Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Ready for Christmas?

It is Christmas Eve Eve and I am feeling oddly contented. The last month has been very busy with work and rather stressful. The work isn't finished, I have drawings strewn across my desk still, but there is progress and an end of this project is within sight at last.

My lovely neighbour has just delivered one of her delicious Christmas cakes - a very moist traditional Finnish cake. Everyone loves it and it doesn't last 5 minutes. If my cupboards weren't bursting at the seams with food, I would try to hide it until Christmas day. That is the kind of neighbour I aspire to being - bringing home-baked cakes, but I always manage to fall well short. I haven't written a single Christmas card yet this year, and have wrapped a total of 2 presents! Oh well - still one day left ;-)

My youngest daughter however decided that she wanted to make Christmas cards for her whole class this year. She had a picture in her head and when she told me, I thought that she would never be able to make anything so fancy and certainly not 23 of them in a short space of time! But as always she completely amazed me. I sat and helped stick the tiny windows on, whilst she hand drew all the sleighs and reindeer. It felt really special :-)

Christmas dinner should be special this year too. All the meat is from the local organic farm and it is amazing. For us the taste and texture is always so much better than anything from the supermarket, and when you can see the animals and talk to the farmer and the butcher, you know that these are people that can be trusted.

My experience with supermarket meat is not great. For instance two weeks ago I bought a packet of "skinless and boneless chicken thighs" I did think that they looked quite small, but it wasn't until I was half way through chopping them up and came across white tendons, that I realised it was actually meat cut from the drumstick and made to look like thighs! I don't like to think what else they do to our food to make it more profitable (like last year's horse meat scandal!). Next year I'm planning for more of our meat to come from the local farm instead.

Shamefully I have only been to the allotment 3 times since the beginning of October, but each of those times, there has still been veg for harvesting. Swedes, leeks, fennel, beetroot, chard, kale, rocket and spinach mainly. It is amazing considering the recent neglect.

Thank you so much for reading my posts this year. I hope you have found them interesting. More regular blogging should resume in the New Year.

Wishing you a peaceful Christmas wherever you are.

Judy x

Wednesday, 26 November 2014


My son has been rehearsing hard for weeks to perform as part of the Shakespeare schools festival. Simultaneously over last week there were 1,000 schools performing and we watched just 4 of these in one evening. Each school had their own take on a different Shakespeare play and they were brilliant!

The lady sitting next to me watched the whole week's worth at the Curve in Leicester, and had been very impressed. As she pointed out, "Shakespeare is like speaking another language." Yet there were primary school children confidently delivering their lines for The Tempest, and conveying the meaning well enough for those unfamiliar with the play to be able to follow. My youngest daughter was so confused -"I can't understand what they are saying", but she still picked up the storylines conveyed by the acting.

One of the schools performing was an international school, so for them it was like speaking a different language, in a foreign language. They did spectacularly and even though none of their parents were in the audience it seemed like they received the loudest applause. These were young teenagers, and you could see they were glowing with the appreciation.

Did I mention they were Russian? It clearly made not the slightest difference to any one of the people in that theatre, other than to impress them at their language ability. Why should it? We are not in another Cold War, even though those words have been rattling around the news recently. It feels like there is an attempt to re-ignite old memories and old fears. But that adversary, the Soviet Union, no longer exists. Does anyone really feel under threat from Russia?

Let me tell you a little more about the play that they performed. It was Othello, and a very brief synopsis is that Iago tricked Othello into believing that the woman he loved, Desdemona, had been having an affair with Cassio. Iago did this by deception and lies, making innocent conversations appear to mean something else, planting false evidence and trying to silence anyone who could reveal the truth. Orthello believed the lies and tormented by jealousy, murdered Desdemona, the woman he loved. In case you haven't guessed.....it is a tragedy. Though not quite as tragic as King Lear, which seemed as if most of the cast ended up dead!

This plot may be written over 400 hundred years ago, but the same lies, deception and false meanings are still in use to blind and mis-direct us. For instance, why are protesters in Hong Kong called "pro-democracy protesters" in the press, yet in Ukraine the people standing against the current government are called "pro-Russian separatists". (It is such a mouthful that it could easily be shortened from "pro-Russian separatists" to just "Russians".) Were the Scottish Yes supporters labelled "pro-Scandinavian separatists"? How ridiculous does that sound? Yet they were voting to be independent of British rule, just as the people of Donetsk have voted to be independent of Ukraine. The difference of course being that Scottish independence was out-voted, whereas Donetsk had a clear majority for independence. Plus the Scottish vote is considered legitimate and for some reason the Donetsk vote isn't. What is Democracy if it isn't about giving the people a vote and a voice?

If the majority of people living in Donetsk don't want to be part of Ukraine, how would you try to change their minds? Attacking them until they abandon their homes and become refugees can't be the only option.

