Category Archives: The Garden

Local meat producers and Waterloo Cottage Farm

British Saddleback

Before the Shire Book of the Month, currently Pigs, changes, I want to tell you about a local meat producer called Waterloo Cottage Farm and the important role that small producers have in selling good meat from happy animals.

Meat is expensive and so it should be.  To produce good meat takes time, through slow fattening on the right kind of food, fresh air and exercise for the animals, slaughter in the least stressful way possible followed by a decent period of hanging before it finally arrives in your kitchen.

With this in mind, I visited local producer Waterloo Cottage Farm in Great Oxenden, Northamptonshire and was given a tour of the farm by owner, Kirsty Clarke.  We met in the light, cool shop, where a mouth-watering array of meat and produce was displayed.  After a brief chat about what I wanted to see, I was taken out through the back door to the business end of the enterprise.

Glorious Pig

I was confronted by lots of open pens, with several different types of pigs enjoying the sunshine.  I was wearing a long skirt and strappy sandals, so I tucked my skirt into my knickers and prepared to meet the pigs and what a gorgeous crew they were.  I have a big soft spot for pigs at the best of times, but being able to climb into the pens and actually scratch them and talk to them was a treat indeed.

Happy Pig

Saddleback Piglets

And Kirsty did indeed talk to her pigs and her care and enthusiasm for the creatures came across loud and clear.  The farm has a herd of British Saddlebacks which are allowed to mature fully in the fields and woods which surround Waterloo Farm, as well as Petrans and Ginger Durocs.  I became extremely soppy when she introduced me to the piglets who were running and rolling with their mother in the straw.

The Clarkes also have lamb and hogget, chickens, ducks and geese and they select beef and veal from local farms who also use traditional breeds.  All the animals have something in common.  They are all reared using traditional, sustainable farming methods which work with nature, not against it.  The animals are free to lead full, natural lives on healthy soil and fed on natural, local feed and the pigs are slow grown until they are 9-10 months which is a significantly longer life than an intensively bred animal. The barley comes from the farmer next door and the slaughterhouse is only nine miles away, the animals being accompanied there in a quiet and unstressed way which is better for the animal and better for the resulting meat.

Looking at the meat in the shop is a very different experience to browsing the chiller aisles in the supermarket.  The meat is darker in colour and more wholesome-looking than perhaps we’re used to and the bacon and sausages sit in great piles, pleading with you to take them home.  The bacon and hams are cured on the premises and their master butcher produces fresh piles of traditional and artisan varieties of sausages every day.

I bought some bacon and something I haven’t eaten for over thirty years – veal.  I have deliberately avoided veal because of the unspeakable practice of veal crating, but with the sure knowledge that the animal that provided this had been happy, healthy and natural, I took a chop home and had it for my supper.

My veal in the shop

I can honestly say that I’ve never tasted meat like it; it was tender, sweet and juicy and so flavourful I could have wept.  I also had some of their dry cured bacon for my breakfast the following morning and, apart from the taste, the most obvious difference was visual.  No white scum stickily coating the bottom of your frying pan here, and two rashers and a couple of fried eggs was distinctly more filling that the abominable mid-range stuff you buy at the supermarket.

Local producers do an incredible job of farming.  Not only do they help to preserve the rare breeds but they also help to preserve the very land on which they’re reared because of the sustainable ways in which they farm.  The meat hasn’t travelled huge distances and is therefore beneficial to the environment in a wider sense.  They are also firm protagonists of old skills such as proper butchery and artisan methods of preparation and, because of the renewed interest in this kind of food, many farms  are taking on apprentices.  Waterloo Cottage Farm also runs meat craft courses to encourage you to get the best out of their meat.

We must support these local producers in their endeavours by shopping with them whenever we can.  I have said it before and I will keep saying it until you do as you’re told; eat less, eat better.  Learn how to use to meat to get the best out of it and, I am convinced that properly reared, slow grown meat actually fills you up more so you don’t need as much of it.  Eat less, eat better.  It’s better for all of us.


Filed under Animals, Ethics, Food, Livestock, Nutrition & Sensible Eating, Regional, Slider

Some tips on growing vegetables in pots and a gardening retrospective

This evening I was waxing lyrical to a couple of friends about the ease and virtue of growing vegetables in pots.  I love home grown vegetables but sometimes there are simply not enough hours in the day to be digging and composting, improving the soil followed by yet more digging and raking. Sometimes there is more to life than a fine tilth.

The easy and effective solution to this is to grow vegetables in pots.  One can grow practically anything in a pot and the great benefit of this type of gardening is that each pot can contain a completely different soil type to get the best out of your veg.

