who have struggled in life and deserve some luck; give a large amount to Lluest Horse & Pony Trust to support them for life; set up trust funds for our children; buy a farmhouse in the middle of Dartmoor for me and a Bastle on Hadrian's Wall which is my husband's dream home!

  • Places I have Lived: Hampshire; Dorset; Carmarthenshire.
I won't tag anyone, but if you want to join in, feel free.

Trip to the Centre for Alternative Technology

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The start of our journey. This vernicular railway is run on the weight of water held in tanks beneath the cabin. The full cabin comes down and lifts the empty one to the top. There's one like this at Scarborough and Lynton/Lynmouth too .

This is where my husband and I (always feel like the Queen when I say that!) went yesterday. We first went 10+ years ago for a birthday treat of mine. Sadly, the weather was abysmally wet all the time we were there, we were stunned by the cost of £8.40 each to get in (less £1 for OH as he's now old enough to be a "concession"), and rather disappointed that it was virtually exactly the same as I remember it being 10+ years ago, except the gift shop is now in a new building. We went looking for answers to alternative technology questions, for which only one box was ticked. To be honest, we would have had to part with some serious money on books covering this, that and the other and still at the end of it, not know how long new technologies last before needing replacing, how much it costs to set up for a house this size etc, though we are pretty certain the cost is incredibly prohibitive still. We obviously set out with the wrong set of questions to answer, particularly in the way of the self-reliant approach to alternative technology. Ah well, I enjoyed the gardening side of things and yearn for a polytunnel even more now, and I did get an excellent book on "Preserving Food without Freezing or Canning" and a couple of useful leaflets (watch this space).

Another major grumble was the amount of water on the paths. Where they were so well-worn, huge pools of water formed, making entrance to some of the buildings difficult (some we just abandoned) and even the ladies' loo was almost beyond reach (I had to teeter on the side of the pathway). With that amount of admission, and it being set in a quarry, I am sure they could afford a bit more in the way of chippings down for a dry walkway. We had sensible shoes on, but needed wellies!

I love the grass roof on this little stone cottage and it gives such inspiration as to how much can be packed into a tiny yard.

A close-up of pots, bowls and buckets of plants.

Inside the Geodesic Dome. It was lovely and warm and all you could hear was water from the little water features inside it. Magic.

A view at the other side of the dome.

Inside a HUGE polytunnel. Now THIS is what you call a raised bed!

Inside the same polytunnel - a Fig tree was growing delightedly.

This seat is made from various offcuts of wood, and the gaps in the back had money (mostly coppers) glued into the slits.

Just to give you an idea of the relative size of the blades of a wind turbine. We have them on many Welsh hills, and I would welcome them if only they were energy efficient, but they run at an average of about 30% productivity and so always have to be backed up by the National Grid, which means in fuel terms, they contribute very little.

This little plot had so many plants crammed into it and was just breathtaking. I am now very tempted to widen my main border(s)! I had no complaints about the growing side of things, and got lots of ideas just from looking, but the energy side was dull . . . sorry guys. Perhaps all the new buildings going up are the answer to my questions and I have just arrived a year or so too soon . . .

Friday, 27 June 2008

Cottage Economy – rush lights

(Click on photo to enlarge).

The thin "needles" behind the Foxglove are the Common Rush (just in case you were imaging a bullrush being used).

I have a feeling we may have power cuts this winter – either through strikes or through the ageing power stations, over which the Government chooses to bury its head in the sand. I have always had a stock of candles in, as did my mother and I have stocked up on matches too, as we need these to light the wood burner.

In the past, cottage folk often relied on rush lights. The little rush light holders, probably made by the village blacksmith and now desirable antiques, fetch a figure which most cottagers would never have earned even in their entire lifetime.

The time for making rush lights was the autumn, when the rush had achieved full growth, but before the outer casing had become tough. Here in Wales, this was normally around the time of the full harvest moon. Cottagers might traipse some distance to find the best rushes to cut, which were then gathered and tied into large sheaves. The rushes were allowed to wither and dry for a time, before being peeled and trimmed to about a foot in length. As children, in Hampshire, we instinctively did this ourselves, using our thumbnail to split the rush and then removing the sponge-like stem.

The rush lights would be made during the family’s “leisure” time, and in Breconshire, some families would have special get-togethers to pabwyra (peel rushes), and there was an old tune, Hyd y frwynen (lit. ‘the length of the rush’) they would sing whilst thus employed. The peeled rushes would be tied in small bundles until there was sufficient number to prepare them as lights, by dipping them into molten wax and placed on a cool slate slab to harden. I have heard of them being dipped in sheep fat, which must have resulted in a very smoky and pungent atmosphere when burned. A rush candle would burn for some 20 minutes and it was not uncommon, in this time before clocks, to set the hour for bed on a winter’s night after the burning of a certain number of candles.

(Notes taken from "The Customs and Traditions of Wales" by Trefor M Owen).

