Sunday, 31 August 2008

Peace on a Sunday

A hectic time this morning, as mornings often are, but we made it to church by 9.30am and were in our seats with tea and muffins before the preacher stood up to start! She was very intuitive, realising that once we were quiet, she could begin - good that it is a very informal church....we get a different preacher each week, and they are not all so switched-on! It was lovely to be told that we had been missed last week when I wasn't feeling well so we had stayed at home.

Relatives came over for lunch and this was a good example of conjuring something out of nothing! I had planned to serve a roast dinner, but on going to the freezer last night, I discovered that there was nothing in there to roast - whoops! That meant a change of plan - so we ended up enjoying smoked salmon on a bed of lettuce and tomatoes from the garden, followed by sausage plait with potatoes, carrots, beans and courgettes, then apple crumble and custard to finish. And it all came out of the garden, the freezer or the storecupboard, without me having to make a special trip to the shops for anything. That is not forward planning (as that had failed on this occasion), but just keeping a good pantry! Everyone went home replete. It was a lovely afternoon to sit and chat in the garden as we had none of the heavy rain and thunderstorms that we had thought we might get here. I even baked a couple of lemon cakes this afternoon so we had one cut for afternoon tea time and my uncle took the other one home with him in exchange for the plums, beans, beetroot and apples he brought for us - I think we got the better deal so I should plan to make him something else before too long.

We have been thinking about the people of the Gulf Coast area of America and hoping that Hurricane Gustav does not affect them as badly as Katrine did in the past. The images of the complete devastation that Katrine left behind as she passed over will always be remembered, and I am sure that having that in their past has galvanised the people into action this time - I heard that they are aiming for 100% evacuation this time - I hope that they achieve it and that no lives are lost. We are praying for all the families that it is affecting.

Greenhouse update - the work is done as far as it can be at the moment as some pieces of glass are actually missing, and a couple were broken when the packages were unwrapped so we have a little hole to be finished off when we can get some more glass. It is looking good, though!

I am off to tackle a heap of ironing now and watch some TV at the same time.

Saturday, 30 August 2008

Sunny Saturday

The weather really got its act together today and we have had a lovely day. Lots of washing blowing on the line and the FGs outside playing with the neighbourhood children on their bikes.

The harvest this morning was particularly good - courgettes, tomatoes and a marrow that is really an overgrown courgette!

And just look where the pet bantam laid her egg yesterday - could you imagine a more uncomfortable place??!!

She is a very dainty little lady - here she is:

So, we have also planted some cauliflower plants FH was given, and he has been continuing his mission to erect the greenhouse. The aluminium frame was put onto the concrete base this morning, and he has spent most of the day, the air blue with his frustration, trying to put a narrow strip of rubber around the bars ready for the glazing panels to go in. The rubber was eventually in place, and he is now putting the glass in, although two pieces were broken when he opened the packets so it won't be finished tonight.

The FGs are enjoying a game of rounders with some other children, and will soon have to give in for the night as the darkness will overcome them!

Friday, 29 August 2008

Triumph and disaster

I have been meaning to share this photo for a couple of days and keep forgetting! This is a rather large spider who has been living under our verandah for about a week. She has a large web, her pantry, where she has been catching flies. I managed to catch a quick snap of her as she came out for her supper the other evening.

The disaster (let's get the bad news over first!) was that the YFG got two fingers caught in the car door this afternoon, absolutely screamed with the pain and had to be taken to the local cottage hospital for an x-ray. The two fingers in question are badly bruised, but thankfully not broken. The swelling will hopefully go down over the next day or so, and she is resting it in a sling.

The triumph was the whole family working together this evening to get the concrete base laid for the new greenhouse. It was jolly hard work but it is done! What with the dash to the hospital and the concrete mixing, dinner tonight was basic - FH and EFG had beans with bread rolls as we have run out of bread to make toast, the YFG had noodles and I had leftovers. Easy peasy and very quick! The even better thing was the EFG prepared it whilst I was shovelling concrete.

I am going to start making bread again - I have got out of the habit as the FGs had been wanting white bread to make toast, so I have been buying that, as my home-made bread is rather chunky for that. They will have to adapt, I think, to mine again! The bread machine is going to be set tonight so that there will be fresh bread for breakfast.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

School shoes and shopping!

