The great pleasure in life is doing what people say you cannot do.
Following on from my earlier post about staying fit and active throughout life, I’ve embarked on a new fitness challenge which I’d like to share occasionally between now and the end of September for two reasons. The first is that I hope it might encourage and inspire others to have a go themselves; not necessarily at running (let’s face it, I’m not the most enthusiastic runner in the world so I’m hardly qualified to tell others it’s their thing) but at any kind of activity- be it physical, mental, practical, spiritual or whatever – that offers a new challenge and a chance to do something different, to learn new things and maybe surprise yourself (and a few other people) along the way.
It doesn’t have to be anything extreme or costly. You don’t have to trek across continents, scale Everest or swim the English Channel – although if that’s what floats your boat, why not? Something as simple as walking a daily mile or trying a new recipe or writing a blog can open up a whole new world and there’s certainly a world out there to explore. So, if you’ve always fancied learning how to kick box or dance the tango, play thrash guitar or speak Mandarin, cast a fishing line or use a potter’s wheel, go star gazing or wild swimming or bagging Munros . . . then what are you waiting for? If you’d love to walk along a midnight beach, barbecue in the snow, play in a chess championship, fly a kite, sing in a choir . . . what is truly stopping you? It’s never too late and you’re never too old; if you want to belly dance or sky dive at 70, go for it.
I have never been a sporty person, I have no running style and I’m desperately slow – any photos of me running where my feet actually look like they’re bounding off the ground enthusiastically are something of a rarity! I don’t really like running and I find it incredibly difficult but I keep at it, partly because I know it’s good for me but also because it reminds me that I’m alive. Yes, I’m a less than fit greying granny but I’m out there doing it and that makes me smile. It probably makes other people smile, too, but that’s just fine. If I can do it, anyone can. That’s a fact.
We spend too long listening to all those negative words – the couldn’ts and shouldn’ts and musn’ts – that do so much to nibble away at our self belief. Go on, do it . . . and don’t give a stuff about what others think. I have little patience for those who spend their time casting doubts or sniping and scoffing at the perceived failures of others. I might be wrong, but I think it’s better to have had the courage to try and fail, than never to have tried at all. We can’t rewind our life and start all over again so how important it is to use what time we have to the very full and cram in as much living as we possibly can. I really don’t want to get to my last gasp thinking things like, “Darn it, I never did get round to learning how to play the bagpipes.” Mind you, I know at least one person who would be eternally grateful for that missed opportunity!
The second reason for sharing is slightly more selfish: accountability. Changing habits, breaking out of old routines or developing new ones and sticking to promises and commitments is much easier if we make ourselves accountable to someone. It’s a bit of a paradox but we are far more likely to let ourselves down than let other people down so having a real live Jiminy Cricket to report to is a useful tool in sticking at something. Rather than nominate an individual, I’m using my blog as my conscience: it doesn’t matter if no-one reads it or passes comment (although it’s always lovely when someone does!), just making the appointment to write a few update posts will, I hope, be enough to keep me on the straight and narrow.
So what have I chosen for my newest running challenge? The usual route people take tends to be chasing longer and longer distances; I have nothing but admiration for those brave souls but it’s not for me. Marathon? No thank you. Ultra? Don’t even think about it. Half marathon? Nope, been there, done that and once in a life time was most definitely enough. Fell runs, trail runs and mud runs look fun but I’d rather do them at a leisurely pace in my walking boots!
After the half marathon, I did say I’d like to retain the ability to run 10k for as long as I can; it’s far enough for me (please don’t say it’s only two Parkruns!) and means an hour or so of continuous running, so remains quite a challenge. The obvious thing, then, is to shake myself out of my usual plodding pony habit and try and do it a bit faster. In my relatively short and non-illustrious running career thus far I have participated in four official chip-timed 10k races: one in France (66 minutes), one in the UK (63 minutes) and two in Spain (65 minutes and 62 minutes). My aim for number five is to try and break that elusive hour barrier and come in with a sub-60 minute time and where better than to have a go than at the Ribadesella 10k in September – the race where I ran the 62 minutes and 32 seconds last year?
Points in favour of Ribadesella:
I’ve run the race before so I know exactly what to expect in terms of the event and the course; I know there is a tremendous atmosphere.
Ribadesella is a pretty seaside town which provides a really picturesque setting for the race, part of which follows a long stretch of the seafront promenade. It’s totally beautiful.
The spectator support is truly amazing every step of the way; it’s what got me to the finish line last year.
The post-race victuals are a real feast, the ice-cold draught San Miguel a true life-saver.
It’s flat, flat, FLAT!
Then again . . .
It’s an evening race with a 6pm start. I’m more tuned to winding down for the evening at this point of the day, rather than running round a town with several hundred other people.
The weather is unpredictable but it could be very hot. Last year it was nudging thirty degrees. In the shade. Which I wasn’t.
The cut-off times are fairly tight. The organisers, marshals and local police do a fantastic job of closing all roads to keep runners and spectators safe and make it a true community event but the roads have to be re-opened as quickly as possible. If you don’t make certain points by certain times, you are disqualified. In this case it’s 5k in 35 minutes and 10k in 70 minutes: an irrelevance for the hares like Roger (who will probably blitz the whole thing in under 35 minutes) but an added pressure for the tortoises like myself.
It’s a fast race. In my age group (Female 50) I was the last out of eight ladies, finishing in 01:02:30 – my best ever time. The winner did it in 00:42:34:50, the winner in the F55 class ran 00:52:55 and in the F65, 00:49:59 – that’s someone at least 14 years older than me running it twenty minutes faster! The Asturians have a dizzying talent for speed, so I know I’ll be flogging along somewhere near the back and that can feel a bit demoralising (if I let it).
I don’t like races. I’d rather be in my garden.
Okay, time to stop whingeing, man up and get training. I’ve found an excellent training plan which I know is going to be tough but hopefully will get me there over ten weeks; actually, I didn’t really make the first two weeks as we were away from home but let’s not allow that to be an issue . . . There are plenty of new challenges to face, runs on five days a week for starters plus one cross-training day (yoga for me) and a rest day. 🙂 🙂 🙂 Two of the runs are a few miles at ‘easy’ pace (don’t make me laugh), one with an added session of strength training, one is a tempo run with a faster middle bit, one is shorter intervals at speed (now I have to laugh) with a recovery jog in between and the other is a long run, up to eight miles. Oh, and some of them require a ‘strong finish.’ Mmmm.
I am under no illusion whatsoever: this is going to be hard. On paper, running the whole race two and a half minutes faster than before doesn’t really look too difficult but that translates into losing 15 seconds for a kilometre (or 24 seconds for a mile) over and over and over . . . and that’s a fairly formidable mountain to climb from where I’m looking. In the end – in the grand scheme of things- it really doesn’t matter whether I get that golden sub-60 or not. The world won’t stop turning, the front pages won’t be held, my life probably won’t change that much . . . but (and it’s a big but) the process of trying will be a valuable experience, a fascinating, uplifting, frustrating, tiring journey of motivation, discipline, movement, fresh air, success and failure, tears and laughter. Above all, it will be about living and although I know there will be days when I’ve had enough and just want to throw in the towel, in my heart of hearts I know it’s the right thing to be doing. Probably a better idea than the bagpipes, anyway! 🙂
Just because you’re grown up and then some doesn’t mean settling into the doldrums of predictability. Surprise people. Surprise yourself.
Something very strange is happening to me. I set out for a run one morning this week, aiming to do 8k (5 miles); in the end, I ran more than 11k (7 miles), including the hard slog up the final hell hill which is a climb of 70 metres over a kilometre (or 230 feet in 0.6 miles). When Roger asked me – as he always does – how my run had been, my answer was, “It was great!”Shock. Horror. Hold the front page. This does not happen. I’ve been running for a while now but I’ve never, ever learned to love it. Runs are hard or terrible but never great. So what has changed? Well, I’m starting to feel fitter and stronger because I’ve committed seriously to regular running and other stuff (of which more later) . . . and that’s all down to a rather special little booklet that Roger has recently been given by the British Masters Athletic Federation.
Before I go any further, please let me say that I am not trying to preach or tell anyone what they should or shouldn’t be doing. I wouldn’t dream of it. The reason I wanted to write this post is partly to share what we are doing to keep fit and active as part of our simple lifestyle but also to reassure anyone (particularly our age or older) who might have doubts about giving exercise of any kind a go. Believe me, if I can do it, anyone can. Don’t worry about what other people might think, this is about you. You don’t have to be good at it, you don’t have to ‘look the part’, you don’t have to compete or win anything. There is a difference between exercise and sport. Be kind to yourself, smile at yourself and have fun. You might surprise other people. You will certainly surprise yourself. Yes, I’m a wild-haired, 52 year-old granny plodding about the Spanish countryside in bright pink trainers come rain or shine. Crazy? Quite possibly. Living life to the full? Definitely . . . and hoping to be doing the same for many years to come.