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Another lovely evening walk

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First thing this morning, even before breakfast, I decided I would tidy my dry store kitchen cupboard, as it was in a mess and I couldn't find anything. It didn't take anything long as I expected, and I put the opened bags of this and that in glass containers where they fitted, and stuff like cous-cous and beans, in the old earthenware containers I bought at auction when we were still in Dorset. We used to buy the cork stoppers in a little winemaking shop in Blandford. They were my sole storage containers for many years. You can see one on the 2nd shelf down. It was a job well done - and long overdue doing too!

Here's another job which had been calling me for a loooooooong while. My rockery. Except it was barely recognisable as a rockery, as it was overgrown, full of bits of broken dead rose-twigs and leaves, and the only plants in it were wild Umbellifers! An afternoon's work and some fresh rockery plants have transformed it, though there's still some tidying up needed right at the back.

I made some bread dough earlier, and whilst it was proving, I had a lovely walk up our hill again. I was out for nearly an hour, though I had only planned to walk to the top of the hill and back. It is such a lovely evening that I kept on walking though, and cut back across the fields.

A view I never tire of - looking East towards Black Mountain (the last of the Carmarthen Fans, which we climbed recently).

Looking towards the Towy Valley.

A neighbouring farmhouse, an old early Georgian house with a Norman motte and bailey behind it. The Normans would have doubtless used it as a hunting lodge a thousand years ago.

My friend the bat-eared cow again, back on her way to the field after milking.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

A walk to the pond

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I felt a need to get away last night, so I walked down the farm track and went and sat by the pond. It is a man-made one, excavated by the farmer for the chaps who have the shoot on his land (though I dare say there must have been a grant to to it in the first place, or he wouldn't have bothered). It was so beautiful and peaceful - just the sound of Coots and Moorhens in the reeds, though I couldn't see them. A Heron rose up out of the water as I approached. I sat on a log and meditated and took LOTS of photos. Here are just a few.

Foxgloves were almost luminescent against the setting sun.

Looking across the valley. On the top of the hill above the gorse you may just be able to see the banks of the old Iron Age hillfort.

Thistle and I think, Water Dropwort, by a small stream.

The pond was so peaceful.

More foxgloves and spagnum moss.

Looking up the valley across the pond.

A view in the opposite direction.

Walking home, the cows had been milked and were grazing the lengthening shadows.

Monday, 23 June 2008

The Cornish Gook or Gouch

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I was absolutely fascinated by the bonnets the Cornish dancers wore, and sought them out after they had paraded, to find out more about them. I had never heard of a Gook (or Gouch) before. I had never considered, for instance, that each Parish might have a different pattern to distinguish it from others, and don't know whether this happened throughout rural areas, that these traditional bonnets (worn by agricultural and outdoor workers across the country) might have such individuality.

I had noticed them being worn in old photographs, and in period dramas (think especially Tess of the D'Urbervilles here!) and always thought I would quite like to make one - much as I would like to make a traditional smock too, but I have always been a dreamer! Anyway, here is a link to a site which explains more fully about the Gook (though it is essentially a family history site - and a very interesting one at that):

The Cornish dancers kindly posed for their photographs and told me everything they knew about the Gooks.

Side view of one pattern.

Side view of the other pattern.

View from behind.

Now which one shall I try and make during the grey miserable days of winter?

Old Celtic Customs

This morning it suddenly occurred to me there have been several things recently I wanted to blog about, but then I got busy and they escaped my mind. So today will be catch-up time.

The folk dancers parading in the ring at Builth.

Last month I went to the Smallholders' Show at Builth Wells, and posted some photos of Cornish and Welsh folk dancers and "characters". There was a very splended Mari Llwd (roughly translated grey mare or grey Mary) Anyway, the Mari Llwd is a horse's skull, which used to be paraded from door to door at New Year. The skull was beribboned, covered with a white sheet, and carried by a man beneath the sheet who would operate the jaw and make it snap. A party of people, "who included Sergeant, Merryman, Punch and Judy would engage in poetic contest, singing as many as fifteen verses before they were eventually allowed to enter." Then the Mari would enter the house and begin chasing all the girls like a wild thing, snapping at them with its jaws. Food and drink were then offered. It is believed that this tradition was connected with Wassailing.

Anyway, at the Smallholders' Show there was a superb Mari Llwd who paraded through the showground and into the main ring with its handlers. I feel it is so vital to keep the tradition alive - and the handlers dressed SO well for their parts!

Sunday, 22 June 2008


If you're wondering what I was up to last week when I was too busy to blog, here are three of the cakes I made for the wedding of an acquaintance.

First, one of two Carrot cakes (with crushed pineapple in) - this one has a cream cheese icing. I left the other one plain.

This is one of two chocolate cakes - this one topped with choc. butter icing, a crumbled Flake bar and After Eight mints.