Carrots like poor, sandy soil, so a big pot of earth mixed with sharp sand will produce a fine crop.
Cauliflowers like rich, firm, deep soil whilst
onions and garlic will grow in practically anything as long as the soil is well-drained.
A dustbin full of soil can produce half a dozen corn on the cobs.
Beans and peas (legumes) prefer a rich, light, slightly limey soil and don’t like the cold.
If you like new potatoes with your Christmas lunch, pop a few seed potatoes in now

Even better, crop rotation is easy, as all you have to do is change pots.  I always keep a notebook in which I write details of what I’ve planted in each pot and this allows for a bit of experimentation.  It is important not to grow the same plants in the same soil as the soil will become depleted and prone to disease.

There is also much scope for companion planting as you don’t have to use up valuable veg growing space with flowers.
Simply pop a pot of marigolds next to your carrots to repel aphids and carrot root fly –
onions also repel carrot fly,
oregano fends off Cabbage White butterflies,
sage is a deterrent against flea beetles, slugs and cabbage moth
and a shotgun soon sorts out the squirrels. I jest of course – a catapault is far less ostentatious.

Give it a go and pop in a few onion sets and spuds and see how you get on.  Seed packets and small plants (sets) nearly always have clear instructions on how close plants should be and it may be that you just plant one cabbage to a pot, or a couple of seed potatoes.

Have a look at the sites below to see how I fared.


Filed under Food, Plants, The Garden

Shire Book of the Month – British Pigs by Val Porter

A clearly smiling Large White

What is it about pigs that singles them out from other farm animals?  Chickens make good noises and lay eggs, sheep are stupid but feel nice, cows are a graphic designer’s wet dream and give us milk and pursuant dairy products, but pigs are different.  Pigs smile at you, they wriggle when you scratch them and, particularly the smaller ones with long noses, are hairy, intelligent looking and you get the feeling that they truly belong in the English landscape.

The Shire Book of British Pigs by Val Porter is a glorious celebration of this animal’s transition from wild boar to domesticated pig. It starts by explaining the basics of pig keeping and the history of farming and gives detailed information about the various breeds and how they come to look as they do.  Most British breeds have, at some point, been cross-bred with Chinese stock which has resulted in the squashed snouts.

Old English pig from 1842

The pictures in this book are so glorious they’ll make you weep; whether they are photographs of existing pigs or paintings and etchings of animals commissioned by proud owners and stockmen from the past.

Like many domestic farm animals, the drive for intensive, high speed farming homogenised pig breeds and had them shut away from public view. In the decades after the war animals were raised in large-scale, purpose built buildings where the only interest was how much bacon, pork and sausages could be made as quickly as possible.

Thanks to the renewed interest in rare breeds, slow food and local farming, there has been a concomitant awareness of animal welfare and pigs are appearing in our fields once again.  The rare breed is making a comeback and it is quite usual to see Tamworths, Gloucester Old Spots, British Saddlebacks and Oxford Sandy and Blacks rootling around happily in the fresh air.

This book also covers the New Pigs on the block.  Pig breeds continue to evolve and the farmers are interested in make the breeds hardier again so that they can manage an outdoor life.  A pig with a fleecy coat is a sight to behold and I wonder how many people were aware of the, now extinct, Lincolnshire Curly Coat?

Pennywell Mini pig - so gorgeous you could just eat them ... except not these because they're pets, tiny enough to fit in Paris Hilton's handbag.

Porter’s clear and appealing writing style draws you in to the life of these delightful animals.  She has written more than forty books about livestock, farming and self-sufficiency and her enthusiasm shines through. If you like pigs, read this book.  If you like eating pigs this book can only enhance your gastronomic experience.


Filed under Animals, Livestock, Poetry, Literature, Music and Art, Reviews, Shire Books

Thought for the Day: Water

Many of us in the UK have finally had a bit of rain which is finally soaking into the ground.  Anyone who has a garden will be grateful for this, although, of course, what we want is warm sunshine during the day and good old downpour at night. It is heartbreaking to see flowers and plants wilting during a hosepipe ban.

Just be aware though, that putting a garden water sprinkler on for two hours is the same as a family’s water consumption for a day.  If you love your garden, get some water butts or any old water container which can collect rain water or drain water and use that.  Washing up water that has had washing up liquid in is useful for pouring on paths and patios as it helps to keep down the weeds.

Another interesting fact that I learned recently is that the geology of an area can seriously affect water supplies.  We always raise our eyebrows in wonderment that somewhere like Manchester, where it seems to rain for 28 hours a day, could possibly suffer from drought. Well here’s the science bit.

The South East has a high proportion of chalk rocks which hold water in natural aquifers, while the North West has little natural underground storage, being predominantly sandstone, mudstone and shale,  so they experience regular cycles of drought and flood.

I like stuff like that.