Back to that booklet. It succinctly summarises a Manchester Metropolitan University research project focused on continuing (or even starting!) exercise into old age. It’s a fascinating report and one which, given the demographics of an ageing population, should be a recommended – if not compulsory – read, as it is about everyone, not just master athletes, and contains a message which could change and enhance many lives. According to the researchers, currently around two out of three older adults do not meet the recommended levels of physical activities which has serious consequences for health and mobility in later life. Well, that stands to reason, doesn’t it? Human bodies are made to move at any age, to walk, run, jump, bend, stretch, climb, twist and generally be anything other than mostly sedentary. As long as there is no serious underlying illness then raising our heart rate, breathing hard and having temporarily aching muscles is a good thing. What an incredible inspiration someone like Eileen Noble is; she didn’t start running until she was in her fifties and has just become the oldest lady to run the London Marathon two years in a row. She’s 84. How fantastic.
That exercise and well-being go hand in hand is pretty irrefutable but trying to maintain an adequate level of activity whilst working or raising a family is incredibly hard, especially in those long months of dark days and grim weather. It takes a special kind of discipline and resolve to keep at it. One of the huge benefits of our life here is having the luxury of time like we’ve never had before to exercise fully and regularly over and above our usual daily activities. It can be hard though, believe me; we are so programmed to that subconscious charge that we should be ‘doing something’ that spending time away from chores to exercise feels like an indulgence, even though it’s the very best gift we can ourselves. We don’t know whether we will live to a ripe old age but we are both determined to stay as fit and active as we can for as long as we can.
I like the way the booklet emphasises the continuing importance of being busy outside ‘training’ times, too; it’s not about doing a session of exercise then doing nothing for the rest of the day but keeping active with things like gardening, housework, shopping and walking. Put aside sleeping hours and most of the day is taken up with being on the move as opposed to being on the sofa.
Let me talk about running a bit, not because I’m a keen runner or a good one; in fact, precisely because I am neither of those things. I am not naturally sporty and have never particularly enjoyed the sensation of moving at anything faster than a brisk walk. I started running several years ago on medical advice and I hated it. I’m still not a fan, and it doesn’t seem to get any easier, but I keep doing it because the benefits to physical and mental health are well-documented and undeniable (my resting pulse rate and blood pressure have both fallen significantly in recent months) . . . and – hand on heart – I always feel better afterwards. Of course, there are other aerobic activities to choose from but the beauty of running is that it is so low-maintenance. You don’t need to be taught how to do it. You don’t need a partner or team. It’s virtually carbon-neutral (completely so if you run naked and barefoot, although I appreciate that’s probably not an option for most of us! 🙂 ) It’s cheap. You don’t need a bike or a swimming pool or a dance studio or gym membership or piles of hi-tech gear; just a pair of comfy trainers will do the job and, as long as it’s safe, you can run pretty much anywhere starting from your front door. I am very lucky in having to look no further for help and encouragement than Roger who, in athletic terms, is at the completely opposite end of the spectrum to me. He runs every day, sometimes twice, without fail; he runs very fast and wins lots of trophies; he’s ridiculously disciplined and incredibly fit. He’s also living, running, speedy proof that grandads can still gallop!
He only ever has two pieces of advice, though, and these have helped me hugely. The first is to run to how you feel: if you are feeling relaxed and going well, try for distance; if you are full of beans, add some strides and a faster section; if you’re tired, achy or just generally in a ‘I don’t want to do this’ mood, just go for a short, gentle leg stretch at a leisurely pace, breathing in the fresh air, listening to the birds, enjoying the wildflowers . . . but GO! The second is that if you want to run miles, then you need to run miles. Don’t worry about training schedules or plans, forget tempo runs, fartlek and the rest, don’t angst over cross-training: just lace up your running shoes and run. I do. It’s not just the physical activity, either: time spent outside in the fresh air is hugely beneficial to body and soul. In his brilliant book The Therapeutic Garden, Donald Norfolk describes how modern humans have become ‘homo encapsularis’, spending 80-90% of their time indoors and missing out on the many advantageous factors for physical and mental well-being that time in the great outdoors has to offer. Hippocrates claimed that nature is the best physician; well, he knew a thing or two, I suppose!
I’d expected the report to talk about aerobic exercise, weight training and flexibility but what came as a bit of a surprise was the section on balance and, more specifically, the importance of being able to balance on one leg for a sustained period with your eyes closed. Go on, try it! We amused ourselves (and probably several other people as well) testing this on our last ferry sailing; well, it’s a very long six hours of inactivity and you can only read so much. The slight bounce of a relatively calm sea added a frisson of excitement and much hilarity to our attempts but on a serious note, this is something we need to address. My balance isn’t actually too bad so I’d fondly imagined that it would be enough to add a few extra challenging postures to my standard yoga practice but delving deeper, it seems that tai chi is the most recommended activity (along with standing on one leg to clean your teeth or tie your shoelaces). I have to admit that tai chi isn’t something that’s ever appealed to me but to be fair, I didn’t really know much about it it. So, with the bit firmly between my teeth, I tracked down a small but useful secondhand book on the subject and watched a couple of short YouTube clips . . . then I had a go.
Oh my goodness, but it is so much harder than it looks! I’m not sure about improving balance but trying to sort out my left and right, above and below, over and under and all sorts of other positional things whilst mirroring the video instructors, it certainly felt like some pretty strenuous brain gym. Graceful, I am not. For White Crane Spreads Wings try Ostrich Does Face Plant: this is going to need oodles of practice and patience. Roger has suggested we learn together and that’s an idea I love. We walk a lot as a couple but rarely run together and where he will do a session of strength work, weights and stretches, I will opt for yoga every time so what a treat to share this new experience. He has also suggested that if we lift the outdoor table to one side we can practise on the new terrace in the fresh air of early morning before the sun climbs over the mountain. How perfect . . . and if the tolerant folk in the village should look up and scratch their heads in puzzled amusement, then so be it. I’m more than happy to be labelled an eccentric Golden Rooster Stands On One Leg now if it means I can still Embrace Tiger, Return To Mountain when I’m eighty.
Good balance in part relies on core strength, those all important back, abdominal and pelvic area muscles that help to support and stabilise the spine. There are lots of activities that strengthen core muscles so as part of my new exercise commitment, I’ve opted to take the Ultimate Pilates 21-Day Challenge by Boho Beautiful Now I hope at this point that Adrienne is sitting down because this will probably come as something of a shock to her; she has tried valiantly to interest me in Pilates several times and I have to confess I’ve never exactly bowled her over with my enthusiasm! However, I’m giving it another go and I especially like this exercise plan because it’s mixed through with lots of yoga. It will take me more than 21 days as I’m adapting it to fit around my running, which I do every other day. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, I’ve discovered muscles I never even knew I had but already I can see a huge improvement. I’m using fewer modifications each time and feeling so much stronger when I run or spend the day on heavy gardening tasks. Even better, I’ve had to pull in my belts and adjust my bra straps . . . and I seem to be back to the single chin I was born with. This is good!
It’s amazing just how much inspiration can come from a small, free handout. It’s amazing just what human bodies can achieve, even as they age. I’m never going to have the speed or strength or poise of an athlete but that doesn’t matter. The important thing is to keep running and stretching, strengthening and balancing and breathing in that sweet, fresh air so that as I get older, I can still climb a mountain with my husband to watch the sun set or chase my grandchildren through the woods or just go out to run in the rain for the sheer joy of being alive. Hell, I might even master White Crane Spreads Wings. Now that can’t be a bad ambition for an old lady, can it? 🙂
I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And I will not let what I cannot do interfere with what I can do.
Edward Everett Hale
I recently read a wonderful quotation by Anne-Marie Bonneau, the Zero- Waste Chef. She said, “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.” Well, thank goodness for the kind of common sense thinking and down to earth pragmatism that cuts through the guilt and frustration felt by so many people trying so hard to do their bit for the planet. Search ‘zero waste’ and you’ll find a wealth of different definitions. Whether it is described as a philosophy, an ideology, a movement, a way of life, an impossible dream or all of the above the bottom line is about ordinary people (and many extraordinary ones, too) trying to reduce and eliminate waste through adopting sustainable natural cycles. It’s a whole lot more than simply (or not!) reducing what goes into landfill; it’s about not wasting precious resources, clean water, fuel, journeys, time . . . it’s about doing what is best for our health, our bodies and minds, our environment, the Earth and all that shares it. It’s hard. Very hard, in fact. Trust me, zero waste is not for wimps.
The internet is a great tool and there are some fantastic zero waste / sustainable living sites out there written by inspiring people doing some amazing things and sharing their expertise and experiences with generosity and enthusiasm. The problem is – and this is my personal opinion so feel free to disagree – that social media, with its emphasis on pithy phrases, clever graphics and arty photos, so often gives the impression of lives lived perfectly (and that includes the zero waste movement) which can lead those of us who are distinctly flawed feeling a tad inadequate. However, it needn’t be that way, hence my appreciation of what Ms Bonneau has to say. Instead of trying desperately to achieve zero waste and failing, surely it is better to do a few things (or maybe only one thing?) at a time and do them to the best of our ability. It’s that old saying about eating an elephant: don’t become overwhelmed by trying to crack it all at once. There is beauty and reward in being one of the millions who do it imperfectly because collectively the achievement is astounding.