The one my son will never forgive me for not having ever made for US at home (something I must remedy. Stuffed with double cream and strawberries, and topped with double cream, and a crumbled Flake bar. Yum!

I ended up making, apart from the above: a Coffee cake (the first and last I shall EVER make!); about 45 plain scones (together with home-made strawberry jam and extra thick double cream for the filling at table); 25 pear scones; 45 iced and sprinkled fancy buns; a dozen Last Rollo chocolate buns; a dozen white chocolate and walnut muffins; 30 jam tarts (home-made jam); a tray bake of chocolate blackberry brownies; 30 apricot and coconut balls; and 2 Lemon Drizzle cakes. I think that’s it. Oh and two pots of home-made strawberry jam. I’m all baked out, and will never be QUITE so rash ever again!

Saturday, 21 June 2008

Back to the future and making do . . .

Home made crab apple wine which I bottled recently.

I am mindful of the title of this posting, as several times in recent days I have had to rethink the ingrained habits of a lifetime!

The first occasion was when my blender broke. In fact, I had a fey moment as I was carrying it across the kitchen, as I thought, gosh I'd be stuck for making caster sugar (I always blend the granulated which saves the premium on buying caster sugar) if anything happened to this. Then it did - I plugged it into the adaptor (which was of course live), caught the pulse button with my arm as I leaned across, there was one hell of a rattle and bang, no more blender! I had foolishly not noticed that the little plug for the lid was by the blades, the pulse had jammed it in and when I took the jug off the blender to sort it, it had sheared off . . . My instant reaction was oh bloddy hell . . . Then I had to make my brain do some work and came up with the idea of reducing the sugar by hand with my pestle and mortar, which worked a treat. Fortunately the sugar was already quite a fine one - not like the great big granules I remember from childhood sugar in the blue sugar-paper bags.

Then yesterday I decided that my well-used pastry brush for greasing pans had really reached the end of the line. The new one I had was shedding hairs like it was moulting. I cast my mind back 40 years and reached for a butter wrapper. I can remember being told to save these at school, put them in a tin, and then you could use the very last little bits of butter on it to grease tins (hmmm - probably rancid by then!) Anyway, I had to unwrap a new slab of butter anyway, so . . . problem solved. Then I needed to brush milk on top of scones - I used the back of a spoon, which actually worked very well. I don't think I shall be reaching for that Lake District catalogue just yet . . .

With all the price rises in fuel and food recently, we have been adapting, and adding to our store cupboard too. It pays to buy in bulk (flour, rice etc) and it also pays to buy extra because the price will have almost certainly gone up in a month - if not a week. My husband is going to build me a pantry in the room which was a sort of utility down in what was my mum's flat. This "room" is built into the side of the hill, so below the main part of the house, a bit like an undercroft. It is always cool, and has a quarry tiled floor. Currently we have two old fridges sitting there, switched off, and a small freezer. We are loathe to get rid of the fridges as although they are probably 50 or more years old, they are so efficient that they will freeze cucumbers rigid and do the same for milk too. They have excellent insulation. The one which was my mum's was converted from gas by my dad, when it was traded into the family shop in Romsey, back in the early 60s. Anyway, my husband is going to put up a slate shelf above these fridges - in fact, we even have the length of slate slab leaning against the front of the house as we were going to use it as a replacement worktop, but it is not quite long enough. It cost us just £10 at auction a couple of years ago, along with another shorter piece which will also get utilised. Then I will be able to store home made bottled stuff, preserves, wine etc, and use the slab for keeping cheese, butter, etc cool. Handy if we get the power cuts they are threatening in future because of the tardiness of the Govt. in replacing ageing power stations. We will have sturdy wooden shelves for storage on the wall above the shelf. I'm really excited about this (like a big kid I am!)

This week I have put some Sloes in the wine bucket, and hope to make another lot of Elderflower Champagne too, and some Elderflower wine as well. No peace for the wicked.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

It's a misty moisty morning here . . .

I have a busy day ahead again - would have more hours in it but I have just spent 3/4 of an hour "trying" to load this morning's photos on here. Oh for a decent broadband connection and not just 0.5 mg of "oomph" . . .

I grabbed the camera just in time to catch the sun breaking through the mist and clouds before 6 a.m. this morning. This is looking East (obviously!) over the farm buildings next door. Very atmospheric.

Here is the pine tree which is my weathervane for winds. In a gale, it will twist and thrash like a soul in torment. This morning it is calm and watchful.

A slightly longer view, showing the farm track and the other trees (oaks and sycamores) which keep the pine company.

The cows coming up for milking. The delightful ping-pong-bat-eared individual at the front is a Brown Swiss.

One of my ramblers, nearly twenty years old now. It has a French name which currently escapes me.

Its next door neighbour, a pretty orange-scented rambler called The Garland.

An unwanted guest - normally Welsh slugs are the size of small Corgis, but this one is a baby, with a very poor sense of direction . . .