The trial began in Clarks - and ended in the Factory Shop. The YFG went first in the shoe shop and had no choice over her new school shoes, poor child. Their selection is not vast when you are a 2H, and so she had to have the solitary pair which fitted. She was not terribly happy, but the EFG had it worse - the machine brought up 4 and a half H as her size, so she had to try on loads of shoes but resigned herself to a smart pair of lace-ups which are not her taste, but should be supportive and comfortable when she is walking around school all day in them. Anyhow, we survived and moved on to the Factory Shop to get a pair of cheap trainers for PE for the YFG. Cheap it had to be when I had just spent £66 in Clarks - and the trainers are worn once a week for an hour, so they don't warrant a fortune. The EFG was pleased to find a £2 pair of red canvas shoes so I bought her those for wearing at home, and for casual sport. She is planning to wear them tomorrow for the day of sport that they will be attending.

I have been very pleased with the dwarf beans that I planted in the early summer - they are cropping heavily and this morning, I was able to pick a huge pan of them again. They are a fine bean, of the type often called "Kenyan" in the seed catalogues, so I am definitely going to be growing these again. Two neighbours got donations of these this afternoon, so I hope they enjoyed them as well.

This evening, YFG has a friend to stay and she and the FGs have had home-made pizza for tea. This is an incredibly easy pizza to make and very cheap! I made two big pizzas using this recipe:

Mix a pound of SR flour with half a pint of water and 4tbsp oil and a pinch of salt. Mix until it all binds together and then knead for a few minutes. Then cut into two pieces and roll out to large discs. On top, they got a drained tin of chopped tomatoes (half on each pizza), half an onion finely chopped, on each and then 200g grated cheese divided between them. My kids love Pepperami, so I chopped up a couple of mini ones and that was the topping. They cook at 180C for about 15-20 minutes.

Value flour does the job as well as the expensive stuff, so don't lash out on branded flour for this. Costing these pizzas, I think that the total cost for the two of them (one went in the freezer for another day) was about £2. It would be cheaper without the Pepperamis as they are the most expensive ingredient.

Back in the garden, the FH made a start on the greenhouse. The aluminium frame has been put together, and shuttering has been made for a concrete base. It will not be able to go in the spot that we had first planned as the ground there is too hard to dig - we presume that there is a lot of builders' rubble around that area from when the houses were built. However, the new position is a good one and will be more convenient. There will be a photo when it is completed!

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Another day out!

Yes - we got the planned day out, with a bit of a variation on the initial plan but I will come to that. A later than planned departure meant that we arrived at Holkham at lunchtime, but since the Hall didn't open until 12, it wasn't a problem. Sandwiches were eaten en route, and so we could pitch straight in when we arrived, although some visitors were enjoying very elaborate picnics under the trees where the cars were parked - there isn't really a car park at Holkham, one is just instructed to "Park on the Grass" and so it is haphazard and friendly.

Holkham is a Palladian mansion house, and mansion is certainly the right word. The FGs and I went round twice, once to just look and then again to do the kids' quiz sheets we were given. The huge disappointment of the day was that, having just been told we were allowed to take photos inside the house, I discovered I had left the camera's memory card in the slot in the pc at home! I was SO angry with myself as there were loads of great photo opportunities. Still, a good excuse to go again...

The YFG was fascinated to understand that this house, as opposed to the last two we visited, is still owned and lived in by the original family, in this case, the Earls of Leicester. The current Earl has apparently recently moved out to allow his son, Viscount Coke, with wife and four children, to move in. YFG was keenly watching to see whether she could spot any of the children around, as there were plenty of photos of them in the drawing room so we had a good idea what they look like.

There is to be a 100th birthday party there tomorrow, and we saw a bedroom where guests will be sleeping - and it is a rather splendid bedroom. The adjoining en-suite is remarkable though, because of the throne-like lavatory which graces one corner of it; it looks just like a large wooden throne, except that the lid lifts up and there is a handle for flushing discreetly positioned at the side. Needless to say, that fascinated all of us as we just could not imagine using it.

