Kitchen Chemistry

kitchen chemistry.jpgHave you ever wondered about all the science that happens in a busy kitchen? Raising agents added to cakes, the fermentation of wine or bread, the amazement on a child’s face when you add baking powder to hot syrup to make honeycomb. I’ve always loved making potions, I was that child who would stuff rose petals into jam jars in the hope of making perfume my mother would want to wear and I never tired of pouring vinegar onto bicarbonate of soda to make volcanoes.

I studied chemistry (failed the A level – like I failed most of my A levels – thank goodness for night school and second chances!) and I’m still fascinated by the alchemy that happens in my kitchen. We don’t often think of it as chemistry, but so much science can be learnt at the kitchen table. More recently, I’ve begun to feel like I need a degree in chemistry just to decipher those ingredients lists – even the ones on the back of my “eco friendly” cleaning products. I have a growing unease about just how “friendly” those products are – and the difficulty in disposing of the packaging irritates me. So, I’ve begun to rediscover some of the old cleaning methods I used when we were to poor to buy the supermarket goodies and Mr T complained the bathroom cleaner made his asthma worse.  I’ve pulled a few old favourites out of my kitchen cupboard, white vinegar, bicarbonate of soda, citric acid, essential oils are all store cupboard essentials here, so why am I not putting them to better use?. My Nanna used to say that you could clean anything if you had enough elbow grease, and she’s right. All these modern cleaning aids, the air fresheners, the silicone polishes, the no rinse shower sprays etc. are meant to make the task of cleaning and maintaining a home easier and speedier. Do they?

A quick survey of the top shelf in my kitchen revealed a scary collection of sprays, creams, cleaners and scourers that I’ve accumulated over the years (does any home really need four  different kinds of leather cleaner / conditioner?)  we even have a bottle of carpet cleaner – even though we have no carpets – just wooden floors! Some of them haven’t been used for years and some of them don’t even contain their original products (the very expensive eco friendly widow spray I bought because it promised to smell of lavender, but didn’t) was soon refilled with my old favourite white vinegar and lavender essential oil, which does a better job). I’m ashamed to say I have a bookshelf full of books on natural home making, recipes for window cleaners, beeswax polish and advice on creating a natural home. They need to start making themselves useful and I’m determined to start mixing up a few chemistry experiments once we’re back from our summer holiday. I already make my own hand salves and lotions, and I will pour a spoonful of bicarbonate of soda onto a burnt pan to make it easier to clean (especially since we banned the plastic sponge scourers). So it shouldn’t be that hard to start whipping up a few cleaning and washing potions?

I want to rediscover the joy of stirring potions and making liquids turn to solids. Yesterday, I dusted off those books and began to make a list of all the things I need to buy (turns out not much) to make my own furniture polish, shower spray, floor cleaner and air fresheners. I’ll share the recipes and results here so you can join in too if you like.

185238333x

If you’re interested, some of the books on my shelf are: 1001 Country Househld Hints, Sloe Gin and Beeswax (definitely worth seeking out for the jam, cordial and cheese recipes and Pia Tryde’s lovely photography)  and Rachelle Blondell’s  collection of traditional recipes and remedies Forgotten Ways for Modern Days. You might also want to start hoarding your jam jars, glass bottles and empty spray bottles…

Photo credit: Brooke Lark

Rhubarb and Ginger Gin (a recipe)

peak rhubarb.jpgWe’ve reached “peak rhubarb”, that point in the season when we no longer look forward to a rhubarb crumble, even my favourite rhubarb fool (made with stewed rhubarb whipped into freshly made custard) no longer appeals. But my rhubarb patch is at the top of its game, huge pink stalks appear almost daily. There’s jam of course (rhubarb and ginger is a rather fine jam), but we’ve grown tired of the huge number of jars that lurk in the fridge as we don’t eat enough of the stuff to justify making more than a couple of jars. Cordials are a good option, and for the last few years I have made lots of this for quaffing on summer evenings. A couple of years ago, someone gave me a bottle of Edinburgh Gin’s Rhubarb and Ginger Liqueur and that sparked an idea to make my own flavoured gin.