Filed under Science and Technology, The Garden

Let’s hear it for … The Beetles

In which the Wartime Housewife discusses the importance of leaving a bit of your garden messy to attract beetles.

The other night I heard a great crashing on my kitchen window.  I ran though, assuming that, at the very least, that it was an eagle  who had missed the last bus.  What I saw was an incredible furry creature with bright orange fans on the end of its antennae, brown wing cases and a sort of black and white diamond pattern on its furry sides.  It was flinging itself with gay abandon against my window but was unable to get any purchase on the thin spars.  I ran for my camera.

Cockchafer or Maybug at my kitchen window

Look at those amazing antennae and the astonishing condition of my window frames

I consulted the insect book and discovered that it was a Maybug or Cockchafer beetle (No sniggering at the back, Jennings).  Melolontha Melolontha is often seen in British gardens in May and June.  They are super flyers and on summer evenings they often fly around houses, and inadvertently crash into windows or wander into your living room.

They are quite big – around 3cm/1.3” long – which can be a little nerve-wracking if you’re not expecting them, but they are completely harmless.  Although my mother didn’t think this when one got tangled up in her formal hairdo in the 1960s.  I think, in England, we’re just not used to seeing big insects but they should be a cause of joy and interest and must be encouraged.

A cockchafer - my picture's much more exciting

The cockchafer is found all over Britain and its habitat is woodlands, fields, hedgerows and gardens.  There are more of them in the south but their numbers are declining.  They eat deciduous leaves and flowers but they rarely cause much significant damage in Britain.

Another beetle which I used to see a lot as a child is the Stag Beetle, Lucanus cervus, but I have only seen one beetle since 1973.  The stag beetle is a protected species and it is the largest beetle in Britain at between 2.3-7.5cm / 1-3”.  The larvae love rotting wood and vegetation and they lay their eggs underground by logs and tree stumps – the larvae can spend as long as seven years chomping away on the rotting wood, although the adults don’t seem to need to feed.

A stag beetle - sadly I don't have a photo of one of these

Of the UK’s 4000 species of beetle, 250 haven’t been seen since  the early 1970s and could be threatened with extinction.  Beetles are terribly important in nature.  They recycle dead and rotting wood, some pollinate flowers whilst others are the refuse collectors of the wild, clearing up dung and sometimes even small dead animals.  Their habitats are precarious and even small changes can be catastrophic, not only for them, but for the animals that predate them.

‘All of the terrestrial ecosystems would collapse if you removed the beetle,’ said Max Barclay, beetle expert at the Natural History Museum. ‘Beetles are fundamental to most of the land environments on earth’.

We are all terribly keen to attract birds and mammals into our gardens, but insects are just as exciting and it can be tremendous fun finding and identifying them.  I used to read nature books as a child and would get terribly huffy when they claimed that such and such was common all over England.  Not in Staines it wasn’t.  I remember the excitement of seeing a Devil’s Coach Horse beetle for the first time in 1998 in Oundle and thinking ‘At last!’

All sorts of beetles can be attracted to your garden by the simple expedient of leaving a bit of it to go its own way; leave a patch wild.  Try to leave an area which has a pile of leaves, some fallen branches and a rotting log, a pile of stones and some dead stems which will provide a fabulous feeding and over-wintering site for beetles and other insects such as bush crickets, malachite beetles, mint leaf beetles, common red soldier beetles, shield bugs and our friends, the stag beetles.

A small wild area can create a haven for insects


Filed under Slider, The Garden, Wildlife

New Season Gardening Tips

Heavenly blossom in the churchyard of St Nicks

A Blackthorn Winter:  You may have noticed an awful lot of blackthorn in blossom.  This heavy blossom usually follows a hard winter and country lore says that you shouldn’t put new plants or vegetables in until the Blackthorn blossom is dying off as there are still likely to be frosts.

Hanging Baskets:  Now is the time to sort out your hanging baskets.

Tip 1.  Line hanging baskets with old tea bags – they hold water and release nutrients for the plants.

Tip 2.  Old jumpers make super liners for baskets and look jolly as well.

Tip 3.  You  can avoid covering yourself in water when you water your baskets by putting a handful of ice cubes on top of the soil every so often.