I am not saying that I can unscramble the truth from the lies, but I do like to hear the story from all sides. This BBC interview by John Simpson of Dmitry Peskov, Putin's chief spokesperson, seems to give a glimpse of the other side of the story. I found Dmitry Peskov quite compelling. He really can't believe that John Simpson thinks that there are Russian troops in Ukraine. (Here is another interesting snippet from John Simpson from the same event)

There does seem to be a lot of accusations flying with little solid definitive evidence to back it up. Dmitry Orlov wrote in his post 'How can you tell whether Russia has invaded Ukraine?' describing what a Russian invasion would actually look like.

"....the Russians operate in battalions of 400 men and dozens of armored vehicles, followed by convoys of support vehicles (tanker trucks, communications, field kitchens, field hospitals and so on). The flow of vehicles in and out is non-stop, plainly visible on air reconnaissance and satellite photos....."

That clearly isn't happening, but at the same time how can Russia stay neutral about what is happening on their border? With most countries in the region reliant on Russian gas to see them through the winter, the picture of an isolated Russia backed into a corner doesn't ring true either. It may be the reality of energy supplies that brings the situation to a head - a cold Cold War you might say ;-)

And maybe in true Shakespearian fashion the truth will be unveiled as the tragedy ends.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Low Energy Event

I have been baking today, lots of lovely cakes for the Transition Energy Event tomorrow. Below are my delicious cookies and Nigella's famous clementine cake from the 'Green & Blacks Chocolate Recipes' book. It hadn't occurred to me before, but the clementine cake is gluten free, so must be totally healthy despite being coated in Green & Blacks chocolate ;-) I have also made a carrot cake and Mrs Thrifts Chocolate Courgette Traybake, although I was low on some ingredients by then so there was a bit of substitution involved.

If you are near Loughborough and don't have any plans for Saturday afternoon, why don't you drop in to the Transition Loughborough Energy Event at St Peters Community Centre. There will be free homemade cakes and refreshments! If that isn't enough to entice you, there will be advice on how to save energy without spending money, and also examples of some low cost solutions. With talks from Dr Tina Holt the super-insulated refurbishment guru, and Caroline Harmon local expert on energy efficiency measures and grants there is bound to be something of interest for everyone. This informal event is open from 1 - 4pm, so if there is anything you want to ask about energy bills, draught-proofing, grants, solar panels or insulation then come along for a chat and some cake :-)

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Learning about veg

A couple of weeks back my friend Marie, a teacher at the local primary school, asked me if I would come in and be "Gardener Judy". She teaches the 4 year olds, an age where they have lots of untamed energy and curiosity. 

I really surprised myself with how much veg I had grown that I could bring in and show, so I hosed down my wheelbarrow and filled it up.

The kids played pass the pumpkins, unwrapped a corn on the cob, smelled mint and tasted rocket (yuk!), pumpkin seeds and apple chips (yum!). There was awe at the big leeks, with the squiggly white roots at the bottom. Hopefully this will help the kids remember it is a leek.

They got to hold beetroot and parsnips, and saw the tiny seeds that they had grown from. And I left them with a bag of autumn onion sets so they could all go out and plant one in the school's raised beds.

I am grateful that the school let me use some of the photos, though not with any faces in. The kids were really attentive and it was great fun. Hopefully it will be a regular event from now on.

This is my first year with an allotment and what a big learning curve that has been! It isn't just about adapting to having more space and sowing a few seeds, but preparing for every pest and disease possible. This year I wasn't prepared, because in my sheltered garden at home I had never experienced blight, white fly, rust and countless others. Next year I will be planting hardened seedlings behind a fortress of protective netting.

I need to do a lot more planning too, so that I am ready to plant at the right time. Taking on the allotment in March meant I was diving straight in, whereas this year I want to make sure I am better prepared for spring.

The learning doesn't just stop with the plants. When you harvest them and bring them home, you have to know what to do with them so they don't get wasted. This may mean cooking for dinner or preparing for longer term storage, by freezing, de-hydrating or making jams and pickles.

At the beginning of the season I would bring home a lettuce or some stir-fry veg in a carrier bag and pop it in the fridge and half the time it wouldn't get used.

By summer I had worked out a better system. As soon as I got home I would wash the greens, spin them dry and pack them in re-sealable freezer bags. The freezer bags, although plastic and disposable, worked well because I can squeeze most of the air out and the leaves keep fresh for several days. This way people would grab a few leaves for a sandwich or stir-fry and nothing got wasted.