Let’s hope we’re heading into a long, warm summer. The kind where we’ll sit out on the patio or in the park until late in the evening. Sip a cheeky glass of something in good company and spend lazy weekends watching the world go by. That’s my kind of slow summer. But just in case we find ourselves in the middle of a wet August huddled around the BBQ and in need of something to lift our spirits, this gin recipe might be just the thing!

Many of you will be familiar with sloe, damson or strawberry gin. Rhubarb however might be new to you. It’s a great make for summer, quick and incredibly easy. If you make it now, it will be ready to take along to summer BBQs in July and August – much tastier (and a little more original) than a green salad or a bottle of Rose! The sharp notes of ginger don’t play nicely with tonic (at least not in my opinion), so experiment with different mixers or serve over ice – in moderation of course!

You’ll need a large jar with a wide neck, caster sugar, rhubarb (the pinker the better), a small piece of fresh ginger and a bottle of gin (cheap and cheerful, no fancy botanicals necessary). Whenever I make flavoured gin, brandy or vodka, I tend to judge the quantities by eye, but if you stick to proportions of 1 part sugar to 2 parts fruit and 4 parts alcohol that should give a sweet enough concoction. (so for this batch I’m using roughly 250g sugar, 500g rhubarb and 1 litre of gin). Pink rhubarb will impart a pretty colour, while green stalks will produce a more amber colour, either way it tastes delicious.

rhubarb and ginger cordial shot

Roughly chop the rhubarb and slice the ginger thinly (no need to peel),  pop them in your jar and pour on the sugar, stir with a wooden spoon to combine. Add your gin and screw the lid on. Leave in a dark, cool place for a week, turning the jar every day so the sugar dissolves. Then leave it alone for two more weeks. Strain through a jelly bag or coffee filter paper. Leave it overnight so that you extract as much gin as possible. Bottle, label and drink neat over ice, diluted with soda or lemonade. Of course, you can leave out the ginger if that thought does nothing for your tastebuds. You could add a vanilla pod instead or just go for straight rhubarb. Just as an aside, in the photo above, the bottle contains rhubarb cordial made with the late summer green rhubarb stalks, while the glass contains an early batch of gin flavoured with the young pink stalks.

For a non alcoholic option, a rhubarb and ginger cordial is a delicious choice. I’ll share some of my favourite fruit cordial recipes here over the summer, but if you can’t wait then you’ll find a great Rhubarb syrup recipe in Wild Cocktails by Lottie Muir, or try Sarah Raven’s Rhubarb Cordial, which you’ll find here. 

Also, it’s not too late to go foraging for elderflowers to make a batch of Elderflower Champagne, you’ll find my recipe by clicking here!

 

How Sustainable is Your Yarn?

20151007_125641I love working with natural fibres, and British wool in particular. I love seeking  out small producers and listening to them share the story of their yarn. Maybe that stems from a childhood spent on the hills and the fells, seeing sheep in their natural environment. I like to think my British wool is a more sustainable purchase. It’s a natural product, available in a myriad of undyed shades and it’s biodegradable. But is there more to this issue of “sustainability” than just sourcing and disposing of the product?

The whole issue of sustainability is complex and fraught with issues that divide as much as they unite those of us who care about the natural world and our fellow humans. This is especially true when it comes to textiles as many of us don’t really consider the manufacture or disposal of our clothes. For knitters, crocheters and many other yarn crafters, the question of sustainable yarn is only just making it’s way into the mainstream debate. And while many of us are proudly carrying our re-usable coffee cups and refusing plastic bags, there is a huge proportion that continue to knit, crochet and craft with plastic yarn without any thought of it’s origins or future environmental impact.

For years now I’ve had to justify why I’m not a fan of man made fibres and prefer to use cotton, linen or wool for my makes and my designs. My  dislike of acrylic yarn isn’t snobbery. I just care about the long term environmental impact of mass produced textiles and yarns. They  use chemicals, oil and energy to an extent  that is not ecologically sustainable. Many are neither recyclable  nor biodegradable and end up in incinerators or landfill sites. The availability of cheap yarn has opened up knitting and crochet for everyone, with little or no consideration of where the yarn comes from, how it’s made or what might happen to our  projects when they reach they end of their natural life (I’m pretty sure most pilled and baggy acrylic sweaters still end up in landfill and oddments and left overs suffer the same fate).