Leo Babauta of https://zenhabits.net/ often cites accountability as a useful tool in helping to form new habits and behaviours; if you have to report your progress to someone then the chances are you will stick to your resolution. This is why I think it’s important for me to write occasionally about the progress we are making in our attempt to live as simply and greenly as possible. It doesn’t matter if no-one reads my posts (although it’s always lovely to hear when people have!) but the discipline of sitting and gathering my thoughts and reflecting on where we are is in itself extremely helpful. For us, total zero waste – like total self-sufficiency – is not a viable target, but working bit by bit to a point as close as possible is an interesting, rewarding and thought-provoking process. Here, then, are the recent steps we have taken along this fascinating path . . .
Making soap is a relatively new activity for me and following the success of my first attempts I decided to try and create a hand soap that was slightly more complicated and interesting than my original basic ‘kitchen cupboard’ soaps. It would be very easy to get sucked into the fascinating world of soap-making, there is so much creativity and possibility out there! However, I am adamant about not going down the route of synthetic colourants or fragrances, no matter how beautiful or tempting they may seem; it’s natural all the way for me.
Calendula has long been recognised for its healing qualities in skin care; it’s also one of my favourite flowers and we are lucky enough to be blessed with a year-round jungle of it here so picking a few flowers in the spring sunshine and setting the petals to dry was really no hardship. This is one of the few dried flowers that retains its vibrant colour in soap.
The second new ingredient I chose for this batch was saffron, also renowned for its beneficial skincare qualities. Much used in Spanish cooking, it is widely available and a fraction of the cost in the UK so didn’t seem too much of an indulgence. Mixed in powder form with my blend of olive oil, sunflower oil, coconut oil and almond oil it also added natural colour so the cured soaps should be a soft yellow. Once the calendula petals had been added along with sweet orange essential oil, the batter looked and smelt good enough to eat!
The finished soaps are now curing on a baking rack, currently the sweet colour of primroses; I am turning them daily and watching with interest to see how (or if) they change in the coming weeks.
Sticking with soap and I have to say that my homemade solid shampoo bars have been something of a revelation. They lather beautifully in our soft spring water and double as a body wash in the shower so are a super-efficient idea. I was expecting some kind of ‘transition’ phase when we started to use them – even my very green and gentle shampoo of choice contains some of those dreaded oil-stripping surfactants – but there has been no problem whatsoever. Obviously, a soap-based shampoo has a higher pH so I use a leave-in final rinse of apple cider vinegar in warm water to balance that. Taking that idea one step further, the fresh new growth on our perennial herbs has provided the perfect ingredient for a herbal hair rinse which couldn’t be easier to make: lavender, sage and rosemary simmered gently in water for an hour, left to cool naturally then strained and stored in the fridge. For each hair wash, I simply decant a small amount, add the vinegar and warm water to take off the chill, then rinse through as many times as I can. The result? Soft, shiny hair that smells pleasantly and faintly herbal (not of vinegar at all!) and stays looking clean and bouncy for several days between washes. Even better, we no longer have bottles of shower gel, shampoo or conditioner in the shower; one bar each of soap and shampoo does the trick. All natural, no harsh chemicals, no packaging. So far, so good.
The next item to try on my list of homemade toiletries was deodorant. Now this is a bit of a tricky one, isn’t it? I have no desire to smell of the harsh synthetic scents that are so prevalent these days and given I spend most of my time pottering about our mountain patch, slapping on deodorant isn’t always necessary . . . but when I do venture into public, I wouldn’t want to offend other people with a pong, no matter how ‘natural!’ Having done a fair bit of research, I opted for a very simple recipe using melted coconut oil mixed with bicarbonate of soda, arrowroot (cornflour is an alternative) and lemon and sweet orange essential oils.
My biggest concern over this was the bicarb. When it comes to deodorising and cleaning everything from teeth to toilets, it’s an amazing substance but there is a danger of assuming that everything ‘natural’ is good and that’s not true. Let’s face it, snake venom is natural but I wouldn’t want it in my bloodstream. The problem with bicarbonate of soda is that it is a powerful alkali which may not necessarily make it a sensible thing to be applying to skin. I read and re-read every article I could find, mulling over the pros and cons; it seems that both extremes of the argument (use it for everything vs. don’t touch it with a barge pole) can be backed up by some pretty complex chemistry and strong emotional arguments. In the end, I decided a dose of pragmatism was called for. I don’t have sensitive skin so I was happy to give it a go, but jiggled the proportions of ingredients around to reduce the bicarb by half. The result, once the mixture had set, was a soft solid that will keep happily for several months in a jar. It is easy to use – just rub a pea-sized amount on with a finger and feels really lovely, far nicer than any other kind of deodorant I’ve used. The big question, of course, is does it work? Well, here is the bit I have to admit I doubted right from the start but yes, it works brilliantly. Considering I’ve been putting it through some fairly serious 10k runs and heavy gardening in warm weather, I am amazed at how it stands up. Wow! It goes without saying that I shall watch for any adverse reaction but in the meantime I’m a convert – and a sweet, citrus-scented one at that!
Moving swiftly from smells to snacks. We’re not naturally snackers as we find three square meals a day of good wholesome food keeps us going well, but occasionally – especially on days involving long or arduous runs – there is a need for a small top-up. Dried kiwi has proved a real success and definitely something I shall be making again next season. They may be a bit of an acquired taste but I love that first tangy sweet-sour whack of flavour like bitter sherbet; a few slices are enough for a fulfilling snack packed with fibre and potassium and they are great for carrying on a long walk. Although our walnut harvest was relatively poor last year, we still have several kilos in store and I love to spend a few minutes each week shelling enough to keep in the kitchen for cooking, sprinkling on breakfasts and grazing in those occasional between-meals tummy rumbling moments. Two healthy snacks, no food miles, zero packaging and totally free. How good is that?
Of course, it’s always great to try new things and as we both love cooking, new recipe ideas are always welcome. We’ve started experimenting with making our own runners’ energy bars, ones that are packed with energy and goodness but without the inevitable high sugar content, additives, preservatives and E-numbers (not to mention excessive packaging) so common in bought ones. In a way, this is a simple exercise in lining up all the different kinds of seeds we have in the cupboard, combining them with something gloopy and baking until crisp. So for our first attempt, a mix of sunflower, pumpkin, sesame and chia seed together with milled linseed and dried goji berries, stuck together with honey, olive oil and a dash of soy sauce. The cooked bars were a bit crumblier than we’d hoped for but fantastically tasty and certainly the perfect post-run booster food. We need to keep playing about with recipes and experimenting with different ingredients; mmm, that will be tough, then!
I think an essential part of our approach to green living is to revisit different things regularly and look at ways in which we can improve them, nudging forward a bit at a time. Take dish washing, for example. We don’t have a dishwasher so everything is washed and dried by hand. During the months when The Beast is lit, we heat all our dish water on the hob; to save wasting water and fuel, we never fill a bowl just to wash a couple of things but let the dirty crockery mount up through the day for one big washing up event in the evening. (Sometimes, we just need to shift our perspective about things: this is not slobby behaviour, it’s green. ) When we are here on our own, we simply cold rinse the same two coffee mugs and re-use them throughout the day – and we haven’t died from doing that yet. Making my own washing-up liquid is something I want to try but for now we use eco-brands, preferably in refillable bottles. Our water is so soft that a 950ml bottle like the one below lasts us six months, even when it’s also used in homemade cleaning potions. For some time now I’ve been crocheting cotton dishcloths which last for ages and can be thrown through the laundry on a regular basis, then composted when they finally give up the ghost. So, what could we do better? Well, one thing I certainly wanted to remove from our lives was scourers made of that nasty scrubby plasticky stuff but how to replace them with something effective? I’ve tried making various knitted scrubbies but nothing seemed to work so in the end the decision was to invest in a couple of wooden brushes which, fingers crossed, should last us for years. That’s another little box ticked.
I’ve been making and using my own washing powder very happily for some months now but now I find there is a bit of a fly in the ointment. I’ve read several articles recently urging people not to do this on any account (it’s a bit like the whole bicarb argument – this green living / zero waste business is tricky stuff sometimes.) The argument is based on the fact that modern washing machines and modern textile fibres are all designed to be used with detergents. Soap-based cleaners can cause a build-up of scum which could ultimately wreck a machine and obviously, having to replace a perfectly serviceable machine before necessary is not remotely green. Also, soap doesn’t clean laundry properly and to prove the point, there are any amount of horror photos of dirty water left behind after so-called clean laundry has been ‘stripped out’ with powerful mineral cleaners. Okay, time for some balanced thinking once again. For every writer standing against homemade laundry powder, there are plenty claiming to have used it for many years without a single machine issue; there are also plenty of people who have stripped out detergent-washed laundry and been left with grotty water, too. As washing soda is the key ingredient of homemade laundry powder, I have increased the proportion in my recipe and reduced the soap; I always fill the fabric conditioner dispenser with white vinegar which it’s claimed helps to stop the scum and as an extra precaution, I am using an eco-detergent every few washes. Not perfect, but I’m hoping it’s a sensible compromise.
One of the best things I’ve discovered recently is organic bamboo kitchen roll. We don’t use paper kitchen roll often and certainly never for mopping up spillages (a cloth does the job just fine) but there are certain cooking processes and some of my messier pastimes where it’s useful stuff to have around – and it is at least compostable. The bamboo roll, however, takes things to a new level: simply tear off a square, use it for whatever . . . then wash it and use it again . . . and again . . . and again. In fact, each square can go through the laundry as many as 80 times, can be bleached, too, if necessary and eventually finishes up on the compost heap like paper. After the first wash, the fabric becomes very soft and almost fluffy; it’s delightful stuff and I’ve already found far more uses for it than imagined. (The bowl of soap batter above is sitting on a bamboo square.) Our roll of 20 sheets will last us many, many years. What an inspired idea.