I have to mention my spinner at this point, because I picked it up from the car boot sale for 30p, and it is one of my best bargains. It is part of the 'Martha Stewart Collection', which means nothing to me, but it is clearly very well made and a joy to use. I can't understand why it's previous owners never used it, because everything in my house is now spun ;-)

I have a fair number of pumpkins, squash and sharks fin melon to store. I planned to put them out in the sun to harden the skins and to that aim assembled the mini greenhouse unit that I picked up in the sale. It was so much smaller than I imagined and very flimsy, that I decided it wouldn't take the weight of more than a couple of small squash. Instead my window sills have been full of squash, but now the radiators below the windows are coming on I need to move them to the garage. It will probably be cooler than 10 degrees C in there, but the house will be too warm.

The biggest pumpkin will be carved tomorrow ready for Halloween. Happy trick or treating :-)

Friday, 24 October 2014

Collapse and preparedness

Having taken care of the whole family, even the dog (?) through coughs that cling on for weeks and sap you of energy, it is now my turn. This means that I have a mountain of work backing up, the house is a mess, the garden and allotment untouched, minecraft is 'babysitting', dinner will be takeaway and.....I have had some time for reading :-)

Yesterday I read the latest post on The Archdruid Report. Don't be fooled by the light-hearted title 'A pink slip for the progress fairy', it is rather heavy, scary stuff, the kind that can make you feel depressed. If you have already read the likes of The Limits to Growth, then you are probably mentally/ emotionally prepared. Otherwise it may be a good one to skip.

To summarise, Mr Greer has studied history and proposes that all civilisations rise, then collapse slowly over the period of 100-300 years. The collapse isn't apocalyptic in the sense of a sudden catastrophic event ending everything. More that a succession of war, drought, disease, famine, flood and more war, interspersed with relatively peaceful periods, will define the downward slope, as it has for all previous civilisations.

It does look like we must be approaching the collapse stage, but Mr Greer is of the opinion that the Western civilisation started collapsing in 1914, with World War I, the Spanish flu pandemic, the Great Depression, World War II and the dissolution of the British Empire. The last 60 years in comparison have been a relatively stable period, where civilisation has been flourishing particularly well due to the exploitation of non-renewable energy resources. The second act is imminent though and could be triggered by a number of factors, such as an Ebola pandemic or financial crash.

The easy bit to predict is that our civilisation will decline, but predicting the details of how and when is impossible. So Mr Greer paints a fictional account of what the next 300 years might look like in his post, to better illustrate what he is talking about.

I have read Mr Greer's The Long Descent before, so was acquainted with his general collapse scenario, but had not read before his interpretation of the years 1914 - 1954. It sort of makes sense to me. Those years were hard times and the British Empire didn't survive in tact. I had the impression that we came through those years, but under a burden of war debt, scarred by bombing, with aging machinery and infrastructure, and it was an enormous struggle trying to build things back up again.

The BBC have a great population graphic for the UK, which shows the impact of the World Wars and Spanish flu on the population. I also find it amazing that the birth rate in 2011 is still lower than in 1911. The increase in UK population is a result of a lower death rate, meaning people are living longer. The average age of the population in 1911 was 25, whereas in 2011 it is 40. That means that half the population of the UK is 40 or over.

But if the years from 1914 to 1954 were the first stages of collapse then most people survived. It was really just a partial collapse. Things could have been a lot worse. In fact we learnt lessons about looking after each other, so the years following saw the birth of the National Health Service. Even during WWII lessons had been learnt from WWI, in that rationing was introduced quickly and changes were made to improve the prospects for the poorest during tough times. Looking after the health and basic needs of the poor are the reason we have such a low death rate now.

But here's the thing, most people weren't expecting any of it. We get on with our day-to-day lives and do the best we can. Some days are happy, some sad, but they end and the next day arrives. We aren't supposed to know what is around the corner, otherwise how do we find the courage to face it? What Mr Greer is really saying is that the death rate is going to increase somehow, because our civilisation is out of balance. It is a natural cycle of events beyond our control.

It does seem that many more people in the US are concerned about collapse and are being prepared and stockpiling. Whereas in the UK it seems we are oblivious to a possible collapse. Or maybe we see it, but are too conscious of social protocols and what other people think to act. Or else just more laid back about it - what will be, will be. Which is it do you think?

This brings me onto Wendy's recent posts on her blog Surviving the Suburbs. She has been talking about useful lists. Lists of things we should probably have at hand in order to be prepared for the worst. Now don't freak out at me, but weapons is one of the things on the list. This is normally the point where us Brits decide it is all extremist doomsday scenario stuff and switch to more polite conversation. The trouble is that almost everything else on these lists makes sense. It is handy to have a torch or headlamp in case of a blackout or even just blowing a fuse. And if you have a torch then spare batteries are helpful, especially if you don't use that torch very often. Common sense right?

And whilst I have this cough, the prospect of running out of loo roll or sugar, really doesn't appeal, because I would rather not have to shop this week if I can get away with it. Wouldn't it be nice to know that you had a small stockpile of some of the essential items stored away just in case? Last year there was a major water leak in my area around Christmas, which caused havoc for some families. It would be a good reason to keep at least a few gallons of water in the garage to tide you over. Does this seem extreme?