The production of oil-based synthetic fabrics like nylon, acrylic and polyester requires the mining, refining, and processing of oil. In addition, both man made and natural fibres  use a myriad of toxic additives and colours, as well as massive amounts of energy and water. Many of the chemicals used in the textile industry (such as lead, nickel and formaldehyde) are known to have a negative impact on public health, nature and biodiversity. In addition, many textiles are made in sweatshops  linked to multiple human rights violations, including child labour, sub-minimum wages,and unsafe working conditions.

That all sounds pretty vile and it’s clear that the debate isn’t as cut and dried as man made Vs natural fibres anymore (if it ever was!).

There are no easy choices, and over the years I’ve had to make compromises, requesting “wool rich” yarns for commissions or choosing cotton yarns that might (or might not) have been dyed using harmful chemical in factories that don’t respect their workers  rights. Cotton production is one of the largest industrial consumers of pesticides, fertilizers and water. Contamination of the natural environment and negative impacts on human and animal health are common in cotton growing regions. (You can read more about cotton production on the WWF website if you’re interested).

Then of course, there are yarns made from linen, hemp, bamboo, tencel, recycled polyester and reclaimed fibres. How are we supposed to find our way through the maze of sustainability issues and find a solution that works for us? And, now of course, there is a growing interest in sourcing vegan or cruelty free yarns. Many suppliers sell “vegan” yarn and there are forums and facebook groups dedicated to sharing new discoveries of “cruelty free” yarn. However,  vegan yarns are often  made from nylon or a combination of polymers. Once again this raises the question of “sustainability”.  And, I keep asking myself, is the marine life affected by plastic pollution  of less value than a sheep? But that’s an issue for another day perhaps. There are a number of online retailers selling plant based fibres that have addressed this issue and I’ve included  some of them at the end of this post – they are a great source of information for anyone looking to source non animal fibres – whether that’s for ethical or personal reasons – or maybe you’re just one of the many who find wool, cashmere and alpaca too “scratchy”!

Fortunately, there are a number of yarn companies, shops and small scale suppliers who care about animal welfare, human rights and  the long term sustainability of  their products. Many are offering a choice of fibres which might make us feel a bit better about the impact our craft has on the environment (and our fellow humans). I’ve compiled a short list which you’ll find at the end of this post. It’s not exhaustive (and do let me know if your favourite isn’t listed here). In addition, I would suggest seeking out small batch wool producers or asking where your wool comes from. Visit yarn shows such as Woolfest (held every June in Cumbria) and talk to suppliers about the rearing and shearing of their animals – genuine interest will be meant with genuine enthusiasm and you shouldn’t be surprised by the amount of love and care that goes into that small flock of sheep, alpaca or goats!

When I do use man made fibres I make sure to think of them as long term projects. I use socks with a small nylon content (meant to add strength and durability), I darn the heels and toes and make sure they last. Leftover scraps of yarn are crocheted into baskets and homewares rather than simply being thrown away. I like to think that by the time they are worn out, there may be a way to recycle or reclaim the fibres and put them to another use. I compost left over wool, and cotton fibres are added to my local council’s textile collection for recycling.

As more of us begin to question the environmental and ethical impacts of our yarn choices, we should take some comfort from the wider textile industry, which has been considering these issues for a number of years already.  Many factories now employ “closed loop” manufacturing processes which reduce pollution, recycle water and reduce exposure of factory workers to harmful chemicals. Plastic manufacturers are being forced to consider alternatives to plastics made from oil and are investing in ways to reclaim post consumer waste, one of the most exciting I’ve come across is  Econyl (use by Finisterre in its swimwear ranges for a few years now), made from 100% post consumer waste nylon. There’s no doubt that regenerating existing nylon and man made fibres is preferable to using new. In the long term, we might see more regenerated yarns available for sale to knitters and crafters (some are mentioned in the list that follows). Perhaps we’ll come to see sustainability as more than just a man made Vs natural fibres debate, but for now my choice for personal projects will still be linen, organic cotton or wool  sourced in the UK from small scale producers and companies that care about the provenance of their raw materials.

