Pass the fatted calf…

…we have a son returning home! Son no. 3 has spent most of the last ten years studying & living away, though he’s been home for holidays when in the UK. But he’s finally run out of stipend, hopefully having completed his thesis, and will be returning to the family fold imminently. And the bedroom required for a 28-year-old academic is not the bedroom that the 18-year-old student left behind…

It’s a different room, for a start. He used to have the smallest bedroom at the top of the stairs, but now the bigger, downstairs room that’s functioned as the guest room for the last ten years is more appropriate. He has a large collection of academic reference books to accommodate; my poor husband has already remarked many times that our elder daughter & I should just go & live in a library, so there isn’t much spare bookcase-space available. He will be job-hunting and keeping up to date in his field, so the room needs to work as a serious study as well as a bedroom.

He sent through a plan of how he thought it could be laid out, and as a little joke, included a wing-back chair, Sherlock-Holmes-style. It just so happens that I am always rescuing a certain make of old wing-back chair for an upholsterer friend, who re-makes them into the most fabulous, desirable & comfortable chairs going. But alas, all my usual sources are closed just now, so I put a request on Freecycle, not expecting anything as there were several listed locally on Ebay at exceedingly silly prices, i.e. more than my friend asks for them after she’s done them up professionally. To my astonishment, I got a reply within the hour, and picked up a modern, but very comfortable, reclining wingback chair the next day, for free. Joke returned! We may never get him out of there, though…

Free wingback recliner…

Then the hunt was on for serious bookcases. I answered an advert on Facebook Marketplace, for a tall painted wooden bookcase from a certain Scandinavian emporium. They did say it needed some TLC, but it was priced very reasonably at £10. We squeezed it into my van & bore it home triumphantly, but on closer inspection, though very heavy & originally very sturdy, it was actually particle-board and had been left outside for too long; the damage to the weight-bearing base was irreversible. But it hasn’t gone to waste; the shelves and one side have gone up into the loft as loft-boarding where there wasn’t any, and the damaged side has been trimmed to size & deployed across two (also Scandinvian) tall bedside tables to make a perfect, and rather stylish, laptop desk for my husband to work-from-home on, teamed with a comfortable office chair that came to us via Freegle. I also rescued the dowelling and other fixings from the shelves; they’re pretty standard across the whole range of their furniture, which we have a fair bit of, some of it even bought new. The only bits that went to the tip were the top & bottom trim and the flimsy back-boards.

I spotted an advert for all sorts of free furniture from a big Edwardian house being cleared only about 400 yards away from us. Old stuff, lovely quality, but mostly much too big & dark for modern homes. But there were two tall bookcases… I dashed off a polite request & heard straight back; the chap organising the clearance was upcountry, but thought they were a pretty standard size, i.e. 6′ tall x 3′ wide, so I replied that we would love to give both of them a home, please. So we went to pick them up from his brother the next day; they’re absolutely lovely in a shabby-chic sort of way, but actually over 7′ tall and well over 3′ wide! Only one would fit into the bedroom, but we’ve managed to make space for the other one in the hallway, replacing two smaller bookcases, one of which has also gone into the bedroom.

One free bookcase…

But he also needs a desk. And not the neat little desk that’s been in there all along; it needs to accommodate his laptop, a couple of big reference books plus notebooks, pens etc. and have plenty of space underneath for restless legs. However, add in the bed, wardrobe & a large chest of drawers (with small bookcase on top) and the remaining space is limited; 4’/120cm wide by about 20″/50cm deep is about all that will fit. Suggestions have been winging their way through the ether, but nothing ready-made has yet hit the spot in terms of style or size; he desperately doesn’t want white-on-white. However, a couple of days ago I picked up a Gumtree’d “Freebie” black desk top, also originally from the Scandinavian emporium, may their name be ever-blessed; I knew you could still buy legs to fit it very reasonably. So they’ve been ordered, and the desk top cut to size; it turned out to be easier to cut particleboard than I’ve always thought, given a decent jig-saw. I’ve added a board at the back to stop stuff falling off, as it’s side-on to the doorway. So, there will be a desk, which will have cost next-to-nothing, and *** It Will Do *** until he finds one of his own choosing, or the job of his dreams and moves out again!

After Christmas, when he announced he’d be returning home for some indefinable length of time, I was panicking mightily that I’d have to spend quite a lot of money on new furniture that really needs to be spent maintaining my van, as I’ve earned next-to-nothing over the last year & will need to go out & sell stuff on virtually every fine day this summer. But given time & access to a computer, I’ve been able to assemble bits & bobs that fit the bill for very nearly nothing. Thank you so very, very much, to all Freecycle/Freegle volunteers, Gumtree and Facebook Marketplace!