Staying with bamboo, I have also recently bought bamboo toothbrushes to try. They are one of those things that seem to attract Marmitesque reviews (love or loathe) so I’m interested to see how we get on with them. I love the fact they have their own leaf pattern for easy identification and I can already see a further life for them as row markers in the garden once their dental duties are done. Now I do love an idea like that!
One of our biggest resolutions on the path to zero waste is to use the materials and resources we already have as much as possible rather than buying new. In this vein, Roger has been demolishing an ugly and tumbledown brick wall and replacing it with a gate he has made from wood left over from the house renovation. Not only has it made access to the field so much simpler (what, no more scrambling over a wall?) but it looks far smarter, has opened up the view from the garden and put some spare materials to very good use.
I have used up my final scraps of curtain lining fabric to make another batch of food storage bags – how did we ever live without them, they are such useful things? I also turned the last two patchworking fat squares in my box of bits into a wash bag to take when we’re travelling. The rather nasty plastic lining of our last one crumbled into pieces many years ago and since then we’ve been using random scruffy plastic bags stuffed into a suitcase. The bag was made in minutes, finished with a scrap of satin ribbon as a drawstring and then sprayed with waterproofer; I’m hopeful it will last us for many years and it’s certainly an improvement on our current system!
Having resolved not to buy any new yarn, I’m enjoying planning my woolly activities around what I already have, whether commercially-produced yarns or fleece to spin myself. Spinning, dyeing and knitting from scratch takes a long time but there is such pleasure and satisfaction in working through the whole process, especially if I have someone else in mind for the finished article. A skein of Blue-Faced Leicester wool spun with kid mohair and dyed with ready-mixed colours left over from the last project brought to mind a cottage garden of delphiniums and clematis, granny’s bonnets and roses . . . perfect for the summer birthday gift had I planned. I’m not a fan of circular needles and my lace knitting is painfully slow but that’s all part of the process . . . there is no rush, just the simple delight of creating something unique from scratch for someone I love.
I’m also working my way slowly through the scraps of yarn left over from various blanket projects and the pile of little crocheted squares is mounting up steadily. I still have no real final plan – there will certainly be enough for a blanket – but it’s good to see those little bits and pieces being put to good use.
So, on we go, taking small footsteps along this tricky path. We still have such a long way to travel and I know it won’t all be easy; the next few ideas to try are already in the pipeline and the coming weeks will see how well they pan out. It’s easy to feel despondent sometimes, despair even, especially looking at the wider world and the problems too mighty for us to tackle alone. However, taking a walk through the woods down to the river yesterday, I paused to enjoy the moment: the trees hazed with fresh new spring growth, clouds of butterflies playing chase in the sunshine, the first swallows wheeling and chattering overhead, the raucous birdsong echoing, it seemed, from every branch.
Yes, this is why we do it, this is what it’s for . . . the hope that in small green footsteps we reduce our giant footprint and leave a beautiful and sustainable world for our precious grandchildren. Surely that’s a future worth fighting for, however imperfectly?
The winter solstice is looming and for the third year in a row it has caught me on the hop because it simply doesn’t feel like the December I know. Not that I’m complaining; this mild weather with its generous sunshine, high light levels and soft, soapy air suits me just fine. I have been busy in the garden, stripped down to a t-shirt, digging over the empty patches and spreading oodles of manure and homemade compost around, feeding our soil while it rests before seed time comes round once again. Give me that over Christmas shopping any day.
Along the lanes, the verges are studded with primroses, violets, clover and knapweed and there is plenty of floral beauty and scent in the garden, too.
The honey bees have no thought for a winter cluster yet; they are still busy filling their pollen baskets in the rosemary.
Despite the bare patches, the vegetable garden continues to bless us with a fresh and nourishing bounty of seasonal delights.
Some not so seasonal, too . . . I think the asparagus is a little confused!
With trugs full of veggie gorgeousness like this one – carrots, Florence fennel, leeks, parsnip, salsify, rainbow chard, kale, calabrese and a bunch of herbs- there will be no need for a festive Brussels sprouts bunfight.
Of course, our winter is yet to come here (and it will) but as we head towards the longest night and that tipping point where the days slowly but surely begin to stretch and lengthen, I feel this is an appropriate time to reflect on the past year and start to make plans for the months to come. After two and a half years of hard graft and upheaval, the house renovation is practically finished which means we will have time now to concentrate on some major outdoor projects. Time, too, to really get to grips with our commitment to zero waste and sustainable living; we don’t do too badly but there is still so much scope for improvement. The ancient Iroquois philosophy of giving thought to a sustainable world for the next seven generations almost seems like an impossibility in today’s society; I fear greatly and passionately for the world we are leaving our children and their little ones, yet alone our great-great-great-great-great grandchildren. However, we are committed to doing our bit, no matter that it is a tiny drop; the smallest, simplest gesture that helps us to reduce our carbon footprint and tread lightly on the earth is worth every effort. Our main approach is to buy less, consume less, make do and make our own. This doesn’t mean we go without. Far from it, in fact: I would argue we are ‘richer’ now than we have ever been.
Plastic waste is hot news at the moment; it’s not the only thing to consider in a zero waste lifestyle but it is a biggie and one that taxes my green-living brain a good deal. In May, I made beewraps and they have proved to be brilliant things; it’s amazing how quickly we shifted to using them and I can truthfully say we haven’t bought any cling wrap this year. Result! Pushing on further, then, this week I have been making cloth bags for food storage. We bake sourdough bread two or three times a week, always making an extra loaf or rolls to go in the freezer. Although we wash and re-use freezer bags as much as possible, how much better not to be using them at all for ‘dry’ foods like bread where there’s an alternative? I used a strong cotton gingham fabric left over from a curtain-making project from several years ago and it was the easiest sewing activity ever. I simply cut a rectangle of fabric and folded it so I only needed to seam the bottom and one side (some might say lazy here, I prefer efficient! 🙂 ).
I zigzagged the non-selvage edges to prevent bits of cotton fraying into our food; the whole point of these bags is that they can go through the laundry so they need to be robust. Next, I turned a double hem at the top to make a casing for the drawstring. A heavy cotton piping cord would be ideal but I didn’t have any to hand so used up scraps of elastic from my sewing box – not as aesthetically pleasing, but actually perfect for the job. I whizzed up five bags in well under two hours, including at least one coffee break!
I’ve made three different sizes and time will tell which are the most used so I can make more in the future. I had thought the smallest bag would be perfect for freezing things like root ginger but it also turned out to be just right for half a dozen mince pies to go into the freezer for a picnic . . . pressed into action within minutes of being finished (this was a necessity as mince pies have always had a habit of disappearing at speed in our house when my back is turned) .
While my sewing machine was set up, I decided on a second simple activity: making hankies. I always used to carry a cotton handkerchief when I was younger and I’m really not sure when tissue culture became so prevalent. I know tissues aren’t plastic, but they’re a good example of ‘single use’ packaged products and even if ours end up on the compost heap, they’re still not very green. It can be argued that hankies aren’t very hygienic but as long as they’re changed often and laundered properly, they are no less hygienic than tissues and far less wasteful. So, I cut squares from a lightweight cotton fabric remnant and stitched narrow hems along the edges, each one taking a matter of minutes. I plumped for seven in the end – a clean hankie a day! – with plans to make another batch before too long.
Sourcing truly natural, sustainable products and materials isn’t always easy so I was very thrilled to be given a large amount of beeswax recently. This was the ‘real deal’, wax straight from beehives melted into a cake; it’s wonderful stuff but full of propolis, pollen and various undesirable bits and bobs so my first job was to render it along with a pile of shattered wax foundation well past its useful life. When The Beast is lit, we have a constantly hot hob and oven which is perfect for this sort of activity and very satisfying as we are still burning the old roof timbers – free energy indeed!
The easiest way to clean up this much wax at a time is to place it in a pot of barely simmering water (beeswax melts at about 65 degrees Celsius and overheating can destroy its antibacterial and anti-fungal properties); the melted wax floats to the surface and the impurities sink below.
When the wax is cooled and hardened, the rind of impurities can be shaved off with a paring knife.
I decided to repeat the process once more, then broke the cake into smaller pieces for storage while it was still soft. It looked just like fudge, almost good enough to eat!