Your version of what is sustainable might differ from mine, that’s OK. All I’m asking is that we start to consider the human and environmental impacts of our purchases and ask questions about their manufacture and disposal. I’m interested to know how a love and respect for the natural world sits with our constant cravings for quick, easy and convenient choices. I was raised to love nature, to feel a sense of awe and wonder when I climb a mountain or swim in the sea. It’s hard to feel that way when faced with images of towering landfill, incinerator chimneys or beaches scattered with rubbish washed in with the tide.

Shopping online? Try these:

erika-knight-studio-linen-1080x714

London shop Knit with Attitude prides itself on sourcing and supplying a wide range of ethical and sustainable yarn, check out their current stock online or in their bricks and mortar shop.

New to me (but not so new to the scene), online shop  Yarn Yarn sells ethically sourced natural fibres (many of them organic). Many have a price tag that won’t make your eyes water!

Wool and the Gang sell FSC certified Tencel yarn (Tina Tape)  and now have a scheme which donates to Friends of the Earth every time you buy a ball of their Heal  the Wool

Katia Yarns sell a blend of cotton and recycled polyester, which has attracted a lot of interest among yarn enthusiasts. They have also launched “Earth” a blend of merino wool and polyester sourced from recycled PET bottles. These are in addition to their organic wool and cotton ranges. You can buy Katia yarns from Yarnplaza. I’ve been very impressed with the range and prompt service of this online retailer.

Erika Knight sells a gorgeous linen made with 85% recycled rayon and 15% linen that is incredibly soft and has beautiful stitch definition. Studio Linen has become one of my “go to” yarns for soft, drapey garments.

A long time favourite of mine is Eco Baby from Debbie Bliss, a Fairtade, organic cotton that gets softer and softer with washing and is incredibly durable (I’ve been using cotton washcloths made from this yarn over over 5 years – used every day they show very little wear).

Finally, Vegan designer Kate Morris designs garments made from plant based yarns  and has put together a useful graphic on the relative sustainability of various plant based fibres on her website. It’s worth taking a look at how she has classified the merits and environmental impacts of various non animal fibres – I found it really helpful.

 

The Sound of Silence

squirrel.jpgToday I’m back at my desk after the UK Bank Holiday weekend. This year Mr T went away on a “boy’s jolly” to Scotland, and rather than inviting friends to stay or jaunting off, I decided to treat myself to a few days of solitary  peace and quiet here at home.

There is a certain self indulgent joy in choosing not to be social. I got up when the sun woke me, went to bed when I felt tired and spoke to no-one for two whole days. I didn’t find myself feeling lonely, there was enough activity in the garden to keep me entertained and apart from an indulgent session of trashy film watching on Saturday night I only listened to the radio in the mornings to catch the news headlines, and the TV stayed turned off. I chose not to join the Bank Holiday shoppers or duck and weave between families visiting the forest. I stayed in, pulling on my PJs and not washing my hair!

The silence gave me a chance to listen to myself, to think about how I spend my days and how much of the time is spent trying to please other people or conform to expectations. I relished not having to slap on the cover up that hides my skin rashes and redness (caused by the Lupus and which forces people to stare when I go out). I wandered around my house, touching favourite books, opening them, reading a few pages and then adding some of them to the ready to topple pile of “must re-reads” on my bedside table. I spent long hours in the garden. I weeded, transplanted seedlings and watered pots. I noticed the pesky squirrel who comes to my garden every day is a female. From the look of her, she’s recently given birth and she has a healed injury to her front arm. There is a fresh wound to one of her nipples and I worried that it might become infected, so for a few minutes,  I allowed her free access to the sunflower seeds in the bird feeder. Her survival skills made me feel like she’d earned a break and an easy feed! I wasn’t really alone because I has a garden full of birds, butterflies and bees. They paid no attention to me or to each other. I felt at ease, without the need to hold a conversation. It was enough to just sit and watch the world unfold in my garden