And another free bookcase!

“We thought we’d take the kids camping…”

Our home-made canvas windbreak

Just about 11 years ago, I took it into my head to take 7 young people and their surf- & body-boards for a few days’ surfing & camping in North Devon. We had a big, sturdy tunnel tent & a big, sturdy car, and they were a manageable crew, with 4 of them plenty old, experienced & sensible enough to trot off & ride the waves together by themselves. But… that was the week of the Boscastle flood. There was some very good surf, and some very lively weather. At the campsite we love to go to, North Morte Farm, the wind can whip up the valley from Rockham Bay and blast poorly-pitched tents clear down even when it seems quite calm in Woolacombe; it had happened to us once before, at 5am in a thunderstorm. So we were hunkered down tightly beside the hedge, with storm guys attached from the word go, and the wind that got up late that night blasted straight over the top  of us.

Other people weren’t so lucky. The night resounded to yells of, “How dare you subject our children to this?” and, “That’s the last straw! I’m seeing a lawyer as soon as we get home!” There were entire brand-new tents & sleeping bags in the bin area the next morning, and wreckage littered the camping field, which had virtually emptied out, although it hadn’t actually rained very much and the sun was rising on a new, calm & glorious day.

I was reminded of this when we hauled the big tunnel tent out of the garage. It’s past its best now, and we no longer need a tent that big & could do with the storage space back. But it’s still strong & sturdy enough to last at least another season, so I popped it onto our local Recycling group, hoping that it would so someone else a good turn, but being totally honest about the fact it’s far from new & will probably need a little TLC – re-proofing the seams, at least, and stronger pegs than the original ones I’m letting go with it. Needless to say, as it’s just as the kids break up for the summer holidays, I was inundated with replies. Once I’d discarded the “Yes! Me!” and “I’ll take it off your hands!” ones, I was left with a number of, “I’m going to a festival for the first time & need a tent!” and “Me & the Missus fancy taking the kids up to Scotland on Saturday to try out camping…” replies. And one dear lady who said she would love to give it some TLC & a new lease of life with her family; needless to say, that’s who I’ve offered it to.

Camping’s an art form, not just a cheap holiday…. it’s very easy to get it wrong & end up with everyone cross, tired & miserable, and if you’re really unlucky, ill with sunstroke or exposure. It’s something you need to research & prepare for, if you’re not experienced, just like you’d prepare for a holiday in a different country by finding out at least how to say “please” and “thank you” in the local language, taking some relevant currency, checking whether you need visas and so on. Don’t just assume it’s a cheap holiday & anyone can do it…

I grew up with people pitching & striking marquees & other tents in our big vicarage garden, going off to Guide & Ranger Guide camp at regular intervals, then belonging to the local District Service Unit supervising & maintaining Scout & Guide camps, as well as spending a fair amount of time camping & hiking in the wilds of Wales & Scotland. I’m no expert & I don’t pretend to know it all, but I do know that there’s a wonderful balance between having everything you actually need to be safe & comfortable, and the freedom of having very little stuff to look after. How to achieve that requires some thought; what you need as an unattached teenager walking the Pennine Way or a young couple going to their first music festival is completely different to what you need as a family of 7 looking for an inexpensive seaside holiday. A huge, heavy tent that fills a small car boot, that’s too big for most campsite pitches & really needs two or more adults to put up isn’t ideal for a festival; what you need for that are small, lightweight tents that perhaps open into a gazebo if you’re going with friends. That way you have some privacy when you really need to crash, but a covered communal area for socialising and a little light catering. (This also works for a family with older children who need some space of their own.)

And whilst a serious tent of that sort is well-able to stand up to the vagaries of the Scottish weather, it isn’t ideal to take your kids so very far from home to camp for the first time. What if someone’s ill, or suddenly discovers they can’t stand sleeping outside, or using communal loos & showers? What if the weather hasn’t read the forecast & isn’t playing ball? What if you discover that your “3-season” sleeping bags aren’t actually very warm & you don’t have enough extra blankets or clothing? What if your excited kids don’t listen to you telling them not to play out in the rain & get wet, because there’s no tumble dryer in a field? Best for your first few forays to be close to home, so that you can dart home & fetch bits if necessary, or even give up & retreat in disarray in the middle of the night. Better still, try it out in your own garden for a few nights before setting off – that way, it doesn’t feel so strange & unsettling to small children, and it gives you a chance to work out what you really need to take.