I used a very small amount of the cleaned wax to re-coat our beewraps, giving them a few seconds’ blast in the oven which is a good idea from time to time anyway as it helps to sterilise them. I want to save most of this wax for making toiletries but as there was plenty I decided to make a couple of small candles, too. I love candlelight but can’t bear scented candles and to me even the plain white paraffin ones aren’t wonderful. Beeswax candles, on the other hand, smell lovely- just like the inside of a summer hive (there are claims that they purify the air through ‘negative ionisation’ but this is open to much controversial debate). You can make very artistic candles using moulds but I don’t have any so I opted for the simple container type, using some dainty Japanese tea bowls we were given a few years ago. Beeswax can be tricky stuff as it burns hotter and faster than other candle waxes so the advice generally is to mix it with other things (coconut oil, for example) to ‘slow’ it down and also to pay very careful attention to wick size. Mmm, needless to say I ignored all that: I do have coconut oil but it’s so pricey I’d prefer not to burn it and as I had a few wicks left over from previous candle projects I wasn’t about to buy more. I put some lumps of wax in an old tin and sat it in a pot of simmering water, weighed down with an old flat iron to stop it bobbing about and popped the bowls into the oven for a few minutes so the hot wax wouldn’t crack them. When it comes to wicks with metal bases, it’s possible to stick them to the container with a hot glue gun or use a special ‘stickum’ thing but as my life has thus far been complete without owning either, I simply dipped the base in melted wax and used that as glue. Strangely enough, it worked.
I then carefully poured melted wax into the bowls, leaving the first bit to set a little before topping them up.
As there was a bit left over, I poured it into a small bowl lined with parchment paper so it would cool into a block I can use again; no worries about cleaning up the tin as I shall keep it for future wax projects. The wax didn’t crack as can sometimes happen, there was a little bit of shrinkage away from the sides but with their wicks trimmed and combined with a small posy of greenery from the wood, these candles will be the perfect decoration for our Yuletide dinner table.
Green cleaning is second nature to me, the more chemicals I can ban from our newly-renovated home the better and I love the fact that it is so easy to render everything clean and sweet-smelling using small quantities of a few simple ingredients, many of them perfectly edible. For example, lemons literally fall off the trees here; they are fantastic for cleaning the bathroom and kitchen and as a pre-wash soak for whites, they come in their own ‘packaging’ and what’s left is fully compostable. You don’t get more zero waste than that! I’ve been making my own laundry powder this week, mixing equal quantities of grated Marseille soap, washing soda and bicarbonate of soda with a few drops of lemon essential oil (more for its disinfectant properties than fragrance). It’s done in a flash and although the quantity in the photo doesn’t look much, there is enough there for a couple of weeks’ laundry at least.
No need for fabric conditioner, a splash of white vinegar in the dispenser drawer balances the pH and leaves everything feeling soft and lovely; our clothes smell simply of soap and fresh air and most importantly, are beautifully clean. Whilst grating the soap – one of those little therapeutic moments I love- it occurred to me that here is another area where I can experiment with pushing things further. Why not make my own laundry soap, using all natural products? How about body soap for the bathroom and a solid shampoo? No plastic bottles or packaging, no toxic nasties or artificial colours and scents? Is this another way to reduce our impact a little further, to try and leave a beautiful world for the seventh generation and beyond? Mmm . . . sounds like an exciting solstice challenge to me! 🙂
Spring is almost officially here and we have just eaten the final picking of leeks and the very last cabbage from the garden. It feels a bit sad in a way but we’ve been harvesting leeks since last September so they really have done us proud.
There is still a good crop of purple sprouting broccoli, rainbow chard and small pickings of mizuna, pak choi and komatsuna fresh from the patch and we still have plenty of squash and beans in storage. We have been using fresh sage, thyme, rosemary, marjoram, chervil and coriander all winter and now the vigorous new growth on parsley, spearmint and chives offers additional delicious flavourings.
That said, we are teetering on the edge of that ‘hungry gap’ when there will be very little to be had from the garden; if we want a wide diversity of veg in our diet, we have to buy a few now. The next crops won’t be too long; there are flowers on the autumn-planted broad beans and peas, and the second plantings are through the ground. In the polytunnel, ‘Little Gem’ and ‘Red Rosie’ lettuce are leafing up nicely and the first taste of radish is on its way.
The bottom line, though, is that it would be good to be gapless.
We were much later getting our polytunnel organised and up than planned (and we’ve had nothing but problems with it since . . . mmm, that’s another story) but next spring, it will be key to bridging the gap. There are many things that can be planted in autumn to give crops all winter or an early spring harvest and we intend to exploit that situation to the full. At the moment, there are a few bits and pieces in the ground but much of the space is either empty or housing the staging, currently heaving under trays and pots of emerging seedlings – our food (and flowers) of the future!
The plan is to remove the staging when it’s done its job and plant the whole space with tomatoes, aubergines, peppers, chillies and melons plus a few other bits and bobs; we’re also planting everything but tomatoes outdoors and it will be an interesting experiment to compare both lots over the summer. Now I have to admit that I love a good dig – or at least, a good rummage around in soil with my fork. It’s a simple thing, the joy of physical activity combined with that wonderful earthy smell, the sight of worms, that feeling of preparation and expectation . . . but I know there are arguments against it and I’m interested to try a bit of ‘no-dig’ gardening. Roger isn’t at all convinced of the benefits and we have enjoyed some lively discussions on the subject but I’m wondering if the tunnel might just provide an opportunity to have a go this year? To that end, I hauled what felt like several tonnes of homemade compost into the tunnel and dumped it on all the bare areas; there’s plenty of excess to spread around once the trestles have gone. It’s a deep layer of lovely, worm-riddled, crumbly gorgeousness so my idea is not to dig it in but leave it as ta thick mulch, plant directly and observe with interest.
Back to that gap and another strategy this year is to alter the planting times of some crops; it takes a while to understand a new climate and we are still in the early stages here. This time last year, we had trays of leek plants several centimetres high but we haven’t even planted them yet this year. The truth is, we don’t need to be eating them in September when the patch is still heaving with other veg, so by pushing them back a bit with any luck we will be able to harvest them until the end of March at least. Parsnips have always been a huge winter staple for us; they are notoriously tricky to germinate but we have never had a problem, fresh seed saved from our plants and sowed with freezing fingers in cold, waterlogged February soil always yielding more than enough to feed our family of five all winter. They grow like stink here, too – enormous great roots which do several meals for two of us – but oh my goodness, the trouble we’ve had getting them started.
Last year, we had to plant three times before anything germinated and then the harvest was not quite as big or prolonged as we would have liked. This year, we’ve started them off in the tunnel, the seeds planted in little cones of newspaper filled with compost (I had great fun making those cones, like folding tiny piping bags . . . very therapeutic!); fingers crossed for a successful germination and then we simply pop the cones into the ground outside and look forward to a winter feast of those delicious beauties.
On the subject of adjusting to a different climate, we have been catching the tail end of the wintry weather sweeping across more northerly parts; we aren’t suffering from frosts or snow but the temperature has been pegged back and there is a certain amount of gardeners’ frustration at play. Patience, patience! That said, the signs of spring are all around, not least the delicate beauty of peach and apricot blossom.
This is a timely reminder that the new season’s harvest is on its way and we still have a mass of fruit in the freezer from last year’s glut. No problem, I have been pulling them out in batches, stewing them lightly in their own juices on top of the woodstove and eating them for breakfast. I don’t know about other people, but sometimes when reflecting on our attempts to live a simpler, greener, more sustainable life I find myself focusing on how much we aren’t doing; it’s human nature, I suppose, but occasionally it’s good to stand back and look at the positives, too. So, here is my breakfast: peaches picked and preserved from our trees, organic oats bought in a paper bag which will be shredded onto the compost heap, and walnuts from our woodland, stored in their shells and cracked as needed. No hint of chemicals, no plastic wrapping in sight, zero waste. (Not to mention it’s a delicious and nutritious combination to start the day!)
One ‘gap’ we really can’t risk is that of logs; we rely on a steady supply to feed the stove and that means planning ahead. This winter we have been burning the old roof timbers, ‘recycling’ them into heat – the stove heats the entire house – as well as hot water and a hob and oven for cooking. During the autumn, we have cut the remaining timbers and stacked them to dry; this week, Roger has moved them all into the shed for storage and turned his thoughts to logs for 2020!
We are blessed with several acres of woodland, a mix of mostly eucalyptus (planted by the former owner as a cash crop), chestnut, birch, oak, willow and holly. There is much shrubby undergrowth including Spanish heath and gorse and a wealth of wild flowers, too (there are carpets of sweet violets everywhere at present). It is a beautiful wild tangle of growth and a haven for wildlife – wild boar and deer are regular visitors and there is a tremendous population of birds. Our attitude to logging is to take just enough for our needs through careful ‘management’ rather than greed; fallen trees are always the first port of call. The chestnuts can be coppiced rather than felled – this is typical local practice – and that is what Roger has been doing, cutting selected trunks and hauling them home with the tractor to split and season.
There’s no waste here, either: the sweet-smelling sawdust is a great addition to the compost heap and I’ve been happily sweeping it up and spreading it across the top of our greatly reduced pile.
So . . . here’s to another year of logs and compost and – if we play our cards right – no hungry gap at all next spring. Happy equinox, everyone! 🙂
‘Material life and diet should be given a simple place. If this is done, work becomes pleasant, and spiritual breathing space becomes plentiful.’ Masanobu Fukuoka, The One Straw Revolution
I have just finished reading a book about minimalist living. Whilst being an interesting and thought-provoking read, I found myself becoming increasingly disillusioned by some of the ideas being suggested. Of course, everyone is entitled to their own interpretation and opinion but for me, the whole essence of minimalism is about getting rid of excess, living with only what we need and no more so that what is left – whether in terms of space or time – can be used for happier, non-material things and appreciating the beauty of life and the world around us (as per the opening quotation). Perhaps I’ve got it all wrong?