I didn’t feel at all lonely during my two days alone (and let’s remember, it was only two days). Maybe this is because I had chosen this time for myself, thinking of it as an indulgence. Sometimes, I am forced to remain home alone because of work commitments or ill health and on these occasions I often feel resentful and suffer that terrible feeling of missing out on “all” the fun everyone else is having. I found myself dwelling on the subtle difference between being alone and being lonely. I thought about my neighbour, long widowed, who spends many hours in her own company, but protests she never feels lonely or abandoned because she can choose where to go and who to see. This is a stark contrast to her days as a full time carer, when she was never able to go out on a whim – or hardly at all to be honest! Back then she was often sad. She would spend long hours weeding her front garden, cleaning the car or finding any number of reasons to potter about in the hope of a snatched conversation. Other neighbours would take time to stop, to chat, to allow her time to indulge in gossip and let her talk about nothing in particular. Let’s be honest, apart from snatched moments with her husband’s carers or a PPI telephone call, these were her only interactions and she needed more.

This weekend of self imposed “me time” was a treat, a much needed break and a chance to please myself. How would I cope if this was my “every day”? I’m not sure. But, I hope that if / when that day comes then I will have enough resilience to find my own way through the silence and to enjoy my own company …

…just so long as I have access to a window and a full bird feeder!

Why Am I Being Sold Solutions I Don’t Need to Problems I Don’t Have? (Answer – Guilt & Insecurity)!

washable make up remover padsI care what other people think about me. I know I shouldn’t, but there it is, I’m a sensitive soul. When my daughter was a toddler, I hosted a Mums and Toddlers coffee morning for my local NCT group. I happened to overhear an American “Mom” telling the lady sitting next to her that she had just used my bathroom “… and there was the most disgusting bar of soap” by the sink, she went on to lecture this other Mum about how “unhygenic” real soap is, that in the USA no self respecting Mother  would dream of offering such a dirty, germ infested thing to guests. Needless to say, my sensitive soul was mortified and I went straight out that afternoon and loaded up with liquid soap. Over the years I’ve tried organic, refillable, eco friendly versions, but always I had the same misgivings that I was buying a solution to a problem I didn’t have. I rebelled and went back to soap bars a couple of years later (there is still a bottle of liquid soap in my bathroom for those who wish to use it – it’s been standing there so long, the sun has bleached the contents and the once coloured liquid soap is now clear).

While it’s great that I’m making and using cotton wash cloths and make up removers instead of disposable cotton pads, their positive impact is lessened by all the disposable, non recyclable cr*p that fills my bin every week. The more I think about this incident, the more I begin to realise that my house is filled with stuff I don’t need need or never really wanted. How many of us have been sold washing liquid pods, microfibre cleaning cloths, bottled water, disposable everything in the name of convenience? Look at the contents of your fridge, tomato ketchup in squeezy plastic bottles (because it’s “so difficult” to turn a glass bottle upside down and bash out the last few dollops), milk in plastic containers instead of the once returned and re-used glass milk bottle because it’s so much more convenient to buy a bulk carton from the supermarket than have it delivered fresh every morning by the milk man.

Marketing companies are constantly on the look out for new improved ways to get us to part with our money and they are rarely eco – friendly. Now that you’ve ditched your disposable coffee cup, binned the bottled water, bought yourself a bamboo toothbrush and a stainless steel straw (all the “must haves” to display your earth friendly credentials these days), what do you do next?

I’m making a start by thinking about all those modern conveniences that supposedly make my life so much easier. The pump action cosmetic  bottles, the flip tops on shampoo, the plastic lined bags that I buy my ground coffee in are all on my hit list. For years we’ve been washing and re-using plastic food bags, take away containers and yoghurt pots, but eventually I’d like to stop  buying them completely (If I can just wean Mr T off his addiction to putting sandwiches in a plastic bag that would be a start). I don’t think it’s going to be easy, but I think that by asking myself “Will this purchase make my life easier in the long term”? I might be able to make a dent in all that packaging that fills my household rubbish bin.

All tips, ideas, suggestion to help me on my journey to a less complicated life welcome…

 

The Undersong

35711401054_178e4796a5_cLost, forgotten words fascinate me. At university I took a course in dialect maps, tracing the origin and spread of local words around the counties of England. I had mentally collected lists of local words for  wild flowers for years as we moved around the country  and later  I collected words about the landscape and nature. My childhood fascination with collective nouns grew into a love of words that describe the landscape and it was at university that I first heard the word “murmuration”,  it remains one of my favourite words. After my last post about the things we don’t see, a follower reminded me of the books by Robert Macfarlane, he writes beautifully about words and landscapes and he’s definitely worth seeking out. “Landmarks” sits on my bedside table, it’s the book I open when I just need a few minutes to lose myself or need to decompress after a busy day, it’s filled with lists of lost words and descriptions of our landscape. Hard to categorise or describe – just find it and read it!