I’m not saying don’t go to Scotland – it’s a fabulous, beautiful country with lovely people – just don’t make it your first-ever family camping trip if you live on the South Coast! And I’m not saying, don’t go camping, either; I love camping & think it’s almost a necessary thing to do in summer. The idea of summer gatherings, festivals & camps is as old as history itself & fulfils some kind of nomadic instinct in me, even though I now have to sleep in the car or on a camp bed. I’m just saying, be prepared! Do a bit of homework, thinking & practice, and it will go much more smoothly & be a much nicer experience for all concerned. It shouldn’t be a hair-shirt experience; always take extra blankets, and if you love your morning coffee, do take a cafetiere, but an all-singing, all-dancing espresso machine is probably a bit OTT…

Have to say, in my not-so humble opinion, people who take everything including the kitchen sink are also getting it wrong. They’ll spend all day looking for the things they really need under everything else, or having to clean things they’re not likely to need that have somehow got muddy. (Everything will get muddy, even if it isn’t raining.) Not to mention worrying about the weight on your axles on pot-holed country roads or the amount of fuel you’re getting through. If your tent’s bigger than you need, you risk having to pay extra for a bigger pitch. And if you even take the TV with you – well, what’s the point of going camping? Tablets & mobile phones are a mixed blessing; there’s often little or no mobile signal at the nicest campsites.

A single-parent friend of mine has taken her family camping every summer by bicycle; they load their wombled tents, sleeping bags, kettle & a small suitcase-style gas cooker into a tag-along trailer, take their clothes in backpacks and set off along the country roads; it’s about 10 miles down to the Purbecks, which feel quite different to this part of Dorset, and there’s a cycle-way for most of it. They always have a whale of a time and can’t wait for next year’s expedition when they get back, and the kids are late teens now & still keen not to miss out. So it can be done for very little expenditure, and it can be great fun, with a little thought and initiative applied beforehand. Just don’t rush into it, buy (or otherwise acquire) loads of expensive (and probably unnecessary) gear or go too far from base for your first few expeditions. Learn how to put your tent up properly and where to pitch it. Find out what you do and what you don’t really need to take. Then – have a great holiday!

Things to make sure you take:

  • Tent, sleeping bags, sleeping mats (airbeds have a habit of going down halfway through the night) or camp beds, and extra blankets – wool ones are best. You’ll need insulation underneath you, as well as on top.
  • Clothing – layers work best! – and footwear – decent flip-flops/sandals & something sturdier for serious walking/colder days. Only take space-hogging wellies if the forecast is truly awful, and make sure people take them off regularly or you’ll all get athlete’s foot. Make sure everyone has at least one really warm jumper, and leggings to wear under pyjamas if it’s cold at night. Warm socks are a blessing on cold nights.
  • Cooking gear – e.g. a suitcase burner & spare cartridges, kettle, mugs (enamel or china – plastic mugs are Not Nice with hot drinks) cutlery, pans (a frying pan plus a small saucepan or wok work for us) plates, bowl, brush & detergent for washing up. A tin-opener & bottle-opener (for the beer, cider & wine) are essential, and a gas fridge (remember the regulator!) or a good coolbox on a shorter trip, will make life a lot more civilised. You can eat out or a take-away every lunchtime and/or evening meal if that makes it more like a “proper” holiday, but it’ll dent your budget mightily. And a few tins & packets, plus oatcakes/biscuits, eggs, fresh fruit & tea-bags to fill gaps, at the very least, even if the campsite has a cafe and a shop. They’re not likely to be as cheap as a supermarket.
  • Torches, lanterns & spare batteries; torches for those midnight trips to the loo and lanterns to light your way around the tent & especially the guy ropes. IKEA’s little solar lanterns or fairy lights work very well, or a tea-light lantern if your kids are old enough to be trusted around a naked flame.
  • First aid kit, sun-cream, paracetamol, sting-ointment, allergy relief & enough of any regular medication needed. Also specs, if needed. Soap/gel, toothbrushes, toothpaste… and towels, plenty of towels…
  • Rain jackets/ponchos. Especially if they’ve just declared a drought….
  • Something to do in quieter moments or on the beach – your knitting, a good book, a small selection of games (a pack of cards is pretty versatile!) for rainy moments, a frisbee etc.
  • A windbreak – useful to mark your space out, give a bit of privacy and to cook behind, and also on the beach… I’ve just made one from old poles & some cheap Ebay’d canvas, and it took about an hour. There was even enough fabric left over for matching bunting!
  • a couple of good insulated flasks, preferably unbreakable; one to keep your hot water in when you’ve boiled the kettle (for more tea, washing, washing-up water) and one for cold water, to keep it cool. Mine were purchased for pennies at that indefatigable local emporium, the Tip.
  • a bucket, with a lid. Works well as a bin, but has another use too in the middle of the night when it’s raining…

You really  don’t need a lot else, whatever the camping shop’s trying to sell you… have a good trip!