Evergreens:  Clip and prune evergreens and flowering shrubs and give them a good mulching,

Mulching:  Mulching can be done with all sorts of things.  Try to get as many of the deep rooted perennial weeds out as you can for the best results.  The mulch must be thick enough to deprive the weeds of air and light.  You could try:

Carpet squares or lengths with holes cut in for the plants

Newspaper laid in thick layers then covered with straw can later be dug into the soil if necessary.  Alternatively you can cover the newspaper in bark or gravel

Old lino or vinyl floor covering is superb

Grass cutting laid 6” thick are an effective mulch round the bottom of currents or raspberries to keep down annual weeds


After sowing seeds, put a stick into the ground at the end of the row then place the seed packet or a label into a jam jar and put it upside down onto the stick

Individual seeds can be planted in tea bags and kept moist.  When they sprout they can be transferred directly into the soil without upsetting the roots

Seedlings can be protected from pests with plastic bottles, using the end with the cap on so you can allow air in

Soot:  Lily of the Valley enjoys being fed with water that has been mixed with a couple of tablespoons of soot.  Leeks will grow stronger if you add two or three handfuls of soot to the soil when you plant them

Wildlife:  If you are planting for the new season or moving your garden around, try to have an area with a bit of hedge where insects and small animals can shelter.  Also reserve a small area which can go a bit wild, including some logs to encourage beetles and suchlike


Filed under Outdoor Activities, Plants, Slider, The Garden


What a vision of hope on this beautiful, crisp, sunny afternoon.

Snowdrops at Skeffington


Filed under Life in general, Outdoor Activities, Plants

Natural Home Remedies: Part 4 – Bee Propolis


This jar cost £5 and should last at least 3 years

In which I discuss the origin and medicinal usefulness of Bee Propolis, it being anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, emollient and cicatrizant.

 Back in September, I reported on our trip to Audley End in Essex for Boy the Elder’s 13th birthday.  One of the groups of people we encountered was The Essex Beekeeping Association.  I think Beekeeping is a practically magical pastime that has so many positive association; nature, honey, waggle-dances*, the inexplicable ability to fly and their vital role in the ecological balance of Earth.

For humans the medicinal effects of propolis are most efficacious and it is available directly from beekeepers and from health food shops in various preparations including raw propolis, creams, lozenges and tinctures.

Propolis is routinely used for the relief of various conditions, including inflammation, viral diseases, ulcers and superficial burns or scalds. It is also believed to promote heart health, strengthen the immune system and reduce the chances of cataracts. 

Old beekeepers recommend a piece of propolis kept in the mouth as a remedy for a sore throat and I can attest to the value of this.  Put a small lump of propolis into your mouth and press it firmly into one of your back teeth.  Allow the propolis to dissolve slowly throughout the day or overnight and the soreness or phlegm is significantly reduced or gone completely.

Claims have been made for its use in treating allergies but propolis may cause severe allergic reactions if the user is sensitive to bees or bee products.  As always, I would never recommend treatment for this kind of condition without consulting an accredited Naturopathic practitioner.

Propolis has also been the subject of recent dentistry research, since there is some evidence that it may actively protect against caries and other forms of oral disease, due to its antimicrobial properties. 

There are also clinical investigations being undertaken in Japan for the use of propolis as an anti-tumour agent as it would appear that propolis may induce cell cycle arrest and have an anti-proliferation effect on C6 glioma cells.

But what exactly is Propolis?

Propolis is a mixture of various amounts of beeswax and resins collected by the honeybee from plants, especially from flowers and leaf buds. Bees have been observed scraping the protective resins of flower and leaf buds with their mandibles and then carrying them to the hive like pollen pellets on their hind legs. It is assumed that at some point during the collection and transport of these resins, they are mixed with saliva and other secretions of the bees as well as with wax.

The resins are then used by worker bees to reinforce the structural stability of the hive.  It lines the inside of nest cavities and breeding combs, and is also used to repair combs, seal small cracks in the hive, reduce the size of hive entrance and to mix small quantities of propolis with wax to seal brood cells.  These functions also have the associated advantage that the antibacterial and antifungal effects of propolis seem to protect the colony against diseases.  It also reduces vibration and can be used to seal off any waste matter that is too big to remove from the hive and might otherwise putrefy and cause disease.

Further reading:    

* Five Boys by Mick Jackson – essential reading if you want to know about Waggle Dancing.  No, not the beer.




Filed under Health and Fitness, Livestock, Medical, Natural Home Medicines, Wildlife

Garden Update 2

From the pot to the pot in 5 minutes

Today I had the pleasure of harvesting the first of my carrots which were grown in pots.  I didn’t have as much time as I would have liked to prepare my garden properly for vegetables earlier in the year, but I did manage to get in a few rows of onions and potatoes, one row of cabbages and a few pots of carrots.

I inherited my garden with a small raised bed and I got very excited until I discovered that it was just a large lump of clay with a couple of old railway sleepers round the edge.  Hence the spuds which are starting to break the soil up a little.  My onions are now in and waiting to be plaited into a neat hanging thingy; they are so crisp and full of flavour they make me weep.  Oh hang on…. But joking apart they really are lovely onions.

I planted my potatoes much too close together which made them difficult to earth up and they completely overshadowed my cabbages and I forgot about them until about two months ago.  Consequently, the cabbages got a bit sluggy and the last but one has bolted, but the others were all nicely tight-headed and delicious.

