Wednesday 29 December 2010

Back to the 1970s

It is a curious time, this limbo between Christmas and the New Year, which coupled with the arctic conditions in the house means that little "normal" anything is being done. Instead we are huddled round the woodburner, relaxing, which feels very odd. I don't normally sit down in there till about 3 p.m., when OH and I always have a cup of tea.

Anyway, yesterday I caught up on some programmes I'd recorded, which included one about the iconic programme The Good Life, which is still being shown in repeats on Sky and is still just as good as it was way back then. It coincided with the publishing of the equally iconic book on Self Sufficiency by John Seymour, which I bought at the time and still have on my bookshelf.

Whilst I was looking for a craft book this week, I came across Country Bizarre's "Country Bazaar", another book very much of this era. Its contents include brass rubbing, spinning, dyeing, weaving, making rugs, smocks and smocking, basket making, paper making, drying flowers, pot pourri, wine making etc. I have only to look at the cover and think of corn dollies, growing herbs and starting to learn crafts . . . I can remember my excitement as everything it included seemed to be something I was interested in.

It was the time when I started making home-made wine (as did my mum), and making my own bread, growing herbs and becoming very interested in them and particularly remedies using herbs and wild plants. I dried and pressed flowers to decorate writing paper. I tried smocking but really needed a guiding hand from someone who could sort me out when I went wrong. I learned to spin, but had to put that on the back burner until a couple of years ago when I went on a 6 week course and bought myself an Ashford wheel.

Of course, life gets in the way of things you want to try and I am a great procrastinator. . . . So many ideas, so little time. I have decided that I have lingered long enough and took myself to task yesterday and have blown the dust off a couple of books of knitted lace patterns - laid aside as I didn't have the confidence to try "complicated" patterns. But I have attempted a few yesterday, one basic-but-fiddly one I can't get the hang of yet - will try again today - but I was thrilled to master several others which gave me such pleasure and confidence! Now I can do holey frilly-edged knitting patterns which are MEANT to look like that!

Monday 27 December 2010

First it got even colder . . .

Looking upstream from the bridge, showing how the river (beginning to thaw in the picture) has been frozen right across.

. . . and then it began to thaw. I have woken up to rain this morning - big glorious ploppy spots of rain. We went out for a walk yesterday - up the valley and then down to the mill, where we had a lovely visit with our neighbours there. They have lived here longer than us and have NEVER seen the river as frozen as it was yesterday. Here are some photos to show how cold it's been - forget the silly "minus 3" they put on the weather maps - this was serious cold here - river frozen more than when we had minus 17 last January/February . . . In the house, we are managing, but getting out of bed into cold clothes takes some teeth-gritting! I have remembered an old trick from when I was growing up in a freezing house, and that was to put your clothes under the top layer of bedclothes, so they stayed warm . . .

This is upstream of the bridge too.

Looking across frozen fields - this was the best the sun could do, trying to break through the cloud layer.

The snow was "growing" with frost crystals.

Frozen from bank to bank down by the old mill.

Here a white slate of ice has been lifted by the rushing water beneath it.

The mid-stream boulders are crusted in ice. It has NEVER been this cold here in the last 30 years . . .

Sunday 26 December 2010

I spoke too soon

Remember that rather blase posting, where I mentioned returning to the Old Ways? Well, it would seem that the Old Gods were listening and decreed that Christmas Day would be the day that the central heating boiler popped its clogs . . . We are on the list with Warmfront for a replacement boiler, so even if we had the money (which we don't) there is no point in shopping for another. Hopefully this will get us higher up the list for sorting (we were down for mid January). Meanwhile we will just have to freeze, but we can at least leave the Hergom on longer now to heat the kitchen (and THAT was making some very strange noises the other day, so I am praying we are not going to have synchronicity and THAT giving up the ghost too . . .

There is a problem with a probably-frozen pipe (typically the one bringing cold water into the house!) and my poor husband has been trying to find out where the blockage is, and Day Two of hunt the frozen section starts after breakfast . . .

It hardly seems relevant now, after the event, but here's the Christmas wreath T made . . .

Friday 24 December 2010

Going Back to the Old Ways

Two of our three "wild kittens"! Alfie and Tippy have made themselves thoroughly at home now!