What about phone numbers? Do you know the numbers of your friends and family or will they all be lost if you damage your mobile? And do you keep spare cash at home, just in case you run out and need some desperately? And does your car always have at least half a tank of fuel, a blanket, first aid kit and bottle of water handy?

The thing is, you don't have to believe in a doomsday scenario, but labelling prepping as extremist and not even considering it, means that some of the practical stuff doesn't get discussed. Some people aren't prepared for even basic emergencies like the boiler breaking down, let alone a major power cut which is a real threat this winter.

It relates to the post a few weeks back about resilience. It may be frugal and efficient to only buy the items you need this week, but it is far more resilient if you have a cupboard full of tins, rice and pasta to fall back on when something unexpected happens. Even more resilient if you have some seeds and know how to make use of them.

How far do you go to be prepared?

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Energy switch

I have just started the process of switching my energy supplier again for gas and electricity. It should be a much quicker process now. Although nothing has happened for the last 2 weeks, because there is a 14 day cooling off period!

From the graph above you can see why I am switching. My current fixed price contract (annual cost shown in blue) was coming to an end and if I did nothing I would be moved onto the 'standard price' contract (in red) which would increase my bills by £251 a year (based on my actual consumption for the last year).

My current supplier is also offering a special deal. If I move to their 'Fix & Save 2' rate (in green) I will save £132 they say, but they mean I will make a saving compared to the standard rate, rather than my current rate. Actually it will still cost me £119 extra and I will be tied in for a year with a penalty for switching. Not really a saving after all then.

Although all the information I needed to work out the true cost was provided by my supplier, it would be easy to just assume that I was really going to save money and sign up. These energy companies can be tricky, although this is still an improvement. Previously you wouldn't realise the rate had increased until you had received a few higher bills.

MSE have a nifty tool The Cheap Energy Club that sends out alerts when there are cheaper energy deals that you can switch to. I have found it very easy to use. By comparing, I have switched to a deal called 'Blue' (er...in purple) that works out only £22 more than my existing rate, but I will get £30 cashback on top. My new deal is not the cheapest available, but it has given me a fixed rate for 2 years, with no penalty to leave it.

What are the chances that energy prices won't be rising over the next 2 years given that:
  1. There is a possibility of electricity shortages this winter, due to unplanned shutdowns on a couple of nuclear power stations and a few other unforeseen closures.
  2. Gas production in the UK is at it's lowest point, having peaked in 2000, and supplies only 50% of our gas consumption.
  3. Relations with Russia, the main gas supplier for Europe, are a touch frosty. Because we buy in a global market, any restrictions or price increases will affect wholesale prices throughout Europe, whether or not our gas is coming directly from Russia.
  4. Prices have been increasing by significantly more than inflation for the last 10 years.
  5. The current government has made no progress on tackling the huge profits that the energy companies make, though they have succeeded in significantly reducing the uptake of energy efficiency measures. Large scale take up of energy efficiency measures may lead to reduced demand, however high energy prices also reduce demand. The difference is that high prices hit the poor hardest and can lead to them being unable to afford to keep their homes warm, where as energy efficiency measures such as insulation means that keeping your home warm uses less energy and costs less.
For energy prices to remain stable over the next 2 years we would need very mild winters across Europe, an end to sanctions with Russia and no growth in demand for energy. Just looking at the last point, if the economy is growing, then energy consumption is increasing. This is because economic growth is about building more houses, expanding factory output, and increasing consumer spending on 'stuff' that is made with energy. No growth in energy consumption quite simply means no economic growth. That's not a popular suggestion (even less so than making up with Russia), hence why energy prices are almost guaranteed to rise over the next 2 years.

But wait......oil prices have been falling significantly, which signifies a drop in demand for oil. This could be one of the first indications that recession is starting to bite again (supported by the dive in share prices), so maybe no energy growth is a possibility?

Whatever happens, checking whether you can reduce your energy bills now, installing energy efficiency measures and taking advantage of subsidized or free solar panels will prepare you for the coming winter and help reduce costs.

Monday, 13 October 2014

World carbon emissions out of control

I am writing another post that has been triggered by a news article, only this time it is about climate change. The headline 'China's per capita carbon emissions overtake EU's' came as a bit of a shock.

'While the per capita average for the world as a whole is 5 tonnes of carbon dioxide, China is now producing 7.2 tonnes per person, to the EU's 6.8 tonnes. The US is still far ahead on 16.5 tonnes per person.'

I was always led to believe that it was China's 1 tonne footprint, based on less consumer goods, lower energy consumption and higher bicycle usage, that we were meant to aspire to.  The chart below taken from Shrink That Footprint shows how things stood back in 2001.