Leaving Holkham later in the afternoon, we made our way along the coast road to Hunstanton, as apparently the fish and chips there are preferred. We had planned to go to Wells, but that was changed at the last minute. The chap in the fish shop wound me up a little but perhaps it was his first day! All I can say is that I hope he improves. The meal was eaten on the seafront in the wind, which probably improves the taste. Fresh air always does - and we had come prepared with salt, vinegar, ketchup and even the forks and plates so we were very civilised for seaside fish and chips.

Several of us had a snooze on the way home but we have all had a good day. Tomorrow promises more of a challenge as I have to hit the shoe shop with the FGs, and a school friend of YFG is coming for a sleepover - camping on the lounge floor and gossipping half the night, more than likely.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Success in seed shopping

Thanks indeed to the people on the gardening forum at where I got the tip yesterday about the cheap seeds at Wyevale Garden Centres! We visited the Crowland branch today and went a little mad in the seed department!
FH and I chose loads of seeds, both for things we know grow here, like dwarf beans, runner beans, various tomatoes, courgettes, cucumbers, and squash, as well as things we haven't tried before but hope to be successful - cape gooseberry, peppers, and onions for example.
They were all 50p a packet - and we spent £17.55 as FH is entitled to an OAP discount, so that helped even more. Had we paid full price for the haul of seeds, we would have been charged £82.17!! There are enough for next year, and possibly some for 2010 as well. A truly successful day in the bargain hunting front.

Monday, 25 August 2008

Bank Holiday

Gardening, gardening and more gardening, it seemed today. The YFG and I spent the afternoon weeding three of the six garden beds, achieving some success, but there is still work to be done. The soil we bought and used to make the beds seems to be disappearing and more organic material is needed in these beds, probably sooner rather than later. We took a photo tonight to show a before and after scenario - the bed at the top has been weeded and we are in the process of doing the lower one. I might get it done tomorrow, if the weather is fine in the evening.

As I have mentioned before, we haven't planned far enough in advance this year, so we have some empty spaces now that some of the crops have been harvested. In the top bed, though, we still have dwarf beans thriving alongside lettuce and some chard. In the lower bed, there are some butternut squash plants, which have got some very small squashes on them and I have my fingers crossed that they will actually manage to ripen before the frosts start. There are more lettuces there as well and some baby carrots.

We did have the vegetarian meal that I thought about last night - it turned out to be a curry with courgettes, tomatoes, potatoes, green beans, mushrooms, onion and peppers. The first four veg in that list are all home-grown, but the potatoes were grown by a friend and given to us. It was a really great feeling to eat a meal in which we had produced so many of the ingredients.

The FH thought that he would take the FGs to a local country show this afternoon but they returned home within 20 minutes of leaving, very disappointed. The show was in the process of being taken apart, all the exhibitors were leaving or had already left and the whole thing had been a disaster for them. It had been meant to run for the whole of the weekend but it seems that no-one came to the show - there were no "customers" so the exhibitors were packing up early and who can blame them?? One wonders whether this was a result of the current economic climate, and people just don't have the spare cash to attend this sort of show at the moment - or was it lack of publicity on the part of the organisers so that the general public were not really aware that it was on? Personally, I suspect a bit of both! There is another similar show not too far away next weekend, so perhaps we will go to that and try to see what is happening - I know that this one has been well advertised, so if there are not many people there, it is more likely to be lack of spare cash to spend!

One of the white girls saying, "Goodnight!" after being put back in the hutch. There are three white girls who are identical, so we have found it impossible to name them as we can't tell them apart! They are quite thin and so we are trying to feed them up a bit.

Tomorrow promises a busier day out and about - the FGs are doing sports, and the FH and I are going shopping for seeds at a garden centre that I have heard has reduced all its seeds to 50p a packet, so I am hoping that they still have some when I get there! I heard that Lidl was going to have fruit bushes in last week but by the time I got there at lunchtime, they only had redcurrants, a white currant and some blueberry bushes left. Will report back on whether this trip is more successful!

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Quiet day

Today started dismally with constant drizzle, so plans for a BBQ were quickly shelved. A good deal of sitting about, watching the Olympics ensued, whilst the family gathered themselves.