At the moment I am besotted with the word “undersong”, the subtle, underlying sounds of the landscape. As I sit at my desk I can hear the birds, often so loud they drown out the everyday sounds of home.  Mr T, who normally works from home has made a trip to his company office today, I miss the hum of his computers, the occasional ring that signals the start of a skype call, the huffing and ho hums as he scrolls through emails. His chair creaks as he pushes the wheels back and forth over the carpet and occasionally a tune will drift down the hallway as he plays music to calm and relax the stressful parts of his working day. This is my undersong, not the poetic things you imagined?

You were expecting me to write about the distant call of rooks, the grinding of a tractor as it ploughs the field, the lowing of cows, maybe the song of a blackbird? No, I hear all of these things of course. But underneath, in the background there are the sounds of life and community. The house sounds eerie and empty, so I step outside. Our new neighbours are renovating the house before they move in, for days (weeks), there have been builders calling to each other, scraping, sanding, fixing, painting. The “Hello there” of neighbours passing by – none of us can wait much longer for the big reveal – so we’re all being ultra friendly in the home of an invitation to peek indoors (I’ve already had mine!). A few doors down a dog yaps, excitedly greeting everyone who walks past; our regular postman waves  as he pushes envelopes through the door  and calls out – “parcel on the step Trace” – which means the arrival of more yarn or maybe bike parts. If I close my eyes, I know exactly where I am. I am home and feel grounded in my soundscape.

I’ve written a lot recently about the things I see, not so much about the sounds or smells that are familiar. Maybe it’s because Mr T isn’t here today that I’m more aware of the sounds that are missing, the sounds I didn’t even realise I heard.

The Wonder of Things You Never See

IMG_1762

The sky, this morning. Perfect blue and fluffy clouds!

How often do you stop and look up at the sky? While I was hanging out the washing today, I looked up and saw a perfect blue sky. Such a beautiful sight, but so often overlooked as we walk about, head down or looking at the road ahead. It seemed to be such a perfect moment, the farmer was busy ploughing the field that backs onto our garden, being followed by a flock of black headed gulls, swooping and calling as he turned over the earth. I ran inside to grab my camera, such a beautiful sky deserves to be remembered.

This morning I heard my first cuckoo of the year.  At first I thought I had misheard, but no, definitely a cuckoo. I’ve never seen one, I only recognise it’s song (actually, that’s not strictly true, we once watched a female blackbird trying to feed a cuckoo fledgling). Now that the cuckoo is back, it is definitely spring. We are woken every morning by the dawn chorus, I lie in bed listening to the blackbird, I know it’s him sitting high among the cherry blossom. I don’t need to see him, I know he’s there, competing with robins and sparrows to be heard.

I was walking on the edge of  Delamere Forest, one of the nicer parts, filled with native trees, not the tall, sparse Scots Pine. A robin was serenading me, a woodpecker was drilling, high in the trees. So many birds and yet I couldn’t see any of them. I felt sorry for the posse of young mums pushing their strollers, wrangling toddlers, too busy discussing haircuts and last night’s TV in shrill voices to notice the lone cherry tree covered in the deepest pink blossom (they walked straight past it, not even pausing or glancing in its direction), the runner plugged into head phones couldn’t hear the birdsong that made me stop in my tracks. He had no idea the smile on my face was because of that first cuckoo.

IMG_1787

Tiny thing on leaves – how often do we walk past without even seeing them?

I began to think about all the things we know are there, but hardly ever see. The tiny insects we miss, the first buds on the trees (one minute they are all bare branches, the next they’re bursting into leaf). I realised how many birds I recognise by their song or from the briefest of glimpses (a jay, swooping n front of me as I drove along a country lane, a kingfisher, spied from a bridge as we fed the ducks, listening to the song of a nightingale when were on holiday last summer).