In 2001 the carbon footprint for the whole world was 4 tonnes per person per year, so over the last 12 years, despite knowing that carbon emissions are causing catastrophic climate change, the world's footprint has increased to 5 tonnes per person. The actual carbon emissions are even worse than this, because there are an additional 1 billion people in the world now, who are all emitting 5 tonnes each too.

Why wasn't this the headline? World carbon emissions are still increasing wildly. Any pretence that carbon emissions are under control let alone decreasing is a farce!

So how could China's per capita carbon emissions overtake the EU, from such humble beginnings? That is an enormous change from 1.7 tonnes per person in 2001 to 7.2 tonnes in 2013.  I have mentioned previously, a large part of the increase in carbon emissions is a result of the shift in manufacturing industries from the West to China. So the largest increase in their emissions is from burning coal, to power factories, that are producing cheap goods for us.

Also emissions in the EU have decreased slightly, but that is mainly the other side of manufacturing industries moving to China and taking the energy consumption with them.

It is such a bad idea. Labour is cheaper in China because there is a lower standard of living and less regulations to protect the workers. So instead of keeping jobs in the EU, where there is a minimum wage, sick pay, holiday pay, paid maternity leave, strict health and safety rules, regulations on pollution and pressure to reduce carbon emissions, companies have cut costs so that we can have more 'stuff' at a lower price.

Personally, I don't want more 'stuff' and when I do really need to buy something new, I aim to buy local products or EU as a minimum, so that I know no one has been exploited making it and my money helps to support local industries. This may mean paying higher prices, but that will just mean that I can't buy so much stuff. It also reduces shipping all round the world and hidden carbon emissions.

What the above article really made me question is why have I been basing my personal carbon reductions on 90% of the average American, when they are clearly the biggest carbon emitters. Using the formula that Sharon Astyk used in the Riot for Austerity, was relatively easy to understand and follow so it had some appeal, but in all honesty I personally wanted quite a generous starting point, to make my target easier. Making a 90% reduction seemed......overwhelming. Now I feel like not making a 90% reduction is overwhelming!

So from now on I am going to frame things differently, and continue to significantly reduce my carbon emissions.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

September blessings

I have a few half written posts waiting for me to finish, but felt inclined to post some pictures instead, which tell a bit of a story of the last few weeks. Some 'exciting' highlights include....

Freshly foraged oyster mushrooms on toasted brioche. (Had a bread shortage that day) OMG it was soooo delicious! Despite the exceptionally dry weather and parched ground, I spied the mushrooms on a shady log. Within 10 minutes I had got them home and fried them in some butter for my lunch. Since then, I have been walking the dog round all my mushroom spots in the hope of finding some more, but I think that will be all until it rains. My friend pointed out that I could always buy some oyster mushrooms from the supermarket to sate my cravings, but where is the fun in that?

Continuing on the simple food theme, I have been making roasted tomato sauce, which is a perfect base for pasta dishes or the beginnings of a delicious soup. It is based on something I saw Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall make in his River Cottage series, but it is always popular in our house because it gives a much sweeter sauce.

Put a variety of tomatoes in a roasting tin. The cherry tomatoes are home grown and the larger tomatoes are from the market. Stab them with a knife. Sprinkle them with salt, pepper and olive oil and pop in a medium hot oven. You can add herbs, onion or garlic too for a taste variation. I used a few sprigs of thyme. When it is cooled, whizz it up with a stick blender and season to taste.

I have also been blessed on the egg front too, having received a regular supply from a friend (Thanks Jo and girls) who keep their own hens. Aren't these the most beautiful coloured eggs ever? Anyone for Green Eggs and Ham? Her children even decorate the boxes :-) Could eggs get anymore fun than this?

We have green woodpeckers locally, but it was still a surprise to find this one perched on the tree just outside my kitchen door. You can just about make out the green body in the centre on the quick snapshot I took.

The house in the background has had PV panels fitted too - so many have been fitted in our area this summer! I am glad people are taking advantage of this incentive to reduce their energy bills and carbon emissions :-)

And finally here are two cakes I have made this summer to use up spare courgettes. The first is a recipe from North West Edible Life. Erica batch bakes this cake, so I had to reduce the quantities to a third to make just one loaf and there was still enough mixture left for a dozen buns.

It should have been doomed to failure, as I also had to calculate everything into metric units, so there were plenty of opportunities for mistakes. But it was a success. A very delicious, grown-up cake which works well with a carrot cake type topping.

My youngest daughter refused to try it because the mixture looked rather disagreeable and the cakes had green flecks in them, so there was no denying the courgette content. I have frozen individual slices that can be de-frosted as a quick treat.