Our current set-up, camping for 6 days, working at a festival

Please – add your tips as comments below! Every little helps someone who hasn’t done this before…

Edited to add an update: in the end, the nice lady had a sudden bereavement & couldn’t follow through to collect the tunnel tent. And no. 2 son suddenly spotted it in the hallway, where it had been waiting for her, and pronounced it perfect for his Tough Mudder team. Luckily one of the other team members had space in his garage for it, and it’s stood up to another British summer of torrential rain, gales & loads of lovely mud!

False economies…

Sometimes you just have to buy new. About 6 years ago, I was a member of the European Compact, a group that had vowed not to buy anything new for a year, excepting underwear & a few other items. By and large I didn’t find this too difficult, as it’s the way I choose to live anyway, for ethical reasons as well as pure financial common sense, but when my faithful 15 year old Cannon cooker died, I hit the buffers bigtime. It was followed a succession of Freecycled cookers which just didn’t cut the mustard for a big family at all, starting with a big dual-fuel range cooker that was only half working; I knew it had blown an oven element, but what I didn’t know was that it would almost instantly blow the element I bought to replace it, then a second one a week later. So that went, to be followed by a more modern looking, slightly smaller range with one giant oven. This did work but was wildly uneconomical to run, as try as I might I wasn’t organised enough to fill the oven every time I needed it, and I didn’t like the ceramic hob either. So that was Freecycled onwards, to be replaced by a tiny 50cm cooker, which I thought would be cheaper to run. But sadly I couldn’t fit my saucepans on the hob, so had to cook things in succession & heat them up again to serve, thus using more fuel… eventually I cracked, confessed all to my fellow-Compact members & bought a new modern-style range cooker, “A” rated for efficiency, the cheapest I could find. It didn’t have a couple of features I would have liked but I decided I’d be able to cope without them; it was the best available “fit” within the budget I’d set myself.

It was a classic example of a false economy. The dratted thing broke down majorly twice and had to be professionally mended at a cost of £200+ each time, including parts. If we were going out for the day, someone had to stay in all the time to turn it on at the appropriate hour, as it didn’t have an automatic oven. One by one the gas hobs clogged up beyond my ability to clean them out again, and stopped working altogether (I was down to 2 out of 5 by the end) and the pretty shiny black glass doors showed every splash & fingerprint. When this one too started to blow elements on a regular basis, I realised that it had 4 separate problems & the bill for repair this time would more than likely add up to more than I paid for the flimmin’ thing to start with. It did have some very good features, notably the tall slim oven at the side, which heated up very fast & continued to work all the way through, though it had taken me a while to collect up casseroles, tins & dishes that fitted it, but at the end of the day it just wasn’t up to the job of serious cooking for plenty of people.

So this time I splurged every last penny on a Rangemaster, which I’m hoping will last at least as long as our original Cannon. I was sent to a specific shop, Spillers of Chard, 50 miles away by our local electrical suppliers, Holmans, who have always done me proud but couldn’t match the prices that Spillers can get, as they don’t do anything BUT range cookers. You have to wait for them to build your cooker, and then we had a couple of glitches with the installation process that meant it was two months from ordering to my cooker being installed. And here I would like to give a big pat on the back to Spillers, who have gone above & beyond the call of duty & agreed to refund me a charge for an independent gas engineer to eventually connect it. I’d encourage anyone considering buying a range cooker to consider them before the online-only stores that can match their prices, because the after-sales service has been superb; nothing has been too much trouble & they have stayed in touch without being prompted. I’m planning a return visit soon to stock up on bits & bobs like spare oven shelves & baking tins specifically to fit the ovens, as a transport-free friend needs to visit another shop in Chard, and I’d like to thank them in person.

