Friday, 28 August 2015

A walk from the door

I love walking.  The simple act of putting one foot in front of another always calms me, cheers me and makes me engage with the world outside me and stills the chatter of my internal world.  One of the great things about living here is that you can walk straight from the door into countryside that people would travel miles to find.  I used to walk in cities too, pounding the streets at dusk when you can look through newly lit windows into other people's lives.  I still like that but I love the fact that here I can walk out of the door and straight into the green world.

I have been here by myself for the last couple of days as Ian was working at our son's house in Manchester.  I am still catching up from our week away with the family, washing and ironing and gardening and shopping.  It was a glorious day here yesterday and as I trudged in from the car with bags to unpack I suddenly thought that rather than sit down with a cup of tea as a break I would walk up the hill,

No sooner thought than acted upon.  Out of the house, along the track through our neighbour's farmyard and out into the lane.  This is steeper than it looks!  There is always that moment when you need to push your legs into the next gear.

As you walk uphill the first bend in the lane reveals the first view, out across the stubble of newly cut fields and up towards the hillforts along the top of the Clwydian range.  Our little valley dips away and rises on the other side towards the rounded dome of Moel Arthur.

There are flowers along the edge of the lane, particularly after the tarmac stops and it becomes a stone track.  Knapweed is heavy with butterflies.  There were Red Admirals and Meadow Browns on the grasses but this Peacock was the only one I could catch.

Rosebay willow herb is just going over, revealing the elegant structure of the flower as the petals fall and before the fluffy seed heads blur its beauty.

There are thistles, the flowers crowding together at every stage from bud through flower to seedhead.

There is ragwort, not welcome in the fields because of the danger to horses, but rather beautiful just by the roadside, thronged with insects.

My favourite are the harebells.  There is no blue more intense and I love the delicacy of the flower.  As a child I loved Alison Uttley's Little Grey Rabbit books and the harebell always reminds me of them.  A bunch of them should be on Little Grey Rabbit's kitchen table.

There is beauty too in the shapes of the trees.  The higher you go the more they show the effects of the prevailing wind, the westerly that has come across the sea from Ireland and over the mountains of Snowdonia.

The track ends and if I had a lot more time I would go up here, on top of Penycloddiau, the largest hillfort in Wales.  Or I could go through the gate and look out across the Vale of Clwyd, across to Snowdonia and down to the sea.  Not today though.  Today I turn back at the gate and walk back home in the warm wind.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Reporting back

Well as we are now on week three of the new way of eating (not to be  called a diet as that sounds as if the intention is to lose weight when my intention is not to be hungry!) I thought I would take stock of what I have been doing and what I think about it.

Firstly and very clearly, having given up bread and wheat products is having a definite and good effect on my wellbeing.  In some ways I am quite sad about this as I love bread and baking so in a contrary way I was rather hoping that giving up bread would make no difference.  Not so.   There is not much doubt that my IBS is much better on a wheat free diet.  That is a bit ironic since I didn't decide to give up wheat with an eye to improving the IBS  but more because it seemed possible that it might help with hypothyroidism.  I have no idea what sort of impact it is making on the thyroid issue but there is no doubt at all that it is helping my gut!  Hi ho.  I will have to keep the very occasional slice of homemade bread for a treat.  I don't think I could bear it if I thought I would never eat bread again but I can bear eating very little bread in exchange for a much calmer and more comfortable stomach at the beginning of every day.

Giving up wheat has not in fact been as difficult as I thought it might be.  I have adopted rice cakes instead of bread and crackers and the fact that they are nothing like as nice simply means I eat fewer of them than I would of the bread and crackers they are replacing.   Most of my wheat used to come in the form of bread or flour in cakes and pastry.  I have also given up pasta  which is no real hardship for me.  I like rice and potatoes and they seem to be giving me the carbohydrate.  Eating at home is easy as I cook everything from scratch anyway so I am not being caught out by the sneaky introduction of wheat products into things which you would simply not expect to contain them.  Tomato ketchup for example, who would have thought it?  Eating out is a bit more difficult as is eating on the move when my instinct is to go for a sandwich.  In fact restaurant eating is easier than eating on the go.  In restaurants and cafes simply going for dishes which are pretty close to their natural state such as a piece of fish or chicken without sauce and plenty of vegetables seems to fit
 the bill.  On our weekly trips to Devon it is harder to find things to eat at motorway services where so many things seem to be bread based.  Salads are fine and with some hot dishes such as burgers I simply discard the bun.  So I am finding that it can be done.

