Sunday, 25 December 2011

Routines, rituals and ceremonies

Sitting here waiting for the kettle to boil for another cup of tea.

Most years around this time I'd be brewing a tea, but nearly always over the allotment.  No chance of that this year, or of the other thing I always do on Christmas day - walk down to the lake, round to the woods and then back.  Out of the question - too many steep slopes and uneven paths to risk me shuffling down there.

Managed my first walk out of the house yesterday, with Howard escorting / propping me up.  Took the bus into Enfield, but walked along the street and caught the bus from the next stop along rather than walk up the steep hill (and slippery path) to the nearest stop.  With the exception of M&S food, things were far more quiet than either of us expected - mind you, the local Rotary Club playing "jolly" festive songs from Des O'Connor may has caused the mass exodus.  No sign of the usual panic and hysteria in Waitrose either - not even a queue at the cheese counter.

So I got through my first outing wearing the cast and using one crutch unscathed.  Next stage is to tackle a Tube journey ahead of returning to work in the New Year.

In all honesty, when there's just the two of you, going through the whole routine of Christmas seems pointless.  We exchanged cards and presents as always.  This year I've had more reason to be grateful for the things Howard has done than ever, and with little chance to find things for him outside of the house, have found everything online.  Wrapping paper was a struggle, so I relied on my old favourite - brown paper and brightly coloured Nutscene twine.  Trust me - it looks good in a "crafty" way.

Our take on the dinner is one step away from the traditional - duck, roast parsnips, cavali nero kale and mashed and baked sweet potato.  I usually do a steamed chocolate sponge pudding, but will leave that until another time, as I'm not yet active enough to justify that many calories.

Christmas itself lies midway between things that really matter to me.  Tomorrow there'll be horse racing to watch - the King George chase from Kempton.  That's a race chock full of memories, of the legendary horses who've won it, and of memories closer to home - sitting down with my Welsh grandfather to watch it and shutting out the domestic hubbub, or the times in the early 90's when I watched the race and hurtled down the street, across the Great North Road and made it to Underhill in time for the Barnet FC game.  Those matches had an atmosphere that seems to have been lost.  One year the Barnet fans behind the goal kept singing the theme from Rainbow, another year they brought squeaky toys along.

Above all, just before Christmas, there is the time that is most important to me - the Winter Solstice.  This house more or less faces west, and every year I light a candle in sight of the last rays of the setting (old) sun on Solstice Eve.  I then place this candle in a lantern and put it on an east facing windowsill overnight, to act as a beacon to guide the rising (new) sun the following morning.  A very simple act, but one that serves to focus my mind on the fact that days will soon start to lengthen, and it is time to seriously focus on preparing for growing next year's crops.

So why do I even begin to "do" Christmas?  Well I recently discovered that prior to the change in calendars, the Winter Solstice fell on 25th December, so it could be said the day is earth sacred anyway.  I like the day as it is a day when you have to take a step away from normal - no transport, no shops, TV schedules out of the window - you can't just go about your normal routine (OK - except for dealing with the chickens.  They were up & yelling at the same time as ever).  It's also a day for recalling your best memories of previous years.  The time I was jogged while adding brandy to my home made stuffing, and almost created an internal combustion goose, or when the roasting tin I cooked the turkey in expended in the heat of the oven and wedged itself in there so tight we had to wait until the bird was cold to release it.  Or back to childhood when my great uncle arrived in a bubble car - the model where the passenger sat in the front, and took me and my cousins in turn for a ride round Ladbroke Grove.  Best of all was the time we stayed at my mum's parents and my granddad (the one I watched the racing with) persuaded my dad to go into the loft with him and stomp about, pretending to be Santa and his reindeer.  We had snow on Christmas morning too that year.

Have fun, and take time to be happy.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Time to Think – Time to Plan

Well I’m still at home, though there has been some progress.  Went to the hospital to have the cast removed and a check to see how far the bone had healed.  

There’s something unnerving about having someone wield a miniature angle grinder perilously close to your flesh.  I could feel the disc tickling my skin.  I don’t care what the nurse said – that was more than just vibration.

The bone is mending, but not so much for me to get the all clear.  Having now seen the X-Ray, it's a much bigger break than I originally imagined.  But then when it first happened I didn't realise that the terms broken bone and fracture were interchangeable.  I honestly thought that the latter was a less serious injury.

I have now been put in a weight-bearing cast.  It’s a plastic contraption, somewhere between a ski boot and Darth Vader’s helmet. It is lined with a spongey material that acts almost like a sling for the foot, so I can stand in comfort, and with a couple of weeks’ more practice, will be able to walk without doing damage to anything.  They are made in different shoe sizes, though they don’t seem to make allowances for the stubbier of leg – it goes right up to my knee, though from the illustration on the package it was taken out of, it looks like it is meant to be calf length.

So it looks like I’m at home, gradually expanding my territory beyond the bedroom and bathroom, until the New Year.  At least I now have become accustomed to spending my days resting and recovering.  After such a shock, I wasn't prepared for the the restrictions my injury put on me.  I couldn't just pop to the garden, wander to the kitchen and put the kettle on, check in the larder or look through the bookcase.  Everything I did, ate or drank had to be planned and laid out for me by Howard before he left for work.  After a few days he bought an electric kettle and put it on the landing so I could at least make my own tea.  But with 95% of my day spent sitting in bed with my leg propped up, my only entertainment was the TV and my choice of books for the day.  With help, and eventually by dragging myself propped up by the wall, I could make it to the desk, but the weight of the cast made sitting painful after a short while.  After a few days moping, frustrated and bored and railing against my imprisonment, I resolved to spend my time reading and making plans for the next year.