I’m mentioning this because this week we had to make literally VAST quantities of cake, 300+ servings. Sadly it was for a funeral, for a dear friend who died far too young and far too quickly. And the Rangemaster showed its quality by coping with 3 cooks filling both ovens, turn & turn about, temperatures going up & down as needed, over the course of about 18 hours, because I didn’t have any freezer space free to store pre-cooked cakes! At the same time I was also cooking up vast batches of Two-Quince Marmalade and Apple Butter on the hob, using two BIG preserving pans, and sterilising jars & lids in the ovens between batches of cake. Well-impressed here, and just wanting to repeat that sometimes, it pays to spend more and invest in the right tools for the job when you need them; let’s see if I can manage to remember this myself next time I need to replace something vital!

Another vat of apples on my new pride & joy...
Another vat of apples on my new pride & joy…

Let it rain!

Because my chickens now have a roof over their heads again… I spent yesterday re-roofing their run. They’ve been paddling in the mud for long enough! And what’s more, thanks to Freecycle and a very kind lady down in Poole, I have two more of them, and I’m getting beautiful multi-coloured eggs again.

When we first started keeping backyard birds, one of my great joys was collecting the deep brown, pink, blue & white eggs from our much-loved Marans, Faverolles, Araucana & Hamburgh chickens. But over the years the laying flock had dwindled down to 3, two Warren-type hybrids laying perfectly pleasant but very ordinary light-brown eggs, and one gigantic Buff Orpington laying “tinted” (pinkish) eggs when she isn’t broody. There are just two Pekins left, also laying little pinkish eggs, but one of them is raising chicks just now. 2-3 (and possibly a half) eggs a day doesn’t go far between 7 of us! I’d meant to do something about it early this summer, but missed the boat; I wanted a couple of “Chalkhill Blue” day-olds, but didn’t have a broody when they were hatching, and when I did, they’d finished hatching for the year, so she had to make do with some Freecycled eggs and now has two Polish X Frizzle chicks, one of which may not be male.

Anyway, a dear friend had to move earlier this summer & gave me her solitary surviving Marans, Mollie, who lays splendid deep-brown eggs; she was the only survivor of a dog attack. Then a couple of days ago there was an advert on Freecycle from someone desperate to rehome her flock as she’s about to have a serious operation & won’t be able to care for them. I didn’t see the advert until 6 hours after it was posted, so didn’t hold out much hope, but to my delight she contacted me the next morning & said I’d be welcome to take on a couple of them, including – a Chalkhill Blue! So that evening I hurtled down to town & collected two baffled chooks – the other one is a White Star – who now rejoice in the names Faye & Bianca. As my separate accomodation is already occupied by the broody, I had to pop them onto the roost with the others; I was expecting trouble next morning, but I didn’t get it. The new girls were a bit shy to start with, and there was a little bit of posturing, but within an hour they were all dustbathing together and by the end of the day I had two light-brown, one pinkish, one blue and one pearly white egg! And they now have a run that should keep the worst of the weather off their feathers, and a shed that’s stopped letting in water now I’ve revamped the roof. Amusingly, the inside is lined with a red vinyl poster announcing “VIP Marquee” courtesy of the Dorset Scrapstore…

Glorious technicolour eggs!

But it can rain with impunity now for other reasons too. I’ve had a couple of influxes of goodies; one from the local charity shop that sells me the craft-related things they have’t been able to move on themselves, and some interesting items from the tip, as well as some lovely 1950s curtains from the 50p house-clearance stall on the market. I’m going to be busy for days next week, sorting things into saleable & usable, washing things & Freecycling the bits I can’t use. And then there was the very successful raid on the charity shops down in the conurbation, where they evidently do still believe in 99p or £1 rails for the stuff that hasn’t sold; I picked up 9 100% cotton striped gents shirts to slice up for quilting & other fabric projects. So I’d be glad to have an excuse to spend some time indoors; I could even possibly use some of the beautiful threads that were muddled up in the “unsaleable” batch from the local charity shop (pictured below) and the wonderful vintage needles (with decent sized eyes!) that came in a box from the Tip… I may be gone for some time!

Even more technicolour threads!

Long time no see…

I know it’s been a whole month since I posted, but I’m not referring to that – it’s been a long time since I’ve been able to see quite so much of our floor! I’ve been busy, very busy, decluttering like mad. It’s needed doing for a very long time, and bringing all the shop & market stock back here tipped it from something that really needed doing, to something acute – if I didn’t do it, I was going to go under mentally, or break my neck tripping over a pile of something. There are still a few piles hanging around, waiting for new homes, but I reckon I’ve reduced the rubble by something like three-quarters over the last four weeks. Some things have been sold on, although the last vintage market was cancelled, but most have been given away, either to charity or on Freecycle/Freegle, and some even dumped.