Chickens and rabbits were fed - and a discovery was made! Our doe rabbit, Rosie, has given birth to her second litter of the year. We think that there might be four kits, but until they grow a little bigger, we are not going to disturb them. Patience is definitely a virtue. Her first litter are all grown up now, as they were born in May. They have not yet left home, as the FGs are reluctant to part with them - thank goodness that there were only four of them. Plans will have to be made soon, though, now that this second litter has arrived.

The FH and FGs went out this afternoon to visit a relative. I watched some of the closing ceremony of the Olympics, and then cut the back lawn since the rain had stopped long enough for it to get dry. The BBQ was back on, so the gang bought some provisions on the way home and we got it all cooking for an outdoor meal tonight. The weather for August has been a bit of a challenge for BBQs, so we were pleased to have one tonight. However, too many wasps were around so we lit a couple of citronella candles - not convinced that they did a lot of good!

Tonight, we have had a bouncing competition on the trampoline and been in fits of giggles until the gathering darkness forced us inside. Must get FH to replace the bulb in the outside light and we could have gone on longer!

This coming week is looking busy as it is the last before the FGs go back to school. They have two days booked at a local school to do a sport day camp, and we have a little uniform shopping left to do - I hate shopping for their shoes as they both have wide feet and it is hard to find shoes for them. However, it has to be done, so that is on the list for this week. Weather permitting, we are hoping to have one last day out: we have our sights set on Holkham Hall on the north Norfolk coast and then fish and chips from nearby Wells-next-the-Sea. I haven't been to Holkham since my mother took me as a child, but you will see that it fits in with the historic theme of our earlier visits of the holidays so we may as well finish the way we started. We have only got Wednesday or Saturday to do that trip, because of the other commitments, so we will be watching the weather forecasts closely!

If rain sets in, I am not sure whether there is a fall-back plan as we have already been to the cinema twice - the first to see "Angus, Thongs and Perfect snogging" (hilarious!!!) and then to watch "Get Smart" (even more hilarious!) so although numerous people are telling me to go to "Mamma Mia", I think that that may have to wait until I catch it on DVD.

In the garden, we are picking tomatoes and dwarf beans like mad, eating as many as we can and freezing the rest. The chickens are growing so much that my dad has recommended more feed as he thinks that they are hungry all the time - so they are now on pellets twice a day and corn for a lunchtime snack - and they are eating it all, so he must be right. The layers are up to one egg each most days: we get six eggs from seven hens on five days out of seven, and five on other days, at the moment. They will start to lay less as the nights draw in, so we have to make the most of them whilst they are laying so prolifically.

I think that we will be having a vegetarian day tomorrow after our meal tonight. I have been reading today about the amount of resources (water, grain, acreage, for example) needed to produce meat as opposed to vegetables and grains/legumes. It certainly made me think about cutting back on our purchased meat, and look forward to our own "harvest" of chicken.

Saturday, 23 August 2008


Building a greenhouse is in the list on the sidebar. We have moved that on a bit today as Focus have an 8x6 aluminium framed greenhouse on offer. Not one to follow the instructions in the packet, the Fen husband (FH) has decided to modify it somewhat and erect it as a 16x5 structure against a garage wall as a lean-to type. The extra dimensions will be achieved with the addition of some wooden constructions, and we hope it will be ready within a week or two.

The thought I had was that the FH would build a Dutch-light type greenhouse, but on pricing the glass, we found that it was going to cost in the region of £150 for that alone, never mind the wood. The Focus one was £149, and we should end up with a much larger greenhouse than we had anticipated.

Holiday activities

Last week, the Fen girls and I had an afternoon out at Oxburgh Hall, near Downham Market in Norfolk. The weather was great as in not too hot and not too fresh, and the company was good as we met up with the elder Fen girl's godfather and his daughter. The house and gardens are owned by the National Trust, and since I have a family membership, the visit was "free". I regard the membership as a donation to help to keep such national heritage available to us all, and so any visits we make are a bonus. This one is well worth another trip sometime, as there is so much to see.

This is the gatehouse, where the King's Room, Queen's Room and Armoury are located. There is a rather terrifying spiral stone staircase which links them. It is terrifying to one such as myself who is scared of heights! Others clattered up and down quite happily. The house was built in Tudor times, and is beautifully kept.