For instance, there was a lot of time spent on the idea of de-cluttering which seemed to focus far more on organising existing ‘stuff’ rather than reducing the overall amount of possessions; I found it a bit ironic being advised to go out and buy large plastic boxes so I can store things under the bed. There is nothing under our bed at present because, quite simply, there is nothing to go under the bed (and if there were, I’d be seriously questioning whether we really needed it). When it came to getting rid of things, there was also far too much ‘throw it away’ for my tastes: whatever happened to re-use and re-cycle? Well, I’m happy to agree to disagree with the author on a few things but when it came to a discussion of decorating, I felt completely lost at the suggestion of a simple black and white scheme for everything. Now admittedly, we have painted all the walls of our little mountain house white in order to maximise light as the windows are very small . . . but there is colour in everything else. I am happy to embrace a simpler lifestyle but I didn’t realise it extended to removing an excess of colour! I love colour, it brings so much joy and happiness into my world and the idea of eliminating it is out of the question. In fact, quite the opposite – it’s been high on my agenda this week.
Last year, I decided to brighten up an old garden seat we’d had for many years; we had kept it as natural wood, oiling it every year to keep it waterproof, but the poor thing was really looking its age. I painted it with the dregs of paint left over from a previous project and we placed it in one of our sunniest patches. It has become one of our favourite places, a natural spot to gravitate towards, mug of coffee in hand. Unfortunately it had gone to look weather-beaten again and having no ‘petrol’ paint left, this week I opted for a brighter ‘peacock’ instead and spent a happy couple of hours in the sunshine giving it another facelift.
I also finished making the crochet patchwork granny square blanket, something I started last year to use up a pile of yarn left over from other projects. It’s been great fun creating something useful from a crazy mishmash of colours and clashes, although in theory I suppose I could have put the yarn into storage under the bed or thrown it away. 🙂 Instead, it will be a blanket of many uses, including padding out that seat or throwing in the back of the car for picnics.
We are edging ever closer to being able to move the spare bedroom furniture out of the kitchen and upstairs. We won’t be able to sort our kitchen/living area out properly until then but in the meantime I dug out our old cotton bunting, washed and ironed it (quite something for me!) and we hung it from the beams. A visiting neighbour was very taken with it and asked if we had been celebrating a birthday to which I had to honestly answer no, it was just me being a bit frivolous and girlie and the bunting was a permanent thing.
He said he thought that was wonderful because it meant we were celebrating our non-birthdays every day and that was surely a great thing to do? What a lovely way of looking at life! Black and white? I don’t think so!
One of my goals this year is to try and get as close to zero waste as possible. The amount of waste that goes out for the rubbish collection is already relatively small – one small bag per fortnight, rarely full; we recycle everything we can, compost biodegradable waste and re-use things wherever possible as second nature. The composting in particular is a huge success here; as gardeners, we have had compost heaps for 30 years but have never had such a fast working one. It’s like some sort of magical bottomless pit of gorgeous, crumbly compost. I turned it and emptied it in the autumn, digging out enough to mulch the entire vegetable patch. This week, I’ve turned it again, piling it onto the terraces where the squash and sweetcorn are to be planted (they are such greedy feeders), top dressing all our pots and troughs and hauling buckets and buckets up to the polytunnel. I love this sort of activity, definitely not work in my book. What a thing of wonder compost is . . . and all from waste and worms!
For us, the biggest issue to tackle is plastic waste, and in particular, food wrapping – something of a hot topic at the moment. Luckily, a huge proportion of our food here comes package-free . . .
. . . but we are not self-sufficient so inevitably we have to buy from other places and that’s where the problem starts. Even buying fresh meat and fish loose over the counter, there seems to be no getting away from the plastic it is subsequently wrapped in and which cannot be hygienically recycled. I’m not sure what the answer is but I’m working on it and in the meantime, I’ve had a go at making some bee wraps which should at least help to eliminate home-produced cling film waste. Waxed cloth is not a new idea but it has become popular in recent years as an eco-friendly alternative to disposable food wraps. There are some really beautiful products on the market but they tend to be a bit pricey so, encouraged by many helpful websites, I decided to have a go at making my own; driven in from the garden by Storm Gisela a couple of days ago, I decided the moment had arrived!
The theory is a simple one: soak cotton cloth in melted beeswax, pine resin and jojoba oil to create a waterproof, flexible, washable food wrap. The fabric I used was good quality 100% cotton left over from a baby quilt project (I think it came from Hobbycraft). Beeswax is easily obtainable in a block that can be grated or as small perles, but I had some beekeeper’s waste – a sheet of wax foundation that had shattered – so it seemed the right thing to use. There are various methods for making bee wraps; as the stove was stoked up and the oven hot, I decided to use that rather than the ironing method. I opted for mixing the cold ingredients and spreading them across the fabric as this seemed to be less wasteful and also I know from making lip balm and hand cream that cleaning bowls and utensils that have been around melted beeswax is the very devil!
It would have been nice to cut the fabric with pinking shears but I don’t have any so straight edges had to suffice; I was working on the theory (correct, as it turned out) that such a tight weave was unlikely to fray after waxing. I chopped the fabric into various shapes and sizes and made a start with the largest square (30cm x 30cm), laying it on a large baking tray covered in parchment paper.
I popped the tray into the hot oven and the mixture took only moments to melt. I then removed it, used a paintbrush to spread the melted mixture around, making sure it went right to the edges of the fabric, then put it back into the oven for another couple of minutes.
Mmm. What can I say? It did work in as much as I ended up with a sheet of waxed fabric but . . . for some reason, the resin pooled in places and left rather unattractive yellow splodges – no mention of this little problem on any of the websites. I turned the second piece right side down on the parchment which did at least mean the resin wasn’t quite so obvious but I really wasn’t very happy with this method. I honestly wished I’d used the pre-melting approach instead, so for the smaller pieces I piled the mixture on to the parchment next to the fabric, melted it then brushed over. You can see the difference that made in the photo below.
The upshot of my little wrap making experiment is that I certainly won’t use this method again but will melt everything together first; the good news is that I will definitely be making some more because although aesthetically they aren’t the greatest, they work. They have a strange texture but smell pleasantly and subtly of beeswax and there is something very satisfying about moulding them around the top of a food container with just the warmth from my hands (yes, I’m a simple soul!). I’m interested to see which sizes we use the most in the coming weeks and then I shall make a second batch.
To me, these little ideas are the epitome of the simple life we live here. I know it’s only a drop in the ocean, but drops add up. It’s another tiny step towards zero waste and steps add up, too. It’s not about grand gestures or dramatic dogma, strict colour schemes or savvy storage systems. It’s about living peacefully, kindly and mindfully every day, taking little steps one at a time to tread more gently on the earth. That’s a life worth living, surely? 🙂
Christmas means different things to different people and how it is marked and celebrated comes down to personal preferences. I’m sure that many people would think our Christmas was very boring – even miserable, maybe: no pile of presents; no tree; no turkey or mountain of festive food; no frantic shopping trips or round of visits and visitors. We have had huge traditional family Christmases in the past but I have to admit there has been something lovely about paring it down in recent years to a very simple celebration.
The subject of family perhaps needs a little more discussion before I go any further. We have been asked how on earth we can bear to live abroad when we have young grandchildren in the UK: surely we miss out on so much? Well no, not really. Ironically, I have seen more of our grandchildren in the time we have lived in Spain than I did in the same amount of time living in the UK, where full-time work and all the responsibilities and demands of life left me short on ‘Granny time.’ I’ve also seen more of the little munchkins than a fair few of their other UK relatives have in that time, and the truly wonderful thing is that we might only get together three or four times a year, but each one is like a mini-Christmas. I’ve been reflecting this week on some of the things we have done together in 2017: had day trips out, eaten cafe and picnic lunches, had long walks in pretty places, climbed trees, made dens, built towers, jumped in puddles and paddled in rivers, grazed and nibbled around gardens, shared ice creams and gingerbread men, explored caves and ‘castles’, done very serious business with toy farms, horses, machines and Lego, coloured pictures, stuck stickers, curled up with stories, gazed at the moon (and talked about why you can’t go there on a tractor) . . . priceless moments. You can’t wrap any of that and put it under a tree. 🙂
So, to our quiet and simple Christmas here. One of the things I value now that we aren’t tied to the timetable of work is the fact that we have the chance to acknowledge and celebrate the Winter Solstice. For me, the solstices and equinoxes all mark important turning points in the wheel of the year and I like to spend time at each one reflecting on their significance. I love the Winter Solstice! Yes, I know it’s a while before we really notice the days lengthening and of course the coldest months are yet to come but . . . there is something so joyful about knowing we are turning a corner and spring will come again. I’m not fussed on tinsel and glitter but I have always enjoyed gathering winter greenery and what better day to choose than one where the sun ‘stands still’ – especially when it is shining?
A short walk up the lane and I turned to look at the view; I never tire of seeing those beautiful mountains and there is something so comforting about the wood smoke spiralling up from the chimney. No need for a Christmas tree in the house when we can enjoy those enormous beauties next door!