IMG_1713

A small patch of bluebells by the edge of the car park.

I took my camera out, to try and capture the overlooked, the missed and the ignored. A few pretty snaps that capture just another spring day. Nothing special, no rare bird sightings or beautifully captured shots, just nature at her mundane best. These are the moments in my day that are special, only appreciated when you slow down, take time to listen and look for  the small things.

IMG_1758

Comma butterfly, sunning herself.

 

Housework Forever, Crochet Whenever

No, not a typo. I wanted to write in defence of home making. over on Facebook I get tagged in shared memes all the time. Mostly they’re the kind that say “Crochet comes before housework for a reason” or similar. Apparently all knitters, crocheters and crafters are meant to put making before everything else. Housework, cleaning, cooking etc are secondary. Think of that sign you so often see hanging on the wall “Boring women have tidy houses” – well I’m coming out of the closet and saying I’m proud to be tidy.

On one level, these memes, shabby chic placards and posters might raise a smile, but at the same time I can’t help feeling that they are undermining the joy of home making. I don’t mean we should all live in  the showy, pristine homes you see on Instagram or in magazines (the kind where all traces of family life are removed and houseplants are artfully arranged to tumble over perfectly colour co-ordinated book shelves), but the kind of home where you feel welcome and would happily curl up your feet on the sofa with a cuppa and maybe a slice of cake. The chaos of family life is wonderful, there’s no shame in piles of unread post on the coffee tables, tumbling mountains of shoes, hats, coats and bags in the hallway. It’s OK to have unwashed dishes in the sink or an unmade bed. But, if you’re like me and find yourself indulging in a bit of gentle tidying as you go about your day and are happy doing so, why should other people feel the need to use terms like “homemaker” or “housewife” to make us feel small?

I enjoy the rituals of home making, the weekly meander from room to room watering my houseplants. I have about 30 at the moment, scattered around the house, not arranged in any particular order. Some in pretty pots, others standing in margarine tubs. There are a few prize specimens, but mostly they’re a motley collection of things that caught my eye, cutting from friends or presents from Mr T. If you have houseplants, they need to be looked after and there is a satisfaction in keeping them healthy, watching them thrive.

The same with book shelves. I dust them – because who wants to pull down a grubby book from the shelf – I like my books to smell like books, not accumulated dust! Floors are swept, because who wants to walk over a dirty floor in bare feet? Not me. The bathroom is clean – not spotless – but if I’m relaxing in the bath I don’t want to be distracted by cobwebs or tide marks (although it’s worth noting that bathing by candlelight disguises said cobwebs quite effectively).

Does it make me less of a good mother because there were days when I ironed clothes, did laundry or cleaned windows instead of playing with my daughter? Am I less creative because I like to tidy my desk before I sit down to write? If you come to visit and are served fresh coffee and home made cake it’s because I took the time to indulge in the joy of making a home, take pride in my surroundings and get satisfaction from picking garden flowers and arranging them in vases. I used to enjoy the daily ritual of tidying away toddler toys, plumping cushions (yes, I am a cushion plumper too – and no apologies), once my daughter was in bed, sitting in a tidy room , eating a home cooked meal, maybe drinking a glass of home made sloe gin and watching “rubbish telly” felt like a small victory in a challenging day.

You can mock the home maker all you like, keep tagging me in those memes or finding other ways to make me feel small and undermined because I am a home maker. But I tell you, for every woman posting pictures of her carefully curated home, fermented kimchi, gorgeous new kitchen, vintage sourced taps or pristine “creative space”  on Instagram, there is another woman (or man) behind the scenes, dusting, polishing, doing dishes carefully going about the business of creating a home – either that or they live in a hermetically sealed box where no kid is allowed to play with the train set, no husband is allowed to make a midnight snack and no dog poops in the garden!

Living a slower, simple life is about choosing your own path. There is no right way to live, no perfect recipe for a less complicated life. But what I do know is this; being surrounded by the people you love, making them happy and being made to feel valued and cherished leads to a more fulfilling day. If my day involves a slow bit of dusting, sweeping the floor, cleaning or baking and your doesn’t, that’s OK.