We all have to accept that hard times are here for the foreseeable future, made harder by a government hell bent on punishing anyone who is not already rich.  So careful use of resources will be essential.  Living as if rationing was in place may be on the extreme side, but the less excess spending at the moment, the better.

So I’ve taken the opportunity to write down assorted plans.  Initially plans for the allotment and the garden, but also for other aspects of our life.  I’m putting together lists of things we need in the house, from medications, through groceries and household goods, right through to office stationery, the magazines and newspapers we read, the shades of paint on the walls and various other places.

While I’ve been laid up, Howard has been forced to take on all domestic tasks.  He has no issue with that, having lived on his own.  But he lacks confidence in one aspect of cooking – the evening meal.  He will happily bake, make breakfast lunch and pudding, but as I normally arrive home ahead of him, I take charge of this.  So I have been writing down step by step instructions, shopping lists and follow up meal plans (using the leftovers).  As these may be useful in the future, I have kept them neatly in a file.

Going back to the lists, I know many view magazines as a luxury, but being stuck in bed most of the day for several weeks now, light but instructive reading has proved essential.  I’m not much of a fiction reader, so even “worthy” literature is of little interest to me.  With the exception of the Barry Pilton Abernant books (which could easily be Welsh roman a clefs), the only fiction I will gladly read contains illustrations by E.H. Shepherd.  So to save money on magazines, we’ve been taking advantage of Smiths money off vouchers, and lately I’ve been taking out subscriptions whenever I see a really good offer.  Getting them sent to the house rather than going out and buying them saves impulse buying through boredom.

The past few weeks I haven’t had to worry about what I’m wearing either, with the exception of trips to the hospital and a couple of days out.  I’ve spent my time in warm sweatshirt tops and fleeces, with baggy tracksuit trousers instead of smart office wear.  It has given me the time to take stock of what clothes I have, what needs replacing, what can be relegated to gardening wear, what can be donated to charity and what has reached the end of the road.  I know for certain I don’t need to buy another dark brown jumper for a couple of years, but my sock drawer needs a drastic sort out.  Especially as up until today I’ve only been wearing one at a time.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

The Never-ending Harvest – Compost

Finally got out of the house at the weekend.  Howard hired a small van and we went to a couple of garden centres that hire out wheelchairs to customers.  We also got over to the allotment.  There wasn’t anything I could do, but I sat and watched as Howard topped up our compost bins and leaf mould bin with what has accumulated over the past month.

This time last year, the weather was not conducive to gardening.  Last November was one of the wettest on record, then in December, we froze.  I had a long list of things to do over the Christmas and New Year break, but the weather put paid to that.

But at least we were able to complete one task at the allotment which has reaped rewards – constructed a new set of compost bins.

If soil health is the key to good gardening, then good compost is crucial to ensuring soil health.  One of the keys to good compost is getting a good balance between carbon rich (brown) material (dry material, such as shredded paper & cardboard and straw) and nitrogen rich (green) material (most other plant material, including kitchen waste and manures).  Having the hens has provided us with a near perfect mix – their bedding providing the “brown” material to add to garden and kitchen material.  The chicken manure boosts the nitrogen level and is also a perfect “activator” – helping everything break down quicker.  As Howard likes to make sure the hens are clean, he changes the bedding at least once a week, and removes soiled areas daily.  This means that, when combined with vegetable peelings and garden trimmings, we have a substantial amount to compost each month.

When we started at the new allotment, we made a stop gap composting system from wooden stakes and chicken wire.  But this wasn’t robust enough to cope with the amount of material we were adding once the chickens arrived.  The time had come to make a properly built composting system – solid, decent sized (cubic metre or so), three bay traditional compost bins.  A few years before, we had bought a couple of redundant potato crates with a view to such a project, but the opportunity never presented itself.  At the old site, a system of two bins made from pallets and wire was adequate.  But the time had come for the vision to be realised. 

If you ever get offered potato crates to re-use, accept them with gusto, providing you have the space to store them.  They have a volume of over a cubic metre, are made of strong, good quality, long lasting wood, and they are very securely constructed.  You know how you can break down a pallet to useable wood in a matter of minutes using a mallet and a cold chisel?  Well, not so a potato crate.  You’ll need heavy duty tools, including a saw and a drill.  And allow a whole day to complete the job.

So dismantling the bins was day one of the project.  Once we had four intact sides from the crates, these were put aside to be the sides of the compost bins.  The back was made mostly from feather edge planking, with more sturdy gravel board along the base, plus a batten over the top of each bay for added stability and to provide something for a cover for the bins to rest on.  The front slats were again feather edge, tacked in place, with the less perfect boards from the crates used for the lowest slats.

Deciding where to site the bins is always an issue – they need to be somewhere accessible without eating up too much growing space.  We had the perfect spot – at the very top of the plot, against the fence, near where we store the wheelbarrow, but not too close to the shed.  The fence would act as additional support at the back of the bins, and once we removed the lowest branches of the oak and sycamore trees, it would also get enough light, heat and rain.

Moving the bins to their new site also provided a better view from the shed window, better space to work in (we paved the area in front of the shed with slabs we’ve reclaimed and reused at the old plot) and more growing space for my rhubarb and comfrey.

Having taken final measurements, I have calculated that once fully operational, the bins will hold up to  5 cubic litres at any one time.  That, along with the compost and manure delivered to the site, and any leaf mould we make, will provide a good amount of mulch and compost to build up the raised beds through the year, for a minimal outlay.