No holly for the house, either: it is a protected species here and cannot be cut. That’s no problem as I’m happy to enjoy it outside; we are blessed with swathes of it in our woodland and I have recently found several tiny new self-set trees growing in the garden – precious things indeed.
There was no shortage of colour and greenery and I found myself revelling in the simple beauty of the trees around me, native or otherwise.
Even on the shortest day of the year, my very favourite spot at the end of our forest track, was bathed in sunlight. One resolution for 2018 is to build a simple seat here.
Over an hour of wandering about with my head in nature, five minutes to ‘create’ in a vase. My kind of Christmas decoration! Later that evening, we sat and watched the sun go down, marking the spot against the mountainous skyline.
I’ve heard of an elderly couple who pack smoked salmon and a bottle of bubbly and enjoy them as a picnic every Christmas Day as they have done for all the years they have been together. How lovely to be brave enough and imaginative enough to do something different. We did have a delicious roast dinner (local free-range chicken, most definitely not turkey) and a pile of vegetables from the garden but chose to do that on the 21st; for Christmas dinner, we had good old-fashioned homemade steak and kidney pie. Well, why not? We’ve indulged in a couple of cooked breakfast, too, enjoying Vita’s lovely eggs . . . and sending her box back as full as it came. This is the sort of gift-giving I love.
It has been so good to spend time outside and smile at those little signs of hope for a new growing season. The peas and broad beans are through the ground and enjoying the current mild weather.
Borage and calendula have provided splashes of colour non-stop but there are a few new arrivals to enjoy, too.
Given the weather forecast, we decided to celebrate New Year’s Eve a day early: yesterday just shouted out for a barbecue in the early evening sunshine (and yes, Roger is wearing shorts!).
It’s wet and windy today for the real event but that’s no bother. I don’t know about resolutions but of one thing I am very sure: whatever 2018 brings, we will continue to enjoy this simple, lovely life as fully as we can every single day. That’s better than all the Christmas presents in the world. Happy New Year!
I am a huge fan of simple food, by which I mean dishes and meals that are created from the most basic and least processed of ingredients. It doesn’t mean that what we eat is boring – far from it. We love to spend time creating complex dishes from an array of ingredients, and mezze/tapas-style meals of many delicious bits and pieces are a great favourite, especially as they usually mean lots of leftovers for lunch! Using ingredients from our patch here is a wonderful way for us to eat but you don’t need to grow or produce your own ingredients in order to enjoy the benefits of creating meals from scratch.
For me, there are three main reasons for cooking this way:
Pleasure: eating should be a joyful thing. If we have enough to eat every day, we are lucky; if we have the choice of many delightful ingredients to choose from, we are blessed. Preparing even the simplest meal with hands, senses and hearts should be a daily pleasure.
Economy: many pre-packed and pre-prepared foods are expensive. Sourcing your own ingredients means you can choose what’s good, in season or on offer and buy in bulk to save money. Even the simplest of dishes – say a basic tomato and herb sauce for pasta or humble vegetable soup – that has been made at home is likely to be of a better quality than the bought stuff, so when comparing cost it’s important to look at the high end of the market.
Health and choice: if you create your own meals from scratch, you have control over what goes into them and that’s a powerful thing. It’s fascinating – and often hair-raising! – to read the list of ingredients on food packaging. Making your own means you can control the amount of different nutrients and foods that go in (so for example, less sugar and salt, more fibre, no artificial colourings, flavourings or additives). It doesn’t mean you can’t indulge, either! I recently made some cinnamon and ginger ice cream as a treat to eat with hot mince pies. The ingredients I used were egg yolks (from our neighbour’s free range hens), double cream, whole milk, sugar (from a jar with several vanilla pods in to flavour), ground cinnamon and ground ginger. Healthy? Not really! Decadent? Most definitely! The point is, though, that nothing else went in. Compare this with the list of ingredients in a quality brand of ice cream (vanilla – I couldn’t find a cinnamon and ginger version) : reconstituted skimmed milk, glucose fructose syrup, sugar, glucose syrup, coconut oil, whey solids (milk), stabilisers (locust bean gum, guar gum, carrageenan), vanilla bean pieces, emulsifier (mono- and di-glycerides of fatty acids), natural vanilla flavourings , colour (carotenes). Ice cream without . . . cream? Stabilisers and emulsifiers? I’m happy to stick with homemade.
As an example of just how easy and rewarding cooking from scratch can be, I’d like to share my granola recipe and encourage you to give it a go. Granola and ‘crunchy’-type breakfast cereals tend to sit at the luxury (and therefore pricier) end of the breakfast cereal market with an aura of healthy eating about them. Researching some of the top brands, I found that after oats, two of the biggest ingredients were sugar and palm oil, and many recipes for homemade granola use large amounts of sugar, maple syrup and corn syrup. Mmm, no thanks. I based my recipe on Sam and Adrienne’s which is delicious, nutritious and sustaining (in fact, it’s what I stoked up on before running the half marathon in September) but I have played around and made a few changes of my own. The recipe is very flexible so ingredients and quantities can be changed to suit your tastes and preferences; I definitely didn’t want to use sugar as I think the honey and dried fruit are plenty sweet enough. I didn’t buy anything ‘new’, just used what we already had at home; in fact, it was a good way of using up some bits and pieces left over from other dishes. It is so easy to make that it hardly qualifies as cooking!
I started with 450g of oats,
then added sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds – about 150g in all – and another 150g of mixed walnuts and almonds.
For the wet ingredients, I began by stirring in several tablespoons of apple puree. These were windfalls that I’d frozen earlier in the autumn; when defrosted, I remembered that I’d added orange zest and juice when cooking them – this gave a lovely additional flavour.
I then added a couple of tablespoons of sunflower oil (Sam and Adrienne use walnut oil but I didn’t have any) and a very generous glug of village honey straight out of the jar. I gave it all a good stir, then spread it onto two lined baking trays: the mixture was wet but not overly so.
Many granola recipes call for a fairly cool oven but I just whacked the trays into the woodstove oven which was sitting a bit below 200 degrees Celsius and kept a careful eye on things to make sure the granola didn’t burn. I took it out and stirred it a couple of times and at this point I was slightly worried as it wasn’t doing the clustery thing I’d expected. No worries: after about 45 minutes, it turned a lovely golden brown and clumped together a bit as it cooled.
Once cool, I added roughly 150g of mixed raisins and dried cranberries, then piled it into an airtight jar.
This has made a truly delicious breakfast (I like to eat it sprinkled over Greek yoghurt) which has kept well and gone a long way; it’s very filling, so only small portions are needed, and it has a lovely flavour and crunchy texture without being cloying or overly sweet.
Simple, wholesome ingredients quickly and easily transformed into a breakfast of gorgeousness. Perfect! 🙂
‘Could there be anything better than living simply and taking it easy?’ Masanobu Fukuoka, The One-Straw Revolution
We have never set out to be self-sufficient in an extreme ‘Good Life’ sort of way; there are too many commodities we need but can’t produce ourselves, and – to be completely honest – there are also things we love and wouldn’t like to live without (coffee and tea, for instance). Our aim is to live simply, walking lightly on the Earth and living gently from the land as much as we possibly can. We are happy to have just what we need and no more, and that is a lovely place to be. Neither of us is shy of hard work and yet somehow even on the busiest of days, spending our time on tasks that support our lifestyle can feel exactly like taking it easy! What’s more, the freedom from rigid timetables and responsibilities allows us to take time ‘off’ and enjoy the beautiful place in which we are so lucky to live.
In cooler months, the woodburning stove – aka ‘The Beast’ – is absolutely central to our lifestyle. We had hoped to keep the original stove here but it proved so inefficient and unreliable in our first winter that replacing it was the only choice and once again we opted for a Nordica.
This is an Italian make, at the ‘budget’ end of things compared perhaps to better known makes of kitchen ranges but we rate it very highly – so much so that this is the third house where we have installed one. Nothing clever or fancy, it simply burns wood in the form of good old-fashioned logs . . . and here is an area where we can be self-sufficient. Half our land here is forest, about four acres (1.6 hectares) of mixed woodland which contains a lifetime’s sustainable supply of logs. We can take what we need through careful woodland management, there is no question of plundering or destroying; all it requires is careful planning and a lot of work! The wood needs to be hauled home, cut into lengths, split into logs then stacked in a stone shed to season until dry enough to burn.
This is an ongoing process, always looking ahead. This year we have the added bonus of an enormous pile of old timbers which were removed from the house when it was re-roofed in the summer. We could have paid several hundred euros to have it thrown in a skip and taken away but what would the point of that been? A few days’ hard work at the time created the timber mountain outside and Roger’s daily chainsawing session is steadily reducing it to enough logs to see us through one if not two winters.
The benefits of having the stove are many. Having opted for an open, cabin style-home it heats the entire house; we have a few modern electric radiators for back-up but quite honestly, I doubt they will ever be used. We are toasty with a capital T! We don’t have a tumble drier: 95% of our laundry is dried outside in the fresh air, but a collapsible wooden airer in front of the stove overnight dries or airs anything if we have a run of rainy days. A kettle of water sits permanently on the hob, providing boiling water for tea and coffee, all our washing up and household cleaning purposes. A constantly hot hob and oven mean we can cook as much as we like without having to worry about using the electric cooker efficiently and it is perfect for those things that need long cooking like the batch of marmalade made earlier this week.