As I mentioned earlier, the soil in my garden is very heavy clay and therefore completely unsuitable for carrots.  If you attempt to plant carrots in clay, all you will get is clumps of fanged, knobbly monstrosities which are neither use nor ornament, unless they grown into amusingly genital shapes, but even this has limited entertainment when the family is crying out for Sunday lunch! 

I didn’t have time to organise different areas of soil, or to improve all the soil in time for planting, so I did my old trick of planting in large plastic pots.  I made a mix of half compost and half sharp sand and filled three giant pots with it.  I then carefully and thinly sowed carrot seed as per the instructions on the packet and left them to it.  I’ve just had my first crop and I can’t tell you how delicious they were and you can’t get any fresher than taking them out of the ground and into the pot five minutes later.  Do try growing things in pots if you don’t have much garden – you will be amazed at what you can achieve.

Vis a vis the other things I planted, I had a grand total of ten tomatoes, the neighbour’s horse ate the pumpkin plant and the pepper just stared at me very hard as I walked past, but did nothing.

I have grander plans for the garden next year.  As my landlord stole half my garden, there is no longer any need for the badly made and un-membraned gravel path that cuts across what remains of my lawn.  I shall remove it, use the wooden planks to edge the front flower bed, move the pathetic box plants to in front of the fence, where hopefully they will eventually form a nice hedge.  I will then be left with a decent, vaguely rectangular lawn which will be easier to mow.

I can then move the tatty sleeper edged bed, which is at the moment full of mint, and use the remaining sleeper to extend the vegetable patch.  With hard work and a following wind I may even have room for the garden swing which I bought and promised to put up for the boys two years ago.

This is not as much work as it sounds and, to be honest, I far prefer diggin’, choppin’ and ‘ackin’ work to poncing about with plants.  The Aged Parent can do that – it’ll keep her joints supple.

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Filed under Food, Plants, The Garden

Erinaceus Europaeus: all about hedgehogs

I haven’t seen a live hedgehog for years.  For that matter I hardly ever see them squashed on the roads either.  I had begun to wonder whether their numbers were in decline, but according to The British Hedgehog Preservation Society, their numbers are healthy and they are common throughout Great Britain.

They live for about 5 years and they are solitary and nocturnal.  In the summer hedgehogs spend the day in temporary nests made of leaf litter and twigs. They hibernate during the winter, in a small nest (a hibernaculum) – most hedgehog deaths occur during this hibernation period. Their 6,000 spines, which are about  1” long offer protection from predators as they roll up into a tight ball covering the head and soft underside. Their underside is covered in coarse fur and I bet you didn’t know they have little tails.  Oh they do!  They have a good sense of smell and hearing but have poor eyesight and see only in sepia tones.

Hedgehogs have up to 2 litters a year, of about 4 – 5 hoglets.  When hedgehogs are born their spines are just below the skin, so they don’t cause their mother pain. They are blind at first, but after about 2 weeks their spines begin to show more, and their eyes open. Hedgehogs also have baby teeth, just like humans. These fall out by about 3 weeks. Hedgehogs leave their nests when they are about 4 to 5 weeks old, and they then must learn to fend for themselves. 1 out of 5 hedgehogs die before they leave the nest.

The Boys found this little hoglet wandering away from the hedgerow towards the road and after several minutes of ooh-ing and aah-ing over its utter gorgeousness, it was returned to the hedgerow.  A neighbour reported having seen an adult hedgehog snuffling around a few yards down the road, so we left nature to sort itself out.

Hedgehogs are the gardeners’ friends as they eat slugs, beetles and caterpillars but does no other harm.  You will not find them gathering your strawberries in tiny wicker baskets or carefully laundering your underpants when they fall from the line. Neither do they read books about rabbits because of their poor eyesight.

If you want to encourage hedgehogs into your garden, this is what you need to do:-

  • Don’t be too tidy.  Leave wild areas and maybe a small pile of logs or brushwood and dry leaves.  This will also attract interesting beetles and other wildlife
  • If you build fences or walls, leave small holes in overgrown corners for hedgehogs to get in and out of
  • If hedgehogs start visiting, a tiny bit of meaty cat food or muesli mixed with water in a dish will encourage them, and water will be welcome in hot weather.  Hedgehogs don’t care what their food tastes like but, believe it or not, you can buy cans of hedgehog food called ‘Spike’s Dinner’ but research into that is down to you.  Do not, however, give them bread and milk – it’s very bad for them.
  • The jury is still out on the use of slug pellets but to be on the safe side:-
    Purchase only pellets that contain blue dye and taste nasty to hedgehogs and use them sparingly. Try hiding them where slugs can easily get, but hedgehogs can’t. Under a propped up paving slab is a good idea, as this sort of shady place actually attracts slugs, but hedgehogs can’t get here.Remove and dispose of dead slugs.