 

Interior shot credit: NHillier

Houseplants: Eddie Garcia

Keep the Wild in You

on the rocksI had an outdoors childhood. I didn’t think that was unusual, Dad would take us for walks along the banks of the river Severn, we would fish for sticklebacks with our cousins in the holidays, spend hours wandering through fields (in the days when wheat grew taller than me). Summer holidays were spent on the beach, exploring rock pools and building dens. We knew the names of birds and wild flowers because we saw them every year, named them, remembered them. We knew where to find wild raspberries, to avoid the bitter elderberries and in spring there was great delight to be had in picking “sticky willie” and throwing at each other.

butterfly on blackthorn.jpg

It’s only now that I’m an adult that I realise how lucky we were to have family (and teachers) who knew the value of being outdoors. It constantly surprises me that people will ask “Can you really eat that?”,  or that they are unable to identify garden birds or wild flowers, that they don’t know the thrill of finding a slow worm in the compost heap or the joy of spotting the first butterfly of the year. Maybe, because we walked to school or spent long summer days unsupervised in the countryside around our home a love of nature and an understanding of the seasons was just absorbed by osmosis. I can walk in the woods and name the trees, I know when to look out for the spiky sweet chestnuts (and I know how to roast them and eat them), I look forward to the first flush of nettle tops and the early wild garlic. I didn’t deliberately set out to pass on this knowledge to my daughter, but I think she has inherited at least some of that knowledge and respect for nature. Right now, we have a batch of birch sap wine fermenting in the kitchen, I’m eyeing up the cherry blossom and watching my neighbour’s crab apple tree with plans for jellies and jams. Food for free, foraging, whatever you like to call it, being with and eating wild things is part of who I am. It’s true, the only reason we planted an Elder in our garden was an ambition to make elderberry wine and elderflower champagne.

elderflowers 2016

So, in a long and rambling way, if this was your childhood and you regret that  you’ve now forgotten more than you remember, or you never had the opportunity to discover your “wild side”, then the Wildlife Trust’s “30 Days Wild” is for you. Starting on the 1st June, you can sign up to receive a whole month of simple ways to go wild. You can take part as an individual, a school, or even get together with your colleagues and go a bit wild in the work place. There are plenty of resources and ideas on the Wildlife Trust website. Download a pack and start planning your month of wild. Even if you can only manage a wild weekend or a few minutes there are suggestions for you. I love the idea of sparking “random acts of wildness” and encouraging more of us to step outside, even if it’s only for a few minutes each day. As regular readers know, my moments outside are essential. I always feel happier, calmer and ready to face the day after a wander around the garden or a walk in the woods.

But, 30 Days Wild isn’t just about discovering the outdoors and ticking a box in a spotters guide. It’s about encouraging us all to find time to go wild at any time of the year, not just in June. It’s about finding ways to live healthier, happier lives through being in nature. That might sound a bit “new age”, but everything I read and research tells me that my instinct to throw open the windows, walk barefoot on the grass or just sit on a bench and watch the birds  is good for me. Download the app and wherever you are, you can find something to do, or send off for an activity pack or check out the #30dayswild hashtag on Twitter and Instagram for ideas. I’ll be sharing my wild adventure online too, so join in with me and we can go wild together!

 

The Japanese advocate “Forest bathing”, children are being encouraged to take part in Forest School days, as far back as the 1970’s research proved that  patients in hospital make speedier recovery if they can see the sky and the grass through a window.  Try some of the suggestions and discover the nature in your garden, around your workplace or venture further afield. All the local Wildlife Trusts run activities (many of them free) to help you discover your local area, so if you’re nervous about venturing out alone you’ll be in good hands.

What are you waiting for? stop reading and get outdoors, find the wild in you…

 

Sparrowhawk!

sparrowhawk.jpgWe set off early, returning from our wonderful holiday in Wales (more to follow). It’s never easy to come home after a good holiday, especially when you really wanted to stay, enjoy the solitude and the scenery.

We unloaded the car, I made a scratch lunch of cheese on toast and as I walked from kitchen to living room  a familiar shape caught my eye. All of a sudden I knew I was happy to be home, content to be back in my own surroundings and even though I loved our short break in the Welsh countryside, home really is where the heart is – especially when the birds welcome you by posing long enough to allow you to grab your camera and hurriedly point and press!