Friday, 30 May 2014

Maya Angelou RIP

Maya Angelou

(April 4, 1928 – May 28, 2014)

On Wednesday Maya Angelou died aged 86.  She was an author and poet of such power and depth that she has rightly become an international treasure.  I remember seeing her interview on the Late Show in 1994, she exuded wisdom and warmth and seemed to be a quintessential role model for women.  Her life encompassed such talent and experience that it seemed she had lived three lives in one.

She will be missed.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

A Nu Home

I thought it was time to give an update on the Nu. Over the last seven months she has gone from a city cat who had never known grass under her paws, only tarmac and cobbles and a tiny territory, whose borders had to be constantly patrolled to repel invaders and which were constantly threatened by dogs and cars. 

 The 'Evil One' - the Nu's arch nemesis at the old house.

Now she is a relaxed country cat with a core territory of 1800 square feet, as well as several adjacent gardens and the cattle field out the back.  It's been a delight to watch her discover her new home and she has really blossomed. 
We put her in a cattery for a week while we physically moved and got a few really disruptive jobs done, like the built in bookcases and bedroom furniture constructed.  She was obviously a bit nervous and scared at being in a completely new place but it helped having furniture and things out that smelt of her and the fact that I took a couple of days off to settle her in.

The big interest for her was the garden and for the first couple of days she kept to the confines of the yard by the house. However, things really changed for her when after a couple of weeks we got the cat flap put in.  It was a bit of a specialised job as it was put into double glazed French windows so we got an expert in to put it in - under her supervision of course!

What is this thing?
Did you say this was for the larger cat?  How very dare you!

Soon the Nu was happy exploring the garden and we became accustomed to the clitter-clatter of the catflap as she went in and out and she soon laid claim to conifer as her outside den.  The thick branches mean it keeps dry in winter and cool in summer - perfect for a cat to rest under.
And perfect to ambush your humans from as they walk down the garden.

Her next big step was discovering the field at the bottom of the garden, which has a handy gate in it for cats to climb through.

The barbed wire is to stop the inhabitants of the field - something the Nu has never come across before - cows.
Her first view of them sent her racing up the garden with her fur on end and a very fluffy tail, but she's used to them now and has explored right up to the pond on the right hand side of the field.

She's made friends with the locals.

Had her own path put in the garden - gravel is no fun for delicate paws

Supervised building works
And explored the neighbours roofs.

We think she's happy.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Room with a View

Bizarrely in our house the room with the best view is the bathroom.  From its window you can see across the neighbouring gardens and back fields.  It is in fact perfect for taking photos from and for the Nu to patrol the garden on wet days without getting her fur wet.

It is also fast becoming my favourite view in the world.  Intimate garden views with sheds, green houses and washing lines give way to fields of grass and cows, hedgerows and ponds which in turn give way to distant blued hills melting into blue sky dotted with clouds - on a good day; on a wet day we get tones of grey with interspersed rainclouds of violet and slate looming over horizon.  all, however, beautiful in their way.

The hawthorn blossoms have been stupendous this year with the local hedgerows looking like the most fairytale of bridal sprays, absolutely dripping with petals, turning the countryside into a symphony of white and spring green. And the scent - it makes just breathing seem like the greatest treat at this time of year and as I step off the train I take in a huge lungful of air and the scent of blossom and green growing things just overwhelms me, letting me know I'm back home again.

The garden is also taking shape.  We've got the flower beds sorted, whilst Jean-Luc has been building and assembling, I've been indulging in manual labour and digging over the beds, digging out dead tree roots ad planting up ferns and assorted annuals. It's not looking too bad.  I'm now playing the gardener game of waiting until next summer when they have established a bit more and look less like islands of green and more like a flowing border of colour and texture or at least that's what I hope for.

It looks a bit suburban with its edges and neatly mown grass but that's a compromise with Jean-Luc's passion for tidiness; I'm hoping that as the plants develop we'll get some softer edges and sweet disorder will creep in, if not everywhere then in enough places to meet my desire for a wilder garden.  To be honest if it were up to me it would be huge borders, small wildflower meadow dotted with orchard trees and no lawn; but the art of a happy relationship is compromise and so we both do so.

The big golden conifer on the left is an important landmark; firstly it's the Nu's preferred shelter from both rain and sun and secondly, it marks the start of the veggie growing part of the garden.  The plan is that from there down to the paving in front of the summer house will be raised veg beds, fruit bushes, comfrey, and a compost heap; separated from the first part of the garden by a trellis up which my Fuggle hop will grow.  that's the plan anyway.  Obviously we won't get the beds in for the growing season this year as we had to get the greenhouse in before anything else could be built; so this year it's be chard and a few other things in pots; and of course, our stupendous harvest of tomatoes.