Yes, I know it's Christmas Eve and everyone is mince-pieing, pooking presents, lifting glasses, having the oven on 24/7 and listening to carols, and enjoy all that I say. I shall be making mince pies shortly and baking as I listen to the Carols from Kings College, Cambridge on Radio 4 this afternoon

However, there was something I heard on Sky news this morning which REALLY dug deep into my psyche. They had been interviewing a postie in Donegal, I think it was, who said he knew what the weather would be like because his horses came closer to the house when there was going to be bad weather, and if it was going to snow, then the Robin would come close home too. So much for the Met. Office prognostications I thought. Then they interviewed one of his neighbours who said that the Recession was making people go back to the Old Ways. There were people planting potatoes last year who had never been known to grow anything. There were people keeping chickens again, and she for one was glad to see a return to the Old Ways. The interviewer made a remark about these folk keeping their culture alive. How I agree with that lady's wise words and the interviewer's concept of it keeping their culture alive, and I intend to be doing the same in 2011, and backing firmly away from the cliff-face of modern living.

I will end with the picture of a grandmother I came across recently, who had sat on the floor in the corner of Tesco's where they sell children's books, and she was reading one to her grandson, who sat beside her. She didn't give a damn about what anyone thought (least of all the Management!) and the little boy was ADORING the story. That's the sort of grandma I would like to be - though perhaps, not just YET!

Merry Christmas one and all, and I really WILL post that recipe later, I promise!

Wednesday 22 December 2010

Chasing my tail

You will have to double-click on this for a better view, but this was our neighbourhood fox in the paddock yesterday, where we noticed he was having forty winks in the snow . . .

Sorry, the recipe will have to wait until the morning as I've hardly been in the house till 3 p.m. today and then it was clean up time and cook-a-meal-or-two time!

Yesterday my eldest daughter and I stole an hour away from the house and ventured out with secateurs and a large bag, to collect the greenery for the Christmas wreath. It is an annual ritual of several years' standing now, and we take it in turns to create the wreath. We're running a bit late this year, but better late than never.

The best hanging ropes of ivy were overhanging the river and we decided not to risk trying to gather them as the riverbank was under snow and we couldn't tell where the real edge was. We made do with some shorter pieces from the hedgerow and the ivy tree up by the bend. T couldn't sing as she had a sore throat, but I managed a few carols on my own - Good King Wenceslas, Away in a Manger, Once in Royal David's City . . . The cows across the valley had their hooves up to their ears, but hey-ho, I enjoyed myself!

We saw a Dipper bobbing on one of the snow-covered rocks - I would NOT like to be a Dipper in this weather! Upstream from the bridge, a frozen caul of ice stretched from one bank to the other. Not enough for a Frost Fair yet, but it shows how cold our valley has been these past few days.

The side roads (well, single track lanes really) are passable now, with care, but the stretch along by the river is just compacted snow into ice and has to be negotiated slowly.

Tuesday 21 December 2010

Christmas biscuits

Hmm - can't make my mind up which picture looks better. Anyway, these are the Christmas Jammy Stars I finally got around to making today. The dough has been in the fridge for two days waiting for me to catch my tail!

The filling is Wildings Crab Apple Jelly, using a beautiful wild apple (Jenny's apple tree, so very appropriate) which grows near to my dear friend's house in the New Forest. The apple is an "escapee" from the orchard of Jenny, no longer with us sadly, who used to live nearby. Both jelly and biscuits are scrummy. Recipe to follow.

Sunday 19 December 2010

Baking Recipes

Sorry for the delay. I meant to post these yesterday, but then life got in the way . . .

This one is very simple and you could use apples instead of pears if you wish. I had some left-over pastry so I made a small one with apples. Equally delicious.


100g (3 1/2 oz) caster sugar
2 tblspns plain flour
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
7 pears, peeled, cored and sliced (I found 5 were ample)
1 (450g) pack ready-rolled shortcrust pastry sheets (I made my own pastry with 1 lb plain flour and 8 oz of margarine)
1 1/2 tblspns lemon juice (I omitted this as I used some boozy fruits in brandy)
1/4 tsp caster sugar
4 tblspns mincemeat (I used home made)

Preheat oven to 180 deg. C (350 deg. F, Gas 4).

In a large bowl combine first amount of sugar, flour, ginger and cinnamon. Add pears and toss, stir in mincemeat. (TBH, I think you don't need to coat the pears at all . . .)

Line a 23cm (9") pie tin with one sheet of pastry. Place mixture into pastry case, sprinkle with lemon juice and top with second sheet of pastry. Cut slits in top and sprinkle with second amount of sugar.