The second cake was a chocolate cake by Not Just Greenfingers. Actually it should be a traybake, but as we had some strawberries and cream in the fridge it became a rather large layer cake at the last minute, with a crocodile smile! This was more successful with the kids, mainly because the courgettes were peeled and grated finely so no green lumps! It was a very moist chocolatey cake, but still incredibly light and fluffy. It didn't last long.

I have frozen some grated courgette and will definitely be making these again, so thanks very much for the recipes ladies :-)

Friday, 19 September 2014

No result

Oh well. Maybe we weren't ready for the earth-shattering event that a 'Yes' vote would have entailed.

No leaflet

It is still an eventful occasion. A few days ago the desperate Prime Minister of the UK, has pledged greater devolvement of power to Scotland. This is great for Scotland, but it will also have repercussions throughout our political system. For instance if Scotland can make a lot of their own decisions, should they still be able to have an influence on the rest of UK too?

What if they scrap the 'Bedroom' tax in Scotland, just as an example. Should the Scottish MPs still be able to influence the government's decision on these things in the rest of the UK? If not then it changes the balance of the current parliament, as there are a higher proportion of Labour MPs in Scotland, giving the conservatives more influence in the UK Government. This may make it more likely that England and Wales will keep the 'Bedroom' tax.

All this in the run up to the next general election......

And out of interest, how many of you had a discussion with friends, neighbours or even a stranger on the bus about the Scottish vote? It has really grabbed people's attention and everyone seems to have had an opinion. It seems there is a sense of community in talking about possible division :-)

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Scottish Referendum for Independence

It is only a matter of days now until the Scottish Referendum takes place. This is a momentous occasion when the people of Scotland get to decide democratically whether to be independent once more.
I have to admit that I have not paid much attention over the last few months, being English, and the decision clearly being one for the Scots to make. That was until I saw this headline "Scottish independence: Cameron, Clegg and Miliband make Scotland 'No' vote plea" on the BBC news website. (For those unfamiliar with British politics, these 3 are the leaders of the main political parties. But Scotland also has the Scottish National Party, which are the voice for independence.)

I haven't even read the article, but just the headline made me realise 2 things. One that the Scots Look likely to vote the way I expect them to - for independence. I always had the impression that they were dragged kicking and screaming into this 'United' Kingdom. Weren't they defeated at the Battle of Culloden and forced to accept English rule? My history is not great, but I am sure that there has been some mistreatment along the way. Even ignoring the history, they are outnumbered by the English 10:1 which means voting-wise they have a much weaker voice as part of the UK.

The second realisation is that the establishment is scared. Scared that Scotland will vote 'Aye' and become independent. The Prime Minister is in a desperate bid to influence Scottish voters, and is pulling out all the stops. Threats that food prices will go up are the latest.

Why is the PM so desperate now? This referendum has been on the cards for months, so it comes as no surprise. Maybe the PM was cocky enough to think that there was no chance of Scotland voting yes, so he has been stunned into action by the polls, which show the voting will be very close. Personally I think the PM's desperation has more to do with international pressure.

For one thing if Scotland becomes independent following this referendum, then surely the referendums held in other countries should be recognised too. Crimea thinks so. So does Catalonia. Who is to say that Texas won't be next at declaring Independence? In fact the Scottish vote for independence could trigger people to make their voices heard all over the World.

I like the idea of a referendum. It is giving people a choice about their future, when most decisions are made out of our hands. Like going to war.....it would be good to hold a referendum on that. Instead our PM can take us to war without allowing the MPs to vote on it, let alone giving the public a say.

Just as a reminder David Cameron's party received only 36% of the votes at the last election with a turnout of only 65% (10,703,000 votes out of 45,597,000 possible voters is only 23% overall). With less than a quarter of the voting population supporting him, I don't think he should have the power to decide to take us to war. Do you?

And I mention war, because it is very much on the cards right now. Even the Pope is talking about World War III. The decision seems to have already been made, but the UK government are looking for something that will persuade us to support them. Crying out 'Weapons of Mass Destruction' doesn't work any more.

If Scotland choose independence, it could complicate the UKs position in NATO and any plans for going to war in Syria or Iraq. This could delay or even prevent our involvement, or an escalation to WWIII.

So I have decided that I am a supporter of Scottish Independence. What about you?

Friday, 12 September 2014

Tomato ripening experiment

Last week at the allotment my wonderfully healthy looking tomato plants suddenly showed signs of blight. Drat and blast! I madly grabbed all the healthy but very green looking tomatoes from the plants in the hope of salvaging some of my crop.

At home with several carrier bags full I took stock. Part of my mind was swimming with thoughts of the Ebola outbreak that was on the news. By putting all the tomatoes together in one carrier bag, was I condemning the healthy tomatoes to contract blight too or was it just spread by bodily fluids through the stalks of the plant? Would there be an uprising from the healthy tomatoes once they realised they had been quarantined in bags, condemned to watching the other tomatoes slowly die or dying themselves?