Filed under Animals, The Garden, Wildlife

Nonplussed by a discourteous landlord

It’s been a blisteringly hot day here in Leicestershire, as I’m sure it has been for most of you, and any strenuous activity had to be left until the evening.  My neighbour is on holiday and I promised to feed and put her chickens to bed and water her garden if it became hot.

Just as I was cooking dinner, I glanced through the kitchen window to see my landlord and one of the estate’s employees in my garden.  Not only had my landlord not had the courtesy to knock on my door, but they were marking out where some fence posts would be going – but about a third more of my garden was being taken away than I had agreed to.

It is a complicated story why my garden is being reduced.  It would appear that my landlord thinks there is too much lawn for a ‘gel’ to manage and he is giving a portion of it to the man (an employee) who has moved into my old house.  However, the new man doesn’t really want it.  It’s most confusing.

I, naturally put my foot down and refused to allow them to take more than had been agreed and, after capitulating, the landlord stormed off shouting “And I want more tidiness from you!” as he jumped into his car and roared off.   Sadly he had gone before I had time to retort that if I hadn’t spent so much time taking the detritus of his former tenants to the tip, I might have settled in a bit quicker.

Bastard.  I hope a fox bites him.


Filed under Behaviour and Etiquette, The Garden

Garden Update

Right at the beginning of my blogging life I wrote an article about the setting up of the garden at my old cottage.  Because of my premature ejection from said cottage and the combination of drought, flood and destroyed greenhouses, my grand plan of a scale reproduction of Kennilworth Castle Gardens never came to fruition.  The carpet mulch worked a treat though.

The new cottage has an existing infrastructure. I have grass, a gravelled area for sitting and drinking wine in, a path edged with tiny box plants, and a rudimentary raised bed with enough clay in it to line a large lake.  I also have a shed which is very exciting, although sadly it’s not big enough to house my tools and my train set. Alas.

As the Aged Parent is staying, I put a hoe in her hand and set her to work.  We have weeded the beds, planted tubs and pots and started hanging baskets.  Seeing an 82 year old woman lying in a flower bed with a garden implement is a strangely satisfying sight.  We have bought some seed potatoes, onion sets, cabbage plants, tomato plants and a pumpkin plant, and I found a rhubarb patch in the adjoining paddock which my neighbour and I raid on a regular and democratic basis.  The raised bed is more or less prepared and will bung the plants in over the next couple of days.

I am going to grow carrots in large pots because the soil is too heavy for anything but a mutation worthy of a spot on ‘That’s Life’  and I can mix it with some sharp sand to improve the draining and consistency.  I have had huge success with container gardening in the past.  I have grown sweetcorn in dustbins and had blooming cabbages, potatoes, peppers, onions, carrots, salad and herbs, all from giant, cheap plastic pots.  The great thing about containers is that you can have different soil conditions in each pot; rich loam in one, sandy, well-drained soil in another and you can use practically anything as a container, from old dustbins to thick plastic bags.  Ikea bags make great containers!

We also have to raise my old portable greenhouse, phoenix like, from the tangle of metal tubes and plastic that lie twisted in it’s mortuary bin liner so that I can get some more seeds on the go.

I am brimming with optimism and will keep you posted (no matter what the outcome).


Filed under Plants, The Garden

Emergency Sledge

If you find yourself in the disturbing position of having no sledge on a snowy slope (10/- to anyone who can say that after a bottle of  the Wartime Housewife’s Sloe Gin) you will need the following:-

1 x large piece of thick cardboard – 2 if you have them
1 large thick bin liner with handles
1 x snowy slope

Place the large piece of cardboard into the sack, trimming to fit if necessary
Place your bottom on the bin liner, grasping the handles firmly
Hurl yourself down the slope

The Wartime Housewife takes no responsibility for anyone who recklessly hurls themselves into the path of oncoming vehicles, livestock, the waste products of livestock, or barbed-wire fences.


Filed under Children, General DIY, Leisure, Make it yourself, Outdoor Activities, Re-use Recycle

The Minor Triumph which is Quince Jelly

Quince Jelly 07.10.09Today is a momentous day.  For this afternoon I achieved something which I have not achieved since the Lower 6th in 1981 (no, not that).  Today I successfully made several jars of jam.  This may not seem like much to crow about, I happen to know that regular contributor, Bunty, makes superb jam on an annual basis.  I, however, have never managed it.  I have made several attempts with plums and blackberries but they have never set and there’s a limit to how often you can describe twenty-three jars of plum jam as a ‘coulis’ .  Quince jelly is quite sharp (particularly if made from the ‘Japonica’ Quince) and makes a lovely accompaniment to meat and sausages.