It’s interesting that now the kids are older (youngest now rising 17) the resistance to change has diminished. When they were younger, they’d complain about the mess, but often actively derail my attempts to actually do anything about it. But now, they’re helping me clear & deep-clean, and are full of ideas as to how we might redecorate & reorganise; we may not always see eye-to-eye about this, but it feels like a huge step forwards. I think I’ve been too easily discouraged in the past; there was a point about two weeks ago, when I seemed to have been working flat out for two weeks but it didn’t look any different. At that point, I nearly went under & gave up, but thanks to an inspirational thread over on MSE, and having a bit more time on my hands, I kept going this time and now it’s really beginning to look like the home that I’ve always wanted to live in.

Some of the things I’m parting with I’m very sad to see go, but I have to face the fact that one lifetime is too short to do everything I’d like to do & learn everything I’d like to learn, and one household, shared with 6 other people, isn’t big enough for 2 treadle sewing machines and 9 spinning wheels. And I was spending too much time looking after things, or indeed looking for things, to actually achieve very much at all!

But some of my attempts to reduce my hoards have been blind alleys… this morning, I emptied & cleaned the fridge. I’d decided that some of my beloved cultures had to go, too – one of my “endearing eccentricities” as DD1 calls them, is a belief that we in the West don’t eat or drink nearly enough traditionally-preserved or cultured foods, or a wide enough variety of foodstuffs, for optimum health – but I failed miserably! I’d just about brought myself to the point of pouring the milk-Kefir down the sink when DD1 announced that she loved the stuff & would take over responsibility for it. The Kefir a l’uovo smelt gorgeous, so that got refreshed too, and the ginger-beer Kefir is a household staple, much loved & drunk daily by several of us. The sourdough starter’s in regular use & I have some Kimchi virtually every day; that only left the Kombucha, where I’ve had first my old SCOBY, then a newly-bought one, die on me in short order for no apparent reason. So I’d made up my mind that I’d stop making that, but I came across a bottle at the back of the fridge, and I’d forgotten just how lovely it tastes! Oh dear, there’s no hope for me, is there?! But the small amount of work & space involved in looking after my “fridge-pets” pales into insignificance beside the complex, healthy & above all, delicious tastes they reward me with, for almost no money. However, the four half-empty jars of mayonnaise, several “stubs” of home-made jam and three bottles of tomato ketchup did get rationalised…

One positive thing that has emerged from the chaos; I’d forgotten just how nice some of the things I’d accumulated were, even if it’s no longer appropriate for me to hang onto them. Below is a pic of one little beauty that I rescued, looking very sad & with bits hanging off her, from a street market about 18 months ago. A bit of elbow-grease & know-how returned her to working order & decent appearance quite quickly & she’s on Ebay now. She’s not a practical wheel to spin on for any length of time, unless you have tiny feet & a lot of patience, and want very fine yarn, but isn’t she pretty?!

A serendiptious Christmas…

Here’s a little seasonal tale to warm the cockles of any moneysaver’s heart….

Our little town used to have two shops where you could buy inexpensive real Christmas trees. Sadly, during the last year, they have both closed their doors and we’ve been thrown on the mercy of the surrounding posh garden centres. So I was resigned to using my reclaimed plastic Christmas tree, or possibly sending one of the boys out to the front garden with a handsaw; there are a couple of Lawson’s Cypresses out there which need a good pruning & shaping up, and an offcut from one of those would make a perfectly good festive tree. But the kids weren’t very happy with either idea, and one in particular was holding out for a “real” Christmas tree, despite my pointing out that the ritual sacrifice of a tree doesn’t occur anywhere in the original Christmas story.

Anyway, in a rash moment I promised to pop into a garden centre or two and look at trees, once the “reduced” signs had gone up. This I duly did, on my way home from a fairly fraught last-minute shopping trip yesterday. Oh my word – whatever were they reduced FROM? A sad 4′ Norway Spruce with virtually no needles left was “reduced” to £25, and a 5′ Nordmann Fir that still had needles was “reduced”to £40. Since when were people happy to pay more than that for something that’s going to be burnt or chipped in a couple of weeks? So home I trotted, to point out to my impecunious students that there are far better uses for any excess money than that.