Back to the tomatoes. First I sorted through all the tomatoes, removing stalks and tops and checking for the slightest speck or imperfection that may indicate blight. Even perfect tomatoes with blight on the tops got put in the contaminated pile and wrapped together in mass newspaper bundles to be binned.

The remaining tomatoes were washed and dried.

Then I decided to experiment. There is so much advice about the best way to ripen green tomatoes. I recently read it isn't the light or heat, but ethylene emitted by ripe tomatoes that encourages the other tomatoes to ripen. Ethylene is also emitted by bananas apparently. So I divided my tomatoes up. The first tray was left open on a sunny windowsill. The next bunch I wrapped up in newspaper with a banana skin. Wrapping meant no sunlight but would hopefully keep the ethylene from dispersing. It may also be slightly warmer than the open tray. The third batch was wrapped with a whole ripe banana (slightly more wasteful than a banana skin).

The fourth and fifth batches were just tomatoes wrapped up, but one had just green tomatoes in the photo above, whereas all the rest of the batches had some orange tomatoes included. The final experiment was to put some of the tomatoes in a glass jar, so that they would get sunlight, warmth and ethylene...in theory. Any guesses which method worked the best??
The photos below show the results after a week. The jar failed. None of the tomatoes ripened at all and the moisture caused a few to start rotting. The batches with the banana and the banana skin both showed very little sign of ripening either.

Even the batch of only green tomatoes that were wrapped had ripened more than the ones with the banana!

So much for the ethylene theory. But the batch that ripened the quickest were the ones that were open on the windowsill. You can see how green they were on the windowsill here....

.... and how they had ripened a week later below.

The photo doesn't do it justice though, because we ate the ripest ones through the week, so there were even more ripe ones than shown. There were also still a few blighty ones in each batch too that were removed.

I'll admit it is not entirely scientific and hasn't covered all variations of tomato ripening that are possible, but really - just leave them open on a windowsill :-)

Monday, 1 September 2014

Ashby Castle and Resilience

It has been the summer holidays and we have had our share of nice days out. Last week I visited Ashby Castle with my youngest daughter and her friends. You may be able to make them out at the top of the tower.

Ashby Castle is an English Heritage site. It is basically a ruin, but what remains is immensely fun for kids. There are the grassy slopes of a sunken garden and lake, which are great for rolling down or running around.

There are ruins with grand doorways and hidden stairways, brilliant for hide and seek or toy sword battles. The 6 storey tower with it's spiral staircase gives a grand view of the surrounding area too.

But absolutely the best feature is a secret underground passageway running from the base of the tower to the old kitchen cellars. It just gives an extra element of authenticity and fun to imaginative battle games to storm the castle.

Now some of the visitors will be wandering round with an audio guide, but we just spread out a picnic and let the kids imaginations run wild.

When my youngest daughter was about 2, we came with some friends - about 13 kids in total. The boys were all dressed up as knights and kings with swords and shields, and the younger girls as princesses. It was the most amazing day! It is such a shame that they have grown up.

This time was a much quieter affair and I sat looking at the walls of the tower. They are incredibly thick. The wall above is twice as thick as the doorway.

The tower was built in 1470 and designed to withstand attacks. The thick walls were a big investment of labour and resources, but the intention was to build something that was resilient and would last for generations. As it was, the tower was blown up in 1648, but it was so well built that the remaining half of the tower that you see above, has stood for another 360 years and could well last another 360 more.

I was sitting on a picnic blanket reading a section from Green Wizardry by John Michael Greer on 'Sustainability and Resilience'. His point was that efficiency is about getting the most from the least resources, whereas resilience is the opposite. Resilience is about having spare capacity or using extra resources to make things that are stronger, longer lasting, and can absorb shocks. In the case of Ashby Castle the time, energy and resources invested in those strong walls, was intended to protect the people inside and is the main reason that they are still standing for us to enjoy today.

Here is an example of some homes built in the last couple of years. To me they are so ugly. But they are very efficient. Look at the shape - they are almost square. This gives the biggest internal area for the smallest area of external walls. In other words it uses less bricks than a fancier shaped house. The ceilings inside are low to reduce unnecessary height and brickwork. And the roof has virtually no overhang to save on tiles, which would otherwise provide some shelter from rain to the brickwork and shade upper windows in hot weather. It is also a very shallow roof slope, again being efficient with materials, but not allowing for any deviation in the weather that could bring a heavy snowfall.

The buildings are 3 storeys high to minimise on the footprint, and in addition the garden is tiny, so being very efficient with land. Just in case you don't realise how short the garden is, I was walking along the path one day, when the occupant opened their back door and threw a burnt slice of toast over the back fence. Just a toast toss between backdoor and fence!

There was really no need to be so efficient with space in Loughborough. This is the edge of a small town, not a city centre, but then maybe it is better to squeeze all the ugly buildings in tightly so as not to spoil the view too much.