I was given the recipe by Lady Marjorie after I had rescued several pounds of quinces from the bush of Mr de Worde.  Several of the fruits appeared to be mouldering on the branch, so we removed them in case it was a contagious fungus, amid much cursing as the quince bush is covered in very sharp thorns.  After consultation with the local garden society, I was assured that they were not ripe and I should put them in a bowl with some bananas until they turned yellow.  

They stared at me reproachfully for several weeks but resolutely refused to go yellow and stay plump at the same time.  Finally, yesterday afternoon, I gave in and Started the Process.  Unfortunately, the combination of a burst water main at school, Art Club,  Scouts and uncompleted homework prevented me from getting past the ‘strained juice’ stage and I was obliged to Finish the Process this afternoon.

The recipe rather assumed that I had made jam every year since 1941 and, somewhat stuck with some of the terminology, I was obliged to consult the Women’s Institute Book of Preserves which answered  all my questions.  I have included this information in the recipe.  On Friday, I intend to make Sloe Gin, which I make every year, and Rosehip Syrup which I haven’t.  I will keep you posted.  Incidentally I had 2 pints of juice which made 4 jars of jelly.

The two easiest methods of testing for setting are  the ‘flake’ test and the ‘cold saucer’ test.  Always remove the pan from the heat when testing for set.

The flake test:
Dip a clean wooden spoon into the jam.  Hold the spoon over the pan and twist it to cool the jam, then allow the cooling jam to drop from the edge of the spoon.  If the drops of jam run together and form ‘flakes’ which hang on the edge of the spoon and then run away cleanly, setting point has been reached.

The cold saucer test:
Put one teaspoon of jam on a cold saucer, allow to cool for 1 minute, then push the surface gently with your finger tip.  If the surface wrinkles, setting point has been reached.

Using a sugar thermometer:
Stir the jam and then remove it from the heat.  Dip the thermometer in hot water, then submorege the bulb fully in the jam.  If the thermometer registers 105 oC / 220 oF the jam is then ready.

You can sterilise jam jars in the microwave. Quarter fill the jam jar with cold water, put the lid on, shake the water around the jar, then remove lid and empty almost all of the water out. Microwave  for 1 minute. Everywhere the water has touched will be brought to boiling point and sterilised. Pour out the water, take care as the jar will be hot, and use for jams etc


1 x large pan, preferably a preserving pan but a large hob-proof casserole will do
1 x large bowl
Several glass jars with lids
Greaseproof paper circles or jam covers
1 x wooden spoon
1 metal tablespoon for skimming
1 x cold saucer
1 x sieve
1 x jelly bag or a muslin cloth for straining
1 jug for accurate pouring

Quinces – cut into quarters, but not peeled or cored
Sugar (preserving sugar if possible)

Put the quinces into the pan, squash them down a bit and cover them with water
Stew gently for 6 hours to extract all the juice
Strain the fruit through the sieve into a bowl
Rinse out the preserving pan
Measure out how much juice you have
Strain the juice through the jelly bag or muslin back into the preserving pan
For every 2 pints of juice, add 1¼ lb / 720g of sugar
Quinces are quite sharp so add a little more sugar now if you prefer
Boil the juice hard until it begins to reach setting point (this took about 20 minutes)
Then lower the heat to a rolling boil, skimming off any whitish scum until it has absolutely reached setting point
Pour the jelly into sterilised jars, cover with greaseproof paper and screw the lids on tightly
Leave to cool


Filed under Food, Recipes, The Garden

Feline killing machines and how I learned to love one

On Tuesday 10th March this year a thin, manky little coal black cat appeared in our hallway.  She wandered in, looked around the house, miaowing piteously all the while and finally climbed onto my shoulders and drooled gently down my neck.

I am obliged to point out that this is not good for several reasons. Firstly I am asthmatic, secondly I am allergic to cats, thirdly the merest puncture from a cat’s claw has me up in red wheals that itch like billy-oh for a minimum of two hours.  Lastly, but not leastly, I don’t like cats.  I am a renowned cat-hater of this Parish. I am a dog person who likes all dogs indiscriminately and harbours lurking misgivings about my friends and family who keep cats for pleasure. 

She was, however, clearly half starved so I gave her some scraps and a little warm milk which she devoured in seconds. She then curled up on the sofa and went to sleep.  .The next morning she woke up, had more scraps and crapped in Boy the Younger’s bedroom. “Please let us keep her, please, please” wailed The Boys.  “No”, I said firmly, “Her owners are probably missing her dreadfully, we are about to move house, she is clearly not house trained and I don’t like cats”.  This was not deemed to be a reasonable excuse.