I haven't really found myself missing anything desperately apart from new bread when it comes out of the oven!  I did have a piece when I baked earlier this week.  There are some pleasures which are necessary for a good life!

The other suggestions were to eat more protein and to reduce caffeine.  Again both of those have been fine.  One rather sad discovery last night was that gin seems to set me off.  I haven't had a gin and tonic for months and months but I had one last night and my stomach really didn't like it.  Poor form, stomach!  Ah well, at least there is still wine.  And fresh eggs!

So for now I will stick with it, at least for the couple of months I had originally intended.  I am also trying to walk more and do some yoga most days so with luck and consistency perhaps I will get my bounce back!

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

making and doing

Every now and then I realise I have been accomplishing things, almost accidentally, not in a ticking things off a list sort of way.  I look around and, amongst all the undone things and the half done things, I find that something has actually been finished almost without my noticing.  So here is a celebration of July's accidental accomplishments.

At the beginning of the month I made elderflower cordial, just catching the flowers at their best.

I took cuttings from the scented leaf pelargoniums and all but one took.  Now they are in bigger pots and flowering.

This one is a cutting from Attar of Roses which is suddenly throwing up a larger and more dramatic flower than its parent.  I have been nurturing this one.

New pots have been bought and planted up.

Little jacket for younger daughter's new baby, due very soon, is growing by the day.

Old oilcloth which has been relegated to outside use was brought out and made into a new kneeler for the garden.  This also resulted in use for a piece of foam which has been hanging around the sewing room for months.

So things get done.  Life continues!

Monday, 20 July 2015

Looking after yourself

What do you do to look after yourself, if anything?  It might be physical, such as running or exercise classes, or mental, such as meditation or some form of intellectual challenge like crosswords or sudoku.  It could be to do with diet or with ways of elevating your mood.

It is a tricky one.  It is perfectly possible to become so obsessed with your own health that you squeeze the joy out of life.  I love food, I love cooking, I love wine.  I don't want to live on brown rice.  But I do want to feel good and I am seriously wondering if I need to change the way I eat.   I don't normally use this blog to talk about very personal things but here we go.  I hope you don't mind if just this once I do.

For the last twelve months or so I have been plagued with tiredness, with repeated colds and unhappy guts.  A lot has happened in that time, principally the last illness and death of my father in law and the continuing decline of my father with motor neurone disease.  I have assumed when I have felt battered by exhaustion that this is the inevitable result of an exhausting stage of life with a weekly six hundred mile round trip and the additional and welcome demands of a large family of children and grandchildren.  We have focused hard on trying to keep our heads above water and on looking after each other.  I have kept up my yoga, joined a choir and tried to look after that self which is not simply a daughter or a mother and grandmother.  I am an energetic person.  I live my life biting off more than I can chew and I married someone who is just the same but now I am constantly getting left behind, always tired, unable to work in the garden for longer than an hour, knocked out if I have to get up early, looking back on my long walk on the Offa's Dyke Path from five years ago with bemusement.  Could I do that now?  Absolutely not.  Is it just getting older?  Is it trying to do too much?  Should I just accept that as we age energy diminishes?  I just don't know.

So I went to the doctor, under pressure of course.  I seem to be borderline hypothryroid.  Come back for more tests in a few weeks she says.  But I have had enough.  I have been trogging round the internet.  I know, I know.  There is any amount of stuff out there to keep the hyponchondriacs happy. I have no idea if changing my diet will make the slightest difference.  But while I am waiting for tests and more tests I don't see that I have anything to lose by having a go at changing my eating habits.

This is the article which has most appealed to me.  In a nutshell it suggests giving up caffeine, increasing the intake of protein and (most controversially and for me most challengingly) going gluten free.  The first two won't be a problem at all.  I am not going to have to give up wine either which is good!  But going gluten free will be much harder.  I love bread.  We make all our own so I know it is not full of additives but there is no getting away from the fact that it is full of wheat!  I also love baking: cakes, pies and pastries.  Ah well. If it just a couple of months I can surely manage and it is not as if I am coeliac where there are real issues of the dangers of contamination and real problems if you accidentally find yourself having consumed something with gluten in it.  And by the end of a couple of months I will surely know whether it makes any difference at all.