The council negotiated an 11 acre open park area as part of the development deal, which is great for me to walk my dog round, but it adjoins an existing park area of a similar size, and it is not widely known about. So these ugly houses have been built with virtually no space to grow their own food, dry their washing, or room for their kids play. Yet the open playing areas are too far from the houses and too empty of people to be safe from stranger danger, so it seems the kids stay at home instead.

There is no large lawn to mow for weekly exercise, or flowerbeds to attract bees and insects. No room for trees or ponds to encourage wildlife and back garden ecosystems. Yet the council, with their funds becoming tighter, now has the burden of an additional large open space with grass to cut, bins to empty and borders to maintain on a regular basis. There are no allotments in this ward either!

The really wasteful thing is that these houses probably won't be here at the turn of the next century, so it is a false sense of efficiency. It is not just because they seem flimsy compared to a large part of the UK's building stock which is built pre-1940. But because they are ugly, and who wants to maintain and care for an ugly house?

The homes below are cheap and cheerful houses from 100 years ago. Efficient terraced housing with small gardens. They were built to save space and be close to amenities, as people walked most places in those days. However the little attractive features, such as the decorative trim at the eaves, the curves around the windows and doors, and the symmetry all add to making them more appealing and helping them survive. The rooms have additional height to make them feel more spacious and the bay window makes them feel less 'square' and brings in more light. They may not have un underground tunnel, but were built with cellars.

It is funny because even the 1950's council houses were solid and built to last, and they provided a reasonable garden. During a time when the country had a large war debt to pay off we were building with some resilience. At some point since then resilience has gone out the window. There is clearly a lack of balance between 'lean manufacturing' efficiency (otherwise known as cheap and cheerful 'Noddy' homes) and a need to build in resilience so that homes are fit for the future.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Growing community

Look at these amazing plants. Do you know what they are?

Chickpeas. Having only ever seen them dried or out of a tin before I was amazed when my allotment neighbour showed me his row of chickpeas and generously gave me an armful of plants. I rushed home with them to show my kids, who were suitably impressed.

They grow a bit like peas and have soft furry pods with one or two chickpeas in them. The chickpeas are sweet like peas if eaten raw, but my neighbour told me to roast them in their pods in the oven for the best taste. Roasted they have a lovely nutty flavour and you can sit popping them as a healthy snack. We are definitely going to try growing these next year.

Now I may wish that I had a bigger garden, and I can see that travelling to the allotment is effort and can put people off. But I would never have learnt about chickpeas without being exposed to the diverse and experienced gardeners at the allotment. And there are so many other benefits too.

Look at these onions I was given by another generous neighbour.

And these delicious baby beetroot.

I have been so lucky to receive plants, vegetables and advice from so many of them. Even when I have nothing to pick of my own, I never seem to go home empty-handed.

My runner beans were a disaster this year. The first plants I set out were devoured by slugs, then only half the beans I sowed grew and the rest were devoured by slugs, and finally I planted some I had bought from a carboot sale, which looked rather pale and they really struggled to do anything. I don't understand it, as runner beans are so hardy and I had a glut of them in my garden last year. Still we haven't been without, as the other allotmenteers have kindly shared their glut of beans. There are definitely benefits to gardening in a community.

And I have also been foraging. The blackberries started ripening this year whilst it was still shorts weather. This is a bit of a problem as you end up with legs covered in scratches, but I have still managed to pick plenty for the freezer. There are still plenty out there to pick if you want to get some free.

During dog walks I have collected cobnuts or hazelnuts as they are more commonly known. You can pick them early while they are still pale, if the squirrels are likely to get them, and they will turn brown as they dry out. But best to leave them as late as you can. I am just starting to collect enough elderberries to make a large batch of cough and cold syrup in preparation for winter.

My plot has given me some delicious potatoes, including this pink heart shaped one!

The raspberries are in full swing now and need regular picking.

We have had our first sweetcorn and tomatoes. Below a jungle of leaves there are also some large pumpkins and at least 4 huge shark fin melons. I have never cooked these before so this should be interesting.... :-) I have also been given a recipe for the pumpkin leaves, which I never knew were edible.

At home we have had plenty of cucumber, including the round crystal lemon ones. There have been peas, French beans, courgettes, tomatoes and calabrese broccoli. Only one green courgette plant survived, along with a yellow one and a round one. Still they produce plenty. We went away for 6 days and came back to a fridge full of courgettes that my eldest son had picked and still more on the plants!

We have eaten lots of lovely fresh, colourful and tasty meals this summer, and I have even got my most fussiest eater to eat courgettes and green beans! But the best bit has got to be shopping! Looking at the produce in the supermarket and thinking " I don't need potatoes, or onions, or raspberries or broccoli......just carrots!