A hot stove in the morning also means we can cook dishes for lunch, a luxury I have really enjoyed since giving up work and being at home – it beats a lunchbox any day! In the photo of the stove above, there is a pan of lentils cooking as a base for a lunchtime salad and on the worktop next to it, two trays of dough rising for ciabatta loaves.
Gardening and growing our own food have always been important parts of our life and something I find difficult to regard as work; I love being out of doors with my hands in the soil and the benefits of fresh, organic produce with zero food miles are priceless. Sarah and I often agree that there is a lot of fun to be had ‘foraging’ in your own garden as even at this time of year when it is perhaps at its emptiest, it is amazing what can be gathered. With this in mind, I set off to pick what I could find to go with those lentils, thinking probably a small bulb of fennel and a few herbs would be it . . .
What a lovely little haul! There was fennel (the smaller bulbs are starting to go to seed now so need eating quickly), mizuna and baby komatsuna from self-set plants, peas ‘three ways’ (a few pods of sweet baby peas, small pods to eat whole and pea shoots), mint and chives for herbal flavour and calendula and borage flowers for colour. Mixed with lentils, salt, pepper, olive oil, grated lemon zest and a squeeze of lemon juice, what a splendid salad they made.
Making stock is a way of life for us and here again the stove comes into its own. We bought a stainless steel stockpot over 20 years ago and it is one of the best investments ever, we have used it so much (not just for stock – that marmalade was made in it, too). No bits of meat or fish bone, skin, scraps or shell (in the case of seafood) leave the kitchen without first having been boiled and simmered into a gorgeous, flavoursome stock. For us this is not just about creating the base for future meals but also doing full honour to the animals we have eaten. There is simply no waste. The same is true of vegetable stock, so easy to make and a world away from anything that comes from a cube. The beauty of it is that any bits and scraps of veg can be used so it’s a good way of using up anything that’s past its best and, as the finished stock is strained, the veg can go in skins and all. Here is the pot I made this week:
A scrappy onion, a couple of garlic cloves, rainbow chard (stalks that had self-pruned), the last few carrots from our late crop now suffering from rootfly, some leafing celery, a tiny leek that came out when I was lifting bigger ones, a couple of definitely-past-their-best parsley stalks and salt and peppercorns yielded three litres of delicious stock, some of which went straight into vegetable soup, the rest into the freezer for future meals. Really, this is something from nothing!
On which subject . . . we are trying hard to get as close to zero waste as possible; it’s not easy, but making compost has again always been a way of life to us, and a great way to recycle organic matter into (eventually) more food. I’m not keen on having a kitchen compost bin which always seems to go slimy, so we use a large plastic mixing bowl instead and empty it daily. I don’t think our current compost heap would win any prizes at it is not very pretty and breaks several golden composting rules: it sits directly on concrete, it isn’t covered, there is only one heap rather than two or three in rotation, we only turn it once a year and we just throw on whatever needs composting rather than any strict green / brown layering. Oh dear!
Well, the proof of the pudding and all that: I turned the heap a couple of days ago and found many, many barrow loads of the richest, crumbliest, most wonderful compost ever – enough, in fact to mulch the whole of the veg patch currently fallow (most of it) with plenty left to dig into the area where a polytunnel will soon be going up. I think we’ll just stick with the rule breaking, it seems to be working a treat.
Back to the idea of living simply and taking it easy. A very rainy day saw me looking for an indoor activity and I had just the thing which certainly felt like relaxation. Some months ago, I crocheted a couple of dishcloths from scrap cotton yarn and they have proved to be the best things ever (I realise sounding enthusiastic about dishcloths might seem a bit sad, but I am a simple soul). Given that we don’t have a dishwasher and all our washing up is done by hand, they have taken quite a bashing without showing any signs of wear and tear at all. I throw them into a hot wash with sheets and teatowels and back they come, ready for another go. On the strength of this, I decided to make some more, this time from a slightly heavier cotton: a 100g ball yielded two dishcloths and a larger floorcloth. While I was at it, I dug out some more scrap cotton and knitted a purple tawashi knot scrubbie to use as a scourer (thank you to Sonja for the idea!).
Simple things and happy days. There really isn’t anything better! 🙂
No question that Black Friday and its friends have taken root in Western Europe, despite the ironic lack of the Thanksgiving celebration of gratitude to precede them. People like to shop and that’s fine. I don’t, and that’s fine, too. I don’t feel the need to follow fashion, have the ‘latest’, grab bargains or accumulate stuff so in all honesty, the long weekend of frenzied shopping completely passes me by. What I have been doing is reflecting on all the things I have been up to over the last week that have brought me great pleasure; many of them very simple, most of them costing nothing but all of them bringing me more joy than all the retail therapy in the world. Here, then, is my list of little treasures:
Holding our two new little grandsons for the first time, kissing their soft, silky heads and breathing in the sweet baby smell of them. Enjoying lots of fun and nonsense, games and stories and jumping in puddles with their older siblings.
Enjoying a long walk on the South Downs with Sam and Adrienne. Okay, so the weather was rubbish and conditions underfoot were a quagmire but the fresh air and exercise were great and there was much chat and laughter as we slithered along. Devil’s Dyke, a deep dry chalk valley, was spectacular even in the pouring rain. Our picnic lunch was delicious: Adrienne’s ‘squashage’ (go on, try saying it!) rolls of sublime homemade rough puff pastry wrapped round spicy roast squash, chorizo and chestnuts. So seasonal and utterly scrumptious.
Coming home to a house that feels for the first time more like a home than a hovel: warm, dry, bright, clean, comfy and smelling of new wood. Coming home, too, to warm sunshine and beautiful blue skies.
Harvesting, cooking and eating piles of fresh vegetables from the garden, some of them late surprises: who said we’d had the last of the peppers and courgettes? Who thought the late peas and cannellini beans had really had their day? There was also a surprise in the form of a good bunch of purple sprouting broccoli; this is supposed to be one of our spring veg, but it’s decided to put in an early appearance . . . well, I suppose we can only eat it once!
Admiring plenty of summer colours still lingering in the garden.
Welcoming a visit from our lovely neighbour Vita. Seeing washing out on the line, she realised we were back from our travels and hitched a lift up the hill on Jairo’s tractor to bring us a dozen new-laid eggs. Treasure indeed! Those little brown beauties were just perfect for my ice cream making plans. I know there are lots of healthy yoghurty options for ice cream these days but ’tis the season for comfort food, so I felt the need for a rich, custardy creamy base, deepest yellow from golden yolks – one swirled through with cooked peaches from the freezer, another spiced with cinnamon and ginger (to be shamelessly melted over piping hot mince pies).
Starting my new crochet project, the ‘Moroccan Spice Mix’ blanket: another gift blanket, but my own colour choices and designs this time so quite a challenge. Actually, quite a pleasure, too.
Working in the garden. It’s amazing how quickly the patch goes to look empty at this time of year . . . but not for long. After a second season of cultivation and feeding, the soil is deep, rich and wonderfully friable so I’ve had a happy time lightly forking and raking then planting early peas and broad beans for a spring harvest.
I’ve also planted a couple of large glazed pots with tulips, an early birthday gift from Mum and Dad. A December birthday can be very gloomy weatherwise but it’s always a pleasure to have such gorgeous colours to look forward to in the spring.
Making mincemeat. I’d happily dispense with most of Christmas but never, ever mince pies. I love the cosy kitchen time spent making them and the seriously decadent business of eating them. A homemade mince pie of buttery crisp pastry bursting with soft, spiced fruity gorgeousness is a thing of utter beauty – and far surpasses anything bought, no matter how many times ‘luxury’ appears on the packet. Likewise, homemade mincemeat is a world away from the shop bought stuff, which is why I have always made my own and would encourage others to have a go. It’s child’s play and takes a matter of minutes: honestly, if you can chop an apple and grate a lemon, you can make mincemeat.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve used Delia Smith’s recipe adding my own adaptations as suits the occasion. For instance, I much prefer raisins to currants so I change the fruit ratios to reflect that; for years I’ve experimented with different varieties of apples from the garden but this year I’m using our pears; as for nuts, forget almonds – for us, it’s homegrown walnuts all the way. The beauty of Delia’s recipe (I think, anyway) is that the slow heating in a cool oven to prevent the apple fermenting means the suet melts and coats everything instead of sitting like nasty little fatty white maggots which I have always found unappetising. I never bother adding any brandy, either: this is not because I have anything against festive tipple, but I like my mincemeat to be child-friendly and also I think it’s a shame to overpower those lovely spicy, citrussy flavours with strong alcohol. I suppose the brandy would help as a preservative but no worries there – this stuff does not last long enough in our house to go off! In a week’s time we’ll be having a return walking match with Sam and Adrienne here, so I reckon a mince pie stop at the top of our mountain sounds like a grand plan.
Breathing in the scent of the first jasmine flowers blooming by the door. Gorgeous.
There are so many other things I could add: the song of a chiffchaff in the garden, the sweet smell of woodsmoke and luxurious warmth from our new stove, evenings spent cooking delicious meals together, the brilliance of a sunset, good news from a friend . . . give me experience over stuff any day. As for Cyber Monday? Don’t think I’ll bother, if that’s alright.