Mid-evening, I sat down to Freecycle some books that had emerged from the Great pre-Christmas Cleanup. And behold! someone had offered a real Christmas tree at lunchtime! I didn’t think I stood a chance 7 hours later, but fired off a quick email anyway, explaining that I’m a bit of a Scrooge really as my teens would love a real tree but I couldn’t justify spending that much on one to myself. And by some massive stroke of luck,  it was still available, so said student & I picked it up at 8.45 this morning. The offerer is a volunteer in one of the local heath-clearing organisations and had cut herself two; the other one fitted her space better so she Freecycled this one – what a lovely thing to do! It’s quite made my Christmas.

Despite the grim, tired, stressed faces all around the shopping centres,  the Christmas Spirit’s still alive & kicking around here! So here’s wishing you all joy, peace and every festive blessing…

A festive Freecycled Christmas tree!

I promised…

…that the next one would be made entirely with recycled materials. And here it is! Old seersucker tablecoths, and a couple of shirts, to be precise. All gleaned from charity shops or the Tip; the batting is a fleece baby blanket that someone had no further use for, although it was as good as new & could easily have been donated to a charity shop. But it wasn’t…  The thread (two colours only) was rescued from old sewing machines or sewing boxes & was still strong, the backing & self-binding was a length of calico that used to line our kitchen curtains and the ribbon came from a whole roll that turned up in a Freecycled sewing box.  It’s a cot-size “strippy-raggy” quilt, for want of a precise description! Fun & very quick to make, but also very textural & soft from a baby’s point of view.

I had fun with the machine quilting, as you can see, and tried out lots of different “patterns”. Some were much easier than others. Bear in mind that my 1909 Jones Medium treadle is extremely easy to use, but only goes forwards and doesn’t automatically adjust stitch lengths or automatically do anything at all except look cheerful!

All in all I’m rather pleased with it & may have to make several more – if only because I now have a big bag of seersucker strips in a wide variety of colours!

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…

It’s been quite a long time since I was able to sit comfortably, in fact. Not going on about my operation again; but the fact that our old computer chair has actually been caput for quite some time, But somehow you get used to thing as they are, and put up with it, long past the point where you know you should do something about it, even when it’s actually causing you quite some discomfort… there’s a metaphor for our consumer/industrial society in there somewhere! And probably all kinds of other dilemmas, too. But it takes a catalyst; either the collapse of the old, or something falling at your feet that’s so obviously much better, to force you to do something about it. I did consider buying a new kneeler just before my op., but never got round to it as there were so many other things clamouring for my attention.

And that’s exactly what has happened. A couple of days ago, I smuggled a bootload of stained, holey, tatty clothing off to the Tip. I felt a little uncomfortable disposing of it the easy way, but I’ve got enough rags just now, and more than enough fabric, so it’s gone off to be professionally recycled. As you do, or I do, at any rate, I had a quick look at other people’s now-surplus-to-requirements offerings, and there, towards the back, was a decent, sturdy kneeling chair. I know they don’t suit everyone, but they do suit me; my back has been deeply grateful for the whole idea ever since I first had one at work, back when I was expecting no. 1 son. So the princely sum of £2 duly changed hands, and the chair came back with me.

Now it’s under my knees as I type, and suddenly I’m no longer slumped uncomfortably in front of the screen, but alert and upright again. Although it’s a bog-standard black office kneeler, rather than the pretty little wooden one we had last, that was too small for any of us (and I’m not exactly tall) the whole room looks bigger, lighter & tidier without the grimy, tatty, broken offering we’d been putting up with, without ever really noticing how decrepit & uncomfortable it had become. It’s still here, and I can’t help noticing that no-one has sat on it for any length of time since I moved it out from under the desk, so it will go on its way tomorrow. Hopefully it will be recycled into something longer-lived & more pleasing to the eye next time!
Now there’s still a systems analyst lurking somewhere at the back of my mind, even after all these years. I don’t know how I’d managed to forget that something as basic & fundamental as the way that I sit has a huge knock-on effect on how I feel and how much I can get done. And that it’s the chair that dictates how I sit, no matter how good my intentions of sitting upright under any conditions, just as the fit of your shoes dictates how you walk – or not.


Which kind of leads me to a dichotomy; sometimes utilising whatever turns up for any given job isn’t the best idea. Just as I wasted a lot of electricity trying to use wildly-inappropriate Freecycled cookers when our old one finally broke down beyond repair, I’ve wasted a lot of my own muscle-power, and probably a few headaches too, counteracting the effect of a chair that was a bad “fit” for me, and probably everyone else here too. So I need to use my powers of discrimination a little more, and accept that sometimes I will have to buy new, or wait until the absolutely-right thing for the job turns up. And the chair that I’m kneeling on right now is proof that sometimes, it does, but the fact that I don’t have any trainers and I seem to be putting on weight means that sometimes, it doesn’t…

I’m shattered…

… and I’ve got a horrible cold. But I’ll live, I expect. In the last few days I’ve made two gallons of homegrown plum wine & poured it off its pulp and into demijohns, which are actually rocking, so wildly enthusiastic is the fermentation. I’ve made crab apple jelly with apples from the riverbank, and turned the fruit pulp from both projects into a spicy chutney. I’ve finished two shawls, sent another load of sewing machines off, and had a massive chuckout.