 (note the wild garlic in front of the shady 'woodland' border - yum)

 I'm determined that next year we'll be growing a good selection of veggies for us to eat.  I don't aim to provide everything we'll eat but I would like to provide fresh seasonal veggies that the supermarkets don't appear to be able to.  Rainbow chard, fresh beetroot, beans, peas, courgettes, spinach, kales, peppers, tomatoes and chillies to name but a few.  I want to experiment and see what survives and thrives; I know there'll be disappointments but I can't wait to try.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Eurovision Rises from the Ashes

Ok I want to get this straight - Jean-Luc and I don't watch the Eurovision Song Contest EVER! But last night we were both tired and wanted to watch some mind numbing TV that didn't involve contests trying to out do each other with sob stories rather than talent or a reality show or soap opera.  Eurovision was on and we had a bottle of wine open  - perfect we thought, we'll watch this for a bit and then go to bed when we've had a good laugh.

As we hadn't been following all the TV coverage, in fact it was only luck that we even saw it on the schedule; we didn't know who was hosting it, which countries were in it or even what the UK entry was (or if we had one); we sat down anticipating some comic attempts at Pan-European songwriting, bad phrasing, appalling musical choices, some very dodgy costumes and bizarre staging.  And we got all those.  My favourite distraction was the man in the hamster wheel; while, unsurprisingly, Jean-Luc favoured the butter churning Polish girls.

However, and here's the big however, nothing prepared for the bolt of lightening that went through me and the audience when Austria's entry,  Conchita Wurst stepped on stage and started singing.  Wow! She was magnificent. Comparisons can be invidious but she reminded me of a cross between Shirley Bassey in her Goldfinger days and Adele.  I name those two ladies because they have both sung Bond theme tunes and Conchita's song 'Rise Like a Phoenix' was everything a good Bond song should be. It was powerful, anthemic and was delivered with subtle phrasing and a powerhouse voice and presence with which the artist; unlike many other acts; commanded the stage.  A fabulous gold dress and flaming phoenix light show background supported the act rather than distracted from it.  Conchita Wurst was the star of the show and she damned well deserved her victory.

The second surprise of the night was from the Netherlands; with the Common Linnets performing an intimate, blue grass number called 'Calm After the Storm'; this was a total step change from most of the other acts but it was wonderful.  Rich lyrics, great vocals and wonderfully understated performance from two great musicians who wouldn't have looked out of place on 'Later with...Jools Holland'.  It was the sort of song that has you thinking 'do they have any albums out?'. Looking forward to hearing more of these two.

And the UK entry - well I think the less said about that the better....

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Quilt

I have a whole load of old jeans and corduroy trousers that are too worn to wear but I didn't want to throw them out as they might be useful for patching stuff.  However, the other day I realised that 6 pairs is probably too many and I should really clear them out.  I hate wasting stuff and most of the material was in good I've cut them apart and I'm going to try to make a patchwork quilt out of them.  Luckily the local fabric shop sells fabrics by weight and I was able to pick up some lighter coloured cord and some lovely woven wool quite cheaply to add to the quilt. I'm going for a simple 9 patch, which I feel is in keeping with the practical nature of the recycled fabric.  Fingers crossed it'll be warm and look good too.

Bank Holiday Build

May Bank Holiday in Britain and nothing is more traditional than to spend it in the garden, weather permitting of course; and so we did.  In fact we spent most of the weekend in the garden - putting up the greenhouse.  Hooray! 

It had taken a while to order as, bizarrely, tracking down firms that would sell us a greenhouse without a two month lead in or without a whole load of unnecessary gubbins proved quite difficult; in fact the firm we finally bought from very nearly didn't get our custom (despite it being just what we wanted) as when we turned up at their factory and sales office we were told that they only sold directly to local people and in order not to offend the garden centres they franchised out to we would have to buy from said garden centres. And we wonder why so many independent firms go under.

So we dutifully traipsed round a couple of the garden centres that supposedly sold the particular model we wanted and being told that 'no they couldn't deliver it within three weeks' and at one place that we would have to leave a deposit despite them not being able to quote how much the extra items we wanted would add up to; we ended up having to ring the firm and ask them to recommend another garden centre that they definitely new would be able to supply a greenhouse. 

After several phone calls and altered delivery date the greenhouse finally arrived and bright and early on Saturday we started to build it.  Having erected the frame we found in the process that we were missing vital glass holding clips and an vent opener and when we contacted the garden centre we were told we would have to wait until after the Bank Holiday to get them - this was despite several conversations were the phrase 'yes we want to build it over the Bank Holiday weekend' was uttered when discussing the altered delivery dates. 