I gave her every opportunity to leave, I left doors open and stared at her is a nasty way.   I did all the things one is supposed to do; I asked all the neighbours, I put some posters up and I took her to the vet to see if she had been chipped.  She hadn’t and the vet said that she was little more than a kitten, generally healthy and that it was very common for country cats to snuggle down in the back of horse boxes then wake up 50 miles from home, lost and lonely. “Lost.  And Lonely” crooned the Vet with glittering eyes.  Oh crap.

How prescient. Over the next week, she relentlessly crapped in every corner of the bedroom and began weeing on the beds for good measure.  Still, at least I discovered where the launderette is in Market Harborough and the quilts probably needed freshening up anyway.  I had earmarked the £25 I eventually spent there for other fripperies like food, but cat wee smells like nothing else on earth and it was marginally cheaper than buying new duvets. All the while I was trying to pack up the extensive contents of my house ready to move. Every time I bent down, she would leap at me and sit on my neck while I tried to work, using needle-like claws as crampons on the Helvellyn of my back, my contorted shoulders providing her very own Striding Edge upon which to torment me.

We moved on 1st April.  How apt.  Realising that she was clearly not litter trained, I bought a litter tray which is the most revolting object in existence. (remind me to fill you in on the comparative merits of cat litter brands – I know them all). I made absolutely no attempt to keep Smog (oh – didn’t I mention that we’d named her?) but she resolutely refused to leave and to add insult to injury, she was getting rather fat.  I’ve never owned a cat so the natural assumption was that I was overfeeding her and Smog was put on A Diet. 

The attacks started almost immediately and a few days later, as I was conversing pleasantly with my new neighbour, she said cheerfully “I see your cat’s in the family way!”.  “What?!” I spluttered through a mouthful of truly horrid expletives.  Surely I must have noticed?  Fat tummy, big nipples, huge appetite, sleeping more, reluctance to go out etc etc. No.  I had not noticed.  I have never had a cat. I do not like cats, particularly teenage, runaway, ASBO, pregnant cats.  Her food was reinstated and a moral lecture was administered, with the threat of the Magdalene Laundries left hanging in the air for good measure.

The 26th of April was a Sunday.  For the Wartime Housewife, this means as long a sleep as The Boys will allow, followed by coffee in bed whilst listening to The Archers.  Smog waddled into the room and sat on my shoulder.  She isn’t normally allowed in the bedrooms (not with her record) but I was feeling magnanimous and mellow, so tolerated her warm little body against my ear. 

I don’t know what made me look, but suddenly I turned my head and there was a tiny, soggy, black and white ‘thing’ the size of a hamster, lying on my pillow.   An ejector seat mysteriously appeared in my bed and I ran round the house calling for hot water, soap and towels but by the time the towels appeared, she had already popped out another one.  Another trip to the launderette loomed large.

Over the next two hours, Smog silently presented us with five black and white kittens.  I have never seen an animal give birth and other than the immediate eating of the placental sacks, I was rather envious of the ease and natural-ness with which it all occurred. The news spread like wildfire and I had a constant stream of local children filing through my bedroom, examining the kittens while I sat slightly awkwardly in my pyjamas like a rather dishevelled duchess granting audience in my chamber.

Smog was an excellent mother.  She and the kittens had a house made out of a cardboard box with a blanket in it and all was well.  Until their eyes opened and they started to move.  It became a full time job just trying to keep them all in the house as doors were constantly left open and they wandered out into the lane where they were abducted by the hoards of children surrounding the house at all hours.  She trained them to use the litter tray but it was always full and stinking and horrible.  I loathed them, and at the first opportunity, an advert was drafted, to at least recoup the vast amount of money spent on food, litter and cleaning materials, to say nothing of the increase in the consumption of London Gin.

To cut a long story short, all five kittens were eventually sold.  A friend, with more courage than wisdom suggested that Smog had given me the ‘gift of kittens’ as a thank you for taking her in.  As soon as they were gone, she settled down, stopped needing the litter tray and became her old cuddly self.  She has grown significantly over the last three months, her coat is thick and gleaming, her habits fastidious.  And she’s been spayed, thanks to the Cats Protection League.

But she has turned into a killing machine.  I kick her outside in the morning and bring her in at night (as naturalists implore us to do) but every afternoon, I find at least two mice outside the dining room window, she frequently takes out wood pigeons and has been witnessed murdering large rabbits in the meadow.  If only she’d take the trouble to learn to skin them, it would be a culinary partnership made in heaven and I would love her even more.  She went missing for three days last month (on a serial killing rampage no doubt) and I was nearly sick with anxiety.

Now, as I type, she is draped across my shoulders, purring loudly into my ear and gently clawing my back.  Strangely, I don’t seem to be as allergic any more.

Smog the Killer Cat

Smog the Killer Cat


Filed under Cleaning, Family and Friends, Livestock