We did a car boot sale at the weekend, and did rather well; I donated the leftovers to another ‘booter through Freecycle as we have quite enough stuff cluttering up our lives, but it was too good to ditch. But one of the other emails I received touched my heart, so I sorted out some more halfway decent stuff to give to him too. Then, because I was going down with this cold and therefore stuck at home, I started to sort the porch out so that I can store my e-shop stuff out there. This produced another load of halfway decent stuff as well as a car load of absolute rubbish, so the second ‘booter came back for another helping. Today I got stuck into the airing cupboard, which is a) very small and b) located in the smallest bedroom, which means that whichever of the offspring is in there also has to have everyone else traipsing in & out for sheets, pillowcases etc. So I invested in a massive linen press from IKEA , having waited several years for something suitable to turn up secondhand. Nothing else was big enough, in the end, so I capitulated and bought new. I’ve transferred all the day-to-day bedlinen into that, which is out on the landing, and put the longterm bedding – mattress protectors, spare pillows, spare duvets & guest bedding – into the airing cupboard instead. Most of that had just been cluttering up our bedroom previously.

The back of the airing cupboard produced another carload of stuff that was quite simply well past it. A few items worth Freecycling, but most just ragging, to be honest, so that’s gone off now too. And when I did the crab apple jelly, I realised that I had way too many Kilner jars too. So I Freecycled a dozen; again, I had hordes of emails. The first came from someone I know, so I said they could have them. But then came a reply from a friend, too… I thought I still had more than enough, so I said she could have some too, but when I counted them, that would have left me with just two. However, when I took some of the rubbish produced from my clear-out down to the Tip, sitting there on top of an old filing cabinet was another box of Kilner jars… so there are enough for all of us after all. But not for everyone that asked – which just goes to show that one person’s landfill is another person’s treasure.

Now I just need to keep up the momentum. Perhaps I should be ill more often!

Great result…

…from our local Waste-Not-Want-Not group today.

An older friend had been struggling to look after her very-lovely Lutino cockatiel; although the year-old bird didn’t want for anything, my friend knew she was lonely & I think she may have been a little scared of handling her. She had even gone so far as contacting the RSPCA, who couldn’t take her but suggested an animal sanctuary elsewhere that my friend couldn’t get to. And our little Pied cockatiel fellow clearly thought that a mere 7 humans at his beck & call was not enough; although he spends a lot of time out of his cage & has lots of toys inside, as well as two budgies for avian company, he had developed some repetitive behaviours and needed something more than we were giving him. So it seemed like a good idea to take on my friend’s cockatiel too…

So we went & picked her up a couple of days ago. We put the borrowed cage next to Brambles and they squawked & whistled with excitement at each other before settling down for the night. At about lunchtime yesterday, I connected the cages. After plucking up courage, she sidled gently into his cage. He doesn’t like her coming too close, and chatters at her, but there’s no aggression from either of them and they’ll be fine once she’s settled in, but they do each need their own space until then. But I needed to return the borrowed cage, so I asked on the local Freecycle and WNWN groups whether anyone had one to spare. And got a positive reply! So many thanks to Maree, whose birds now live in a flight in their garden (as I hope ours will one day soon) tonight Brambles is in his customary corner of his cage, on his swing, and Madame Yet-to-find-a-name is in a gorgeous, huge cage next door, that’s easily big enough for the both of them when they’ve settled down together. They can hop from one cage to the other until then. I shall transfer the toys over one by one until the big cage seems like home to Brambles, and add some new ones in too.

So we have gained yet another exotic pet, which hasn’t cost us a penny. Brambles himself was Freecycled to us, two years ago; his cage was given by a friend. The budgies came from a breeder friend, and their cage from Freecycle. The toys etc. have mostly come from abandoned cages at the Tip, and been bathed in Poultry Shield before use. Their food doesn’t cost much; the only real expense they’d put us to would be vet bills, but we haven’t had to trouble our excellent vets with them yet. Long may that last!