The elder FG (EFG) attended a course at the University of Cambridge during the summer holidays so the younger FG (YFG) and I went to Wimpole Hall, near Arrington, just south of Cambridge on one of the days, and to the Fitzwilliam Museum on another day. Wimpole is another NT property, so we are having our money's worth this year! It was privately owned until relatively recently (the seventies, I think) by Rudyard Kipling's daughter and her husband. The FGs like going to the Farm as well as the Hall, and so we started off this visit on the Farm, ate lunch there and then dashed back to the Hall in a downpour!

The YFG asks the most pertinent questions - she asked the room stewards at Oxburgh and Wimpole about the toilets! The woman at Oxburgh explained about chamber pots but the chap at Wimpole said that there are bathrooms there, we just don't see them all. There is, though, a magnificent room where there is a sunken bath the size of a small swimming pool - my boiler would never cope with filling it!

Going into Cambridge is an experience for the FGs. The YFG loves escalators so when we entered the new John Lewis in the Grand Arcade, we just HAD to go all the way to the top and then back down again! None of the shops in our local town even has an upstairs, so it was a treat for her to ride the escalators - she wanted to try the lifts too, but since they had a panoramic view over the city, I declined quite forcibly. Poor deprived child.......

Friday, 22 August 2008

We have kept chickens, on and off, for the past 15 years. Our first trio were a gift from an old farmer in a Derbyshire village, and they travelled in the back of a van when we moved north of the Wash for a few years. The cockerel was a source of amusement when they were fed and watered at service stations as he kept crowing - and you don't hear too many cockerels in the middle of motorway stopovers!

Those three lasted a good few years, and when we moved down the road, we liberated half a dozen ex-battery hens from a nearby farm. They had come to the end of their commercially-productive lives, and were being flogged off for £1 each. Poor specimens they were, too, but they soon learned to perch, scratch in the garden and continued to lay eggs for several years.

When we came back to the Fens, we lived in a town and didn't really consider hens again for a few years. The longing to have some friendly chooks in the garden did come back, though, and we started off with some young Light Sussex bantams. We thought we had bought a cockerel and four hens, but it soon became evident that we had more cockerels than hens, so the good people at Two Pots Bantams, near Cambridge, exchanged the excess cockerels. Those bantams really did free-range around the garden, and so enamoured of the sight of them happily mooching in the garden was our neighbour that he went and bought some for himself - result!

We added some Bovans Nera hens to the collection and the egg production really stepped up. For a couple of years, then, we had about 12 of them in an average sized town garden - and the back of the garden opened up onto fields so we were sure to shut them safely up at night to keep them out of the jaws of the local fox.

We thought about moving again, and we passed some of them onto some friends who were interested in keeping hens, and moved to the latest establishment with a reduced flock. We HAD a cockerel, but one of the neighbours here objected to his wake-up calls and I got a friendly threat from the Environmental Health officer that I should do something to "abate" the noise, or she would be round to listen and if the complaint was upheld, I would be in court and made to get rid, so that cockerel is now happily running with a flock of happy hens within sight of Ely Cathedral.

We have been here for four years now, and have now just had to register with DEFRA as we had got to the number at which registration is compulsory (50). These chickens get addictive, and where we started with three, we now have about 43 - we sold some bantams shortly after registering with DEFRA. The situation now is that we have seven large fowl as laying hens - four are Orpington crosses and three are hybrid hens. We then have a pet Dutch bantam who is so friendly she will perch on your knee and fall asleep in the sun. And then the rest of the numbers are made up of the grower flock.

The grower flock are being raised for the pot. They were bought as 5-day old chicks and raised under a lamp in the garage before being moved out onto grass, and then into a larger run. It may seem harsh to some people and one of my sisters has already said that she couldn't eat a chicken she had looked after, but why not? I know that these have had a good life, free to scratch and peck and have the kind of life chickens enjoy, free from any kind of pain and suffering. They are a special breed from France, called "Sasso" by the hatchery, and most of them are white, which apparently makes for an unblemished skin when they are plucked. I'll have to report back on that after the middle of October, when they will be about 16-17 weeks old and ready to be dispatched to the freezer.