Bake on bottom shelf of oven for 60 ins or until pears are cooked and pastry is browned. Allow to cool and serve warm.

I also made some Scandinavian Almond Bars, which were scoffed at a great rate by my offspring, and a demand made for More on Christmas Day Please . . .


1 3/4 cups (about 7 oz.) all purpose (plain flour)
2 tspns baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup butter, softened (about 3 oz)
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1/2 tsp almond extract
1/2 cup sliced almonds, coarsely chopped
Almond icing

Preheaat oven to 325 deg. F. In a small bowl, stir together flour, baking powder and salt; set aside. In a large bowl, beat butter with an electric mixer on medium to high speed for 30 secs. (Being an old fogey, I did this by hand). Add sugar, beat until combined. Beat in egg and almond extract. Add flour mixture; beat until combined.

Divide dough into four portions. Shape each portion into a 12" long roll. Place two of the rolls 4 to 5" apart on a greased cookie sheet. using your hands, flatten each roll until it is 3" wide. Repeat with remaining rolls on a second cookie sheet. Brush flattened rolls with milk and sprinkle with almonds.

Bake one sheet at a time, for 12 - 15 mins or until edges are lightly browned. While still warm, slice diagonally into 1" wide bars. Transfer to wire racks and cool. Drizzle with Almond icing. Makes about 48 bars.

Almond Icing

In a small bowl, stir ttogether 1 cup sifted powdered sugar, 1/4 tsp almond extract and enough milk or water (3 - 4 tspns) to reach drizzling consistency.

Soft shoe shuffle . . .

I was awake at 4.30 a.m. this morning. It was too cold to get up, so I lay in bed, listening to the soft-shoe shuffle of the dozens of wrens who roost above our bedroom window - on the big wide board which forms the ceiling of the window aperture. I have mentioned them before. I counted something like 80 going in to roost there on winter evenings last year.

My husband and I walked up to the junction again yesterday, to check on the roads (it has been impossible to get our car out of the drive, let alone to the junction). Down by the bridge, there were signs that one of the otters had been across the rocks, nosying about. Claw marks, paw marks and tail marks . . .

After lining up a lift for D, G and J in a neighbour's Landrover TO work, I am hoping we can get out later today to pick everyone up (otherwise it disastrous, with them stuck in town and no bed for the night . . .) but the managers seem to think they are "making excuses" when they say they can't get to work.

Saturday 18 December 2010

Baking by snowlight

In the interests of energy-saving, I have turned off the kitchen lights (essential throughout the dark winter days) and been making the most of the lovely reflective qualities of the one foot of snow outside my kitchen and baking by snowlight. I have made a big Pear and Mincemeat Pie and a small Apple and Mincemeat Pie (to use up a tiddy bit of pastry). Each pie has had a couple of spoonfuls of the wonderful boozy fruits made and given by my daughter's boyfriends mum. 'Tiz scrummy stuff! I shall pop back up later on and add the recipe.

I have also turned off the Hergom, as the baking is warming the kitchen. The central heating is going to be shortened too, just an hour in the morning, one at lunchtime and a couple of hours at teatime to heat the bath water. With snow like this, we have to try and eke out the oil - it costs an absolute fortune . . .

I think it will be some biscuits next, and I should do a pan of soup as a winter warmer, and I may try Stollen (for the first time). Meanwhile, enjoy the snow pictures. As you can see, we've had about a foot.

Friday 17 December 2010

Catching cobwebs

I caught a snippet of a conversation on the radio or television today and it suddenly bought back a childhood memory I never realized I had forgotten. Someone said "catching cobwebs" and in a heartbeat I suddenly recalled breaking a brittle twig off a branch, bending it right over though it always made half-a-hexagon and not an arch, and using it like a dream-catcher to scoop up cobwebs from the gorse and other bushes on the wild land between the abandoned wartime allotments and the brickworks.

In this same wilderness, we would pluck the broad green leaves of the rushes and weave them into mats; in weather like this we would break icicles off the willow boughs and eat them like frozen sweets; we would crush handfuls of Sweet Gale leaves in our pockets and the aroma in the dusty fluffy dessicated leaves would still linger, months on.