So there we go.  I feel a bit self conscious about this.  I have always been rather dismissive about faddy eaters.  I have kept pretty quiet about the fact that I have been using the FODMAP diet (without needing to restrict wheat) for IBS for the last few years.  But it is partly the fact that there is no doubt that the FODMAP diet works for me which has made me wonder if a couple more modifications might make a difference.  And it helps that we make all our food from scratch so there is no need for extensive reading of labels.  So here we go. I wonder how it will be?

What do you do to look after yourself and does it work?!  What are the really important things that make a difference to your health and energy?

Friday, 10 July 2015

Five things on Friday

Today for the first time I am joining in with Amy's Five things on Friday.   I have been reading Amy's Five Things for a while now and from time to time coming across other people doing the same so, while I don't expect to make it a regular thing (I can't guarantee to be able to blog on a Friday for one thing!), I thought it would be fun to look at what is on my camera and make it into a Five Things, if I can.

So here we are.  This is astrantia, astrantia major I think.  It grows here almost like a weed, self seeding all over the place and making huge plants which muscle other things out of the way.  But there is no denying that it is very beautiful, with an odd mixture of delicacy and toughness.  This plant is making it difficult to get to the front step but as we only ever use the kitchen door, like most old farmhouses, it doesn't really matter.

Here is another thing we have a lot of: eggs.  The hens are laying well now and Ian has made a new nest box which seems to have solved the problem of the eggs being pecked or even completely eaten. He has built a nest box with a false bottom and a slight slope so that the eggs roll gently into a lower compartment with a removable top.  We don't know which hen had developed a taste for eggs but it is good not to have to worry about that.  As a result we now have loads of eggs again and I have eaten five today, two for breakfast as usual and another three in an omelette for supper.  This could be overdoing it!  I do love eggs though.

Another picture of abundance: honeysuckle, flowering in the hedges around the garden and by the lane.  The scent is wonderful and always stronger when a waft hits you as you walk by than it is if you bury your nose in a flower.  I think it must be the cumulative impact of all those flowers which produces the sweet scent, particularly strong on a summer evening.

And here is the reverse of sunshine and perfume, a dark and mossy place where a large oak at the bottom of the hill has got its roots mixed up with rocks and is overhanging the lane.  This reminds me of my passion for hiding things in holes like this when I was a child and my brother and I used to play up on the moors.  We had a tree in which we used to leave emergency supplies or notes to each other.  The emergency supplies were usually eaten before we got to them but the notes survived.

And lastly let's have some home made bread to go with the eggs.  A bit random I know but there are my five things for today.

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Making elderflower cordial

Homemade elderflower cordial is one of my favourite things and is very easy.  Some years I am just so busy at the right time that I miss the window when you can do it and I always kick myself.  That is the thing about seasonality: miss it and it's gone until next year. You might have missed it for this year if you live in the South East of the UK after the very hot week or so we have had but here in North Wales and for other readers in the North and West of the country you can still find flowers which are just right.

Equipment is easy.  You will need:
a large bowl for the mixture to steep in
3 empty wine bottles (always an easy one in this house).  They can be sterilised by washing in the dishwasher or spending ten minutes in a low oven.
a large pan
a bowl and a sieve to go over it
some muslin to line the sieve like this.  If you don't have muslin just use your finest sieve but the liquid won't be quite as clear

a jug to pour the liquid into the bottles
a funnel like this one makes this much easier but if you have a steady hand you can manage without one

You can buy preserving equipment from a variety of places.  I tend to use Lakeland because they are quick and efficient and great at putting things right if necessary.

Ingredients are
about thirty elderflowers
Juice and zest of three lemons
1 kg sugar
1.5 litres of water
about 25g of citric acid (optional)

Our local pharmacy stocks citric acid.  It helps the cordial to keep for longer but you can make a great cordial without it and just drink it more quickly!

You can see elderflowers all over the place if you live in country.  The slightly scraggy looking trees grow in hedgerows and in the edges of fields.  In towns they often colonise wasteland or can be found in the less cultivated edges of parks and on canalsides.  They have a distinctive scent which affects people very differently.  Some people hate it and find it smells of catpiss.  Some love it and feel it smells of summer.  Even if you don't like the scent of the flowers the cordial has a different scent and is sweetly fragrant.