So off to B&Q for some stand ins and hooray the greenhouse was finished - standing proud with manured and composted beds, a lovely gravel path and gutters and water butts all finished. 

The clips and missing vent opener were finally delivered on Tuesday morning by a charmless man who insisted on examining the greenhouse to check that we hadn't just misused the missing clips - sadly we had to disappoint him and it was obvious that his clips were missing and hadn't been delivered.

And it is because of all this difficulty that, in spite of the greenhouse being of great quality and perfect in its greenhouseness; that sadly, I am not going to name or praise either the brand or supplier as I would normally do; because their customer service stinks.

And so here is a brief pictorial history of the greenhouse build:

Caging the vicious summer house - or a the main parts of the frame assembled - after hours of conversation along the lines of 'well has that part got that weird sticky out folded bit', 'no', 'well what about that part', 'yes' 'well that's the bit we want'.

 Frame partially assembled.

Frame fully assembled. End of day 1. 

 End of day 2. Greenhouse glazed after replacement clips have been sourced.  Looking good.


Water butts and guttering all plumbed into the greenhouse and summer house. Oh yes we will need more, after all we live in the north west of England and rain is our constant companion.

End of day 3. The finished gravel path and manured and composted beds.  Looking fantastic and ready to use.  I'm thrilled and have some lovely tomato plants that a lovely lady in the village has given me; I traded some home made lime and lemon marmalade and chilli jelly in return.  Barter - don't you just love it.

I will of course praise and mention here the indefatigueable Jean-Luc who laboured mightily in this endeavour; building a fantastic greenhouse which will hopefully keep us well supplied with a bumper crop of  tomatoes, peppers and chillies over the coming years.  It's thanks to his energy and orderliness that it looks as good as it does and the main reason that I am confident that it won't fall down in the first high wind that comes along.

The greenhouse was quite an investment for us - they don't come cheap and with the sleeper base and a few extras that we wanted came to just under £1,000.  This is a lot of money but it's balanced against future savings in veggies and seedling survival.  Most importantly we had saved and budgeted for it; we didn't buy it on credit but straight out; and this is because we have been frugal with our spending and have been using my wage for food, mortgage payment and bills, whilst putting away large portions of Jean-Luc's salary for things like this. 

This way, when we do decide to make a big buy we know what we can afford and don't end up in debt.  Basically if we don't have the money we don't buy.  If we do have the money we think carefully about whether it's a need or a want and agree together if it's a good idea. 

In this case I thought we 'needed' the greenhouse, whereas Jean-Luc thought it was a 'want'; so he took the lead in choosing and buying it as we knew we would then spend what we both felt comfortable with rather than letting enthusiasm run away with one of us.  So we have a greenhouse that is perfect for what we need at a price we both feel is appropriate and we saved by building it ourselves and had fun doing so. 

Friday, 2 May 2014

Domestic Bliss

In the midst of all the gardening and preparation for the greenhouse arrival I’ve also been trying to re-engage with the daily round of cleaning and keeping the house tidy.  I keep trying new regimes – a day dedicated to cleaning; a room a day but I think I’ve finally figured out that for me the best regime is to do downstairs at the beginning of the week and then upstairs just before the weekend.  This means we start off the weekend with clean sheets and a clean bathroom and that the living areas get sorted out after the chaos of the weekend and I don’t get overwhelmed with guilt if the house doesn’t look perfect all the time. 

In my battle with the daily grind of house hold chores I have found some fabulous allies.

My trusty broom, dustpan and brush.  They are a true pleasure to use on wooden floors and much easier and friendlier than a vacuum cleaner. I like the cheery dot pattern too - it makes cleaning easier when you like your tools.

My household cleaners; caustic soda and oils for making soap, soda crystals and borax for making laundry liquid and bicarbonate of soda for making bathroom cleaner. These and some tea tree oil are all the chemicals I really need under my sink - yes really Jean-Luc,, return that cleaner to the supermarket and stick to the shopping list!

Just under 9 litres of homemade laundry liquid, scented with tea tree and lime essential oils.  Recipe as usual on the fabulous Rhonda's  Down to Earth blog - do visit her; her blog on simple living is fascinating and full of useful tips and recipes as well as being a damned good read.

 And lastly, my old favourite jeans finally got holes in, so having an even older, more threadbare of jeans waiting in the wings for just this sort of thing, I cut them up and patched my beloved favourites.  Perfect for wearing at weekends and in the garden - probably not perfect for being the first pair of jeans you throw on in the morning prior to a meeting with a partner agency, as I did the other day - I only realised as I sat on the second train staring idly at my legs thinking 'these are really comfortable'.  Lesson learned - pay more attention when getting dressed. Doh!