When we were thirsty in summer, we would break open a fat stem of what we called French Rhubarb (Japanese Knotweed) as it stored water at each joint, and we even ate the tender tips when sufficiently hungry. Usually though we would scrump from a neglected orchard - I can remember not eating plums for years after eating so many I gave myself the collywobbles. An abandoned 3 acre apple orchard fed us for weeks. The abandoned allotments provided strawberries, raspberries and currents in abundance. In the spring of the year we ate "bread and cheese" which was what we called the young Hawthorn leaves. In June we would be sucking on the bottom of the Honeysuckle blossoms for the sweet nectar they held.

One clear starry night when it had snowed, we got out tin trays and sleds, and scorched down the pathway between the gorse bushes, past the Sweet Gale and the summer camps, to land laughing in the bracken. Happy times.

More of the white stuff . . .

Looking out across the paddock:

And it came to pass . . . the prediction of more (and heavier) snow. We woke up to 7" or 8" this morning. Next Door's Landy can just make it down the hill so long as sideways is a permitted movement. OH fell over twice going down the hill, and myself once when we walked up to the junction to check the Llanfynydd road. I then fell over coming UP the hill and slid 6 feet on my undercarriage, feeling such a prat! J set off walking to the A40 to catch the bus which he hoped was still running (we kept checking). Amazingly he got a lift right into town (someone who had invested in snow chains). He has also lined up a bed for the night with a work colleague if it snows like the bejeebers again this afternoon and he gets stuck . . .

This is the heaviest fall of snow we have had in one lot. We don't often get snow before mid-March, and then it is an inch or so which melts within a couple of days and doesn't cause many problems. Of course, compared with the rest of the world, this amount of snow is nothing, but because we get it so rarely, people are always unprepared. Snow chains would be a good idea, but prices vary from £50 or so up to £140 - not an amount of money we have sitting doing nothing at present . . .

My husband is just digging our car out, just in case we are able to get out in the not too distant future, but he's spitting into the wind as it's just started snowing a bit again and more is predicted. We have the logistics of trying to get three of the into work tomorrow AND Sunday - in fact, right up to Christmas Eve. Then starting again on Boxing Day . . . Somehow I think a White Christmas is definitely on the cards this year.

Walking back up the hill towards our house.

Upstream along the river.

Across to the mynydd t'other side of the valley.

Crossing the bridge.

The lane down by the river.

Down by the mill.

A scene I'm sure every regular visitor to the blog is familiar with by now.

This is the more major lane where our little lane joins it.

Heading towards the A40.

Ducks with cold feet and bottoms . . .

Looking across the lane.

Thursday 16 December 2010

Thoughts of Christmas past

I bought a pack of dates today - just like the dates mum used to buy every Christmas. She was the only one who ate them though! They still have the same cream plastic "stabber" down the centre of the box, pretending to be the branch that the dates hung from . . .

These always formed part of the Christmas feast. Keeping them company on the sideboard, would be a box of Turkish Delight, a semi-circular box of "pretend" orange and lemon slices, and a box of Manderin oranges, each fruit wrapped in tissue paper with a delightfully foreign print on it. Sometimes they still had a little stalk and glossy dark green leaves and they seemed so exotic.

Back in the 50s and early 60s, turkey was still relatively rare as the main component of Christmas dinner. We, along with many of our neighbours, had a capon - which was a sterilized male chicken of almost turkey-like proportions. This would be stuffed with Paxo Sage and Onion stuffing (there was no other), and accompanied by sprouts, carrots and roast potatoes. Even if mum had ever heard of bread sauce, it never put in an appearance on our table. Mincemeat and Christmas pudding were always of the "boughten" variety - though my gran had always made her own, along with pickles, chutneys, jams and jellies. Somehow these skills skipped a generation with my mum . . .

Sometimes we had a proper (fir) tree, and I can remember having some little painted crinkly tin candle holders which fixed on the branch with a crocodile clip type attachment. You actually LIT the candles (Health and Safety would have 40 blue fits these days). We had glass baubles to go on the tree, but sadly more and more got broken each year and we no longer have any of the original ones. They weren't exotic - just simple spray-painted balls - some with dimples in. Tinsel went a long way to making up for any shortfall in baubles.

On a couple of occasions, I remember we didn't have the money for a tree, so mum and I went and cut off a big branch of gorse (or furze as we called it), which we painted with a thick paste of flour and water and then sprinkled with coloured glitter. One year we had a beautiful branch of Silver Birch, which was so graceful, and looked lovely on one end of the sideboard, glittered and decorated with the smaller decorations.