Bearing in mind their original cost and the feed costs over their lifetime, we estimate that they will have cost us about £5 each. Yes, that is more expensive that your average "cheap" deals in the supermarkets where it has recently been possible to buy 2 for £6, but we are looking forward to eating a better quality chicken, and hoping to be able to taste the difference. Guilt will not be on the menu as we know that the chickens' welfare has been the best I could possibly achieve.

If this first experimental flock make it into the freezer successfully, we will then have to decide whether to do it all again.

Without a cockerel, hatching more chicks off for the laying flock is more of a challenge - plenty of the hens (and the bantams which we had until recently) go broody but the eggs are not fertile, of course. In the past, I have bought fertile eggs from friends, but this year that didn't work - one family were on holiday when my bants went broody and another friend has stopped poultry-keeping. So I resorted to ebay. I was doubtful about buying eggs through the post, so I looked for eggs being offered nearby, and found two ladies who would allow me to pick the eggs up in person, and I bought two lots from each of them. One lady has Light and Buff Sussex large fowl and the other has Orpingtons. We have 10 young birds from these hatchings. One final bird went broody and I thought I would try something different, and risk the post as well, so I bid on some Scotch Dumpy eggs, but didn't win. Barnvelders ("Barneys") were the next I tried and I won - so a dozen eggs came our way, very impressively packaged. We have managed to get three successfully hatched, so I am a little disappointed, but I think that at least two of them are hens to add to the laying flock. The cockerel will be grown on until he starts crowing and some one makes a complaint and then I shall have to put him in the freezer - maybe for Christmas!

In the garden today, I have picked a good basket of fine, green beans which are now in the freezer. The weather here has been showery all day and so we haven't done much else outside. I am hoping to get some winter lettuce seeds sown before too long - and maybe spring cabbage as well.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Some progress, some problems

This growing year has been a short one for us. We built the raised beds in the garden in May, on several hot, sunny days, shovelling soil for hours. Plants were grown from seed, bartered for with friends and relatives, and bought from a local nursery. By the middle of June, the first four beds were full, and the brassicas were carefully netted against the marauding cabbage white butterfly. Eventually, two further beds were constructed and we have a total of six, in a good position in the middle of the garden so they are in the sun for most of the day. The soil is thin, though and does not seem to hold moisture very well, so they need to be watered on dry days, although there haven't been too many of those this summer!

The best crops for us this summer have been courgettes, dwarf beans, peas, and mixed salad leaves. The brassicas were a complete disaster - the nets were touching the leaves so the butterflies were able to land and lay eggs, which then hatched into a vast, hungry army of caterpillars. They pretty swiftly munched their way through cabbages, cauliflower plants, calabrese, etc and the lot have been left as spiny plants with no leaves. They have had to be pulled up, needless to say. Tomatoes have grown well in troughs in a sheltered position, and we are already planning to grow more next year.

Next year, we need to make preparations for successive plantings after the first crop has been lifted - we haven't planned far enough this year and now we have areas lying empty.

One of the beds should end up holding soft fruit next year - we are hoping for strawberries, raspberries and gooseberries. The latter will be for jam-making and the others for eating fresh and for freezing. Two generations ago, my family never ate bananas or oranges, which I found strange, but now I understand - they had a very productive garden where they grew soft fruit (strawberries, raspberries, gooseberries, currants) and tree fruit (apples, pears, plums) and so with careful preservation, they had their own fruits available to eat in one form or another all year round. This is a plan that I am hoping to get some way towards.

Enough about the garden. Tomorrow I will talk about the chickens and the rabbits.

First post - introduction

You might well ask what we are growing - well, it is more that you may expect. In the most basic sense of the word, we are growing vegetables, fruit trees, chickens and rabbits (although "raising" would be a better word in their case!) and too much grass.

However, in a broader sense, we are developing our lives in other ways - we have a growing family, and we have some areas of our lives that could do with some progress. A couple of us need to grow a little leaner, we all need to get tidier (we can do "clean" but we aren't so hot on "tidy") and we are aiming to become more self-sufficient and careful with our resources as a means to conserving our energy and finances. We are debt-free but now want to build on that for our children's future. We have recently returned to church attendance and we are growing in our diligence to that, and getting to know other members of the church.

We are beginners in many things and have a lot to learn so we hope we can share as we go!