Pick about thirty flower heads when the flowers are just open.  As the blossom goes over the tiny flowers turn brown and are no longer any good for cordial.  Give each flower a good shake as you put it in your bowl or basket.  Insects and pollinators love elderflowers so you need to let them get away.

Put the elderflowers in a large bowl with the zest of the lemons.
In a large pan, add the sugar to the water and dissolve the sugar over a low heat until you have a syrup.  Increase the heat and bring the liquid to a near boil.  There isn't any great science in this.  It needs to be hot but not boiling that's all.  Add the lemon juice and the citric acid if using and stir well.  Leave it for a few minutes to cool slightly.

Pour the liquid over the flowers and leave it to infuse.  I have done this for as little as ten minutes and still got a cordial full of flavour.  Half an hour is better.

Strain the liquid through the muslin covered sieve into another bowl.  Use a jug and a funnel if you have one to fill the bottles.

Label, dilute and drink.  It tastes of summer to me.  A dash added to long gin and tonic with a lot of ice is also the perfect drink for a summer evening.

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

In praise of the bench

We have a lot of benches in our garden.  I like to sit and look and drink a cup of tea.  Some are workaday, some are more formal.  I thought I would take you round and we can sit on them one by one.

This is a very workaday one.  It is just a slab of slate on concrete blocks with an old plank behind it for the larger bottom.   It is in the kitchen garden, just outside the largest of the old stone pigsties.  This is not a place for relaxation  It's too narrow, too hard and doesn't have a back on it.  It is more somewhere to have a break from weeding.

The best thing about this bench is that, if you sit still for long enough, the swallows that nest in the pigsty will decide to ignore you and will come whizzing over your head into the pigsty through the hole above the doorway.

Come out of the kitchen garden and there is another bench which might not be for lounging on but which does have the best view in the garden.  This is the bench for a cup of tea on sunny day or for a glass or wine with friends in the evening.

Maybe it vies for best  view with this one.  This is on the sunny bank in front of the holiday cottage and looks out over the hawthorn hedge across the valley.

On a clear day like today you can see all the little fields and farms all the way up to Moel Arthur, the rounded peak in the distance.  This is, obviously, where King Arthur is buried.  Glastonbury? Just another pretender!

This is the most sheltered bench in the garden, right by the door of the holiday cottage and tucked down away from any wind.  You can often sit here even in winter on a sunny day.  These last two benches belong to the holiday cottage so we only use them when we don't have guests.  That is not a hardship because there are so many other places to sit!  For someone who loves to walk I am very fond of sitting still.

This is a private one, one of my favourites,  tucked away in the side garden and the nearest one to the house.  This is the one where I might sit to eat my breakfast or to have a cup of coffee mid morning if it is windy elsewhere.  It doesn't have the big view of the valley, just a small intimate one across the garden, but sometimes that is what I want.

So that is five so far.  Go out through the gate into the field garden and we are back with large spaces and big views.

This is another home made one, using one of the pieces of slate which were taken out of the holiday cottage when it was converted from a stable over ten years ago.  It is right by the swing so a useful place to perch while children swing until they shout to be pushed.

This bench looks down towards the fruit trees and the cutting garden.  At this distance it is not possible to see the weeds!  Result.

This is another workaday bench, battered and elderly and demoted from use in the garden proper.  It hides in the corner where it is a good place to sit and watch the hens.  Hen watching is very therapeutic.

Two more to go!  Here is the bench by the shepherd's hut.

This is another one of my favourites but because it is in the far corner of the field it doesn't tend to be used when I stop for five minutes.  It is more of a place to walk over to with a book and a cushion and the intention to stay for half an hour.

And this is the newest addition.  It sits down in the far corner of the garden where it catches the last of the sun.  This is another, like the side garden bench, which does not look out to our big view, but inwards, across towards the mulberry tree and up to where the grasses echo the line of the native hedge.

It will in time become another hidden place to sit when the grasses thicken, the new hedge on the left of the mulberry, currently about ten inches high and invisible in this photo, grows up and, best of all, when Ian builds a summer house to shelter it, open at the front to the evening sun with sides of woven hazel.

We haven't spent much money on any of these and they are a motley collection I suppose but I love them.  They make the garden a place of refuge and calm as well as a place of labour.  Do you have a place to sit in the garden?  I would love to know.