Mum and I would spend an afternoon in the run up to Christmas pasting together paper chains to hang up. You could buy packets of paper chain strips made from thin sugar-paper.

Mum always bought a few extra things each week in the run up to Christmas, to spread the cost. Peak Freans cheeselets were one extra - you can still get them, but I'm sure they tasted better back then. There would usually be a box of chocolates (Milk Tray) and a tin of biscuits. There was always a tin of ham too, though sometimes we would have a piece of boiling bacon on Boxing Day, though normally it was a brace of Pheasants which dad would bring home from Romsey.

No wine of course, but a bottle of sherry, a bottle of Advocaat, sometimes Dubonnet and a few light ales in case any of the neighbours came over.

When I see what some people are putting into their trolleys during Christmas week it makes my eyes water! We try not to go too over the top - I tend to be buying ingredients so I can make our Christmas treats, which is so much more satisfying. A new Christmas ritual in our house is to share a bottle of Cava as we open the presents - it feels quite decadent! My neighbour down the hill breakfasts on smoked salmon and scrambled egg on toast, with Champagne to wash it down! Good on her.

Wednesday 15 December 2010

Being in control of your life

Balwen Sheep: these are our local breed, as they originated in the Towy valley Apparently in the dreadful cold and snowy winter of 1947, the breed was almost wiped out completely, with only one ram surviving. I love them for their white markings - blazes and stars, socks and stockings, just like horses!

This year seems to have been one long period of everything being beyond my control. In consequence, I am now feeling quite pulled down by it all and I think I will have to watch White Christmas round the clock to get me in the mood for the Big Day.

Today or tomorrow we (eldest daughter and I) are going to gather some greenery for decorating the house and making this year's wreath.

Then it's meant to snow. Deep joy. Not. Fine when you can batten down the hatches and keep warm, but when we have the logistics of getting three folk into work and back, a different matter entirely. For fear of our offspring losing their jobs, we have to risk life, limb and vehicle to get them in because they will be sacked otherwise - plenty of others out there to step into their shoes. J&D in particular have a nowty boss who sees living in a rural area as a good reason to jettison staff if they cannot get in. Only Christmas Day is a non-working day in our household this year so we won't get much respite.

On the positive side, the Council have been out and topped up the grit bins with REAL grit and salt! Not just duff as is in the bottom of the bin.

I have had a lovely early Christmas present from my daughter's boyfriend's parents. His mum has been busy in the kitchen and made a big jar of boozy fruits for Christmas baking. It looks divine and more than makes up for my Rumtopf which went mouldy (so did the outside of the jar, so I do wonder if there weren't tiny cracks all the way through which I hadn't noticed).

My home-made mincemeat smells good too, so I shall have to get some Christmas baking done . . .

Perhaps we might even get the Christmas tree this week . . .

Saturday 11 December 2010

Thought for the day . . .

It has thawed here, praise be. Yesterday was so much warmer and now all but the most stubborn ice has melted. The ponds are looking very milky but the ice is slowly darkening at the edges and the birds can drink more readily again.

In last week's Telegraph, I came across this wonderfully inspiring piece of text, which is one that adventurer and explorer Ben Fogle lives by:

To love is to risk not being loved in return.

To believe is to risk despair.

To try is to risk failure.

The people who risk nothing, do nothing.

Only a person who risks is truly free.

I will leave you with that thought . . .

Thursday 9 December 2010

Some thaw!

It's supposed to be thawing, according to OH. The weather forecast says we are probably up to 8 deg. here outside in the day, and around freezing at night. Hmmm. Someone obviously left the Cothi Valley out of the equation because look at this - it has got VERY MUCH colder and the river is freezing over. OH and I walked down by the river just as it was getting dimpsey last night. We had already noticed it feeling colder up by the house, but as you walk down our hill, you can feel a considerable temperature drop and the river was noticably starting to cool as there were little rafts of ice coming downstream.

We walked down again this morning, to be greeted by these sights. Thaw - you have to be JOKING!

Even where the water is rougher, ice has formed at the edges and the water rushes beneath it.

View upstream from the bridge showing where the ice always forms first, by the rocks.

View from the bridge downstream. . .

The really telling picture, showing little ice floes coming downstream, and fetching up at the side of the river.

This is the little fast-flowing stream which joins the river here - already with huge chunks of ice forming over it.