Marooned in the Modern World

In conjunction with my book "Swiss Family Suburban" this blog is from my diary; the diary of a wife and mum in a world where neither is valued highly. Beth Bill.

28th April 2011

Last night I shut the hens in quite late, as I'd been out and everybody else forgot. It was quite dark so I just popped the hatch down. I didn't sleep so well last night and I was up very early so I went to let the hens out to find that one of the Amber Links was already out ( I can't tell the difference between the whites now, it was either Constance of Emelia) - she must have been out all night! The only thing that I can think is that she flew into the enclosure that David had sectioned off to allow the grass to grow back but when dusk came she was too tired to fly back over to go to roost. They do get really slow at dusk - it's the only time we can get to dust the Fenton Blues as they are such a nervy breed. She seemed fine in herself but it was SO windy I'm surprised she wasn't dead from exposure. Apparently it isn't cold that can kill a hen but draught is a real issue. On closer inspection it does look like she has a little bit of frost bite as the back part of her comb is a bit blackened. I feel so terrible! I've put some vasoline on it and she seems fine. I guess we wont get any eggs from her for a couple of days.

21st January 2011

Matt helped me to dust the hens with Red Mite powder & Louse powder. Not all the folk around here bother with such a modern approach, but I don't feel as confident to deal with problems as they do and I think that prevention is better than cure. Unfortunately this also meant that Matt got covered too! It's definitely a two man job, even if you wait until dusk when they are getting a bit sleepy. The Brown Links and the Amber Links are easily manageable at any time in the day, but the Fenton Blues are such nervy birds they aren't easily catchable until dusk. They really are beautiful birds, their feathers remind me of a female pheasant, but they aren't easy to manage because of their nervous temperament - I'm not sure I'd choose them again for that very reason. I think that they are named Fenton Blues because they lay blue eggs. At least that job's done for the next six weeks.

29th November 2010

I think I'm finally getting into a routine of dealing with the hens with the minimum of fuss. Last year was our first winter with the hens and I found it rather unpleasant to be running frozen drinkers under the tap each morning and having to run up and down the garden (up two sets of steps in the ice) replenishing stock. Now I probably should have thought of this earlier, but I've discovered that that hens don't need a drink whilst they are asleep, so I can bring the water in overnight and then take it back again in the morning! If I bring a tub of pellets in during the evening then they will also be ready to take at the same time! The result is that I (or whoever gets the job!!) only have to go down the garden once and the water is ready and waiting - instead of freezing our fingers with shards of ice! The only drawback is that the ice that formed inside the drinker was really pretty - feathery patterns up the side of the plastic and great, sharp shards of ice in the body of the water. Ah well, we can't have it all!

June 8th 2010

BREAKING NEWS... CHARITY CHICKEN IS DEAD!!! We knew she was 'the runt' and bottom of the pecking order, it seems that the other hens knew she wasn't up to scratch (pardon the pun). Poor Em went to let the hens out and found Charity on the floor, eyes closed and her legs akimbo. At first I thought that the other hens might have killed her, but there was no blood and no feathers about the place - she had died in her sleep. I'm quite relieved as I really didn't know what to do with her. She was eating plenty - so I thought she must be all right, but she didn't scratch around or show much joy of living. We have only five hens now :(

ODES TO CHARITY CHICKEN

Alas! Poor Charity, her life was a blight.
She struggled each day -
Tho' she could eat all right!
Her companions, they pecked
Her life span was checked
And she died in her sleep in the night.

Also:

The life of this hen is a sadly affair -
Domestic bliss tinged with disparity.
Her scratching around had a listless affair.
The Protagonist? Her name was Charity.


Or:

Charity is dead!
Yes, that's what I said.
Her life is stricken -
She's a very dead chick'n!


Finally, a concerned outsider wrote:

There once was a chicken named Charity
Whose demise was the cause of hilarity.
To her owner's dismay they threw her away,
Which she thought was the height of barbarity.

28th May 2010

After our discussion of ball games (see 23/05) the boys have suddenly developed a craze for playing with a tennis ball again, and Em isn't too unhappy about tagging along. It's quite pleasant to see two 16 year olds and a 14 year old playing catch - although it is quite a bit rougher now they are older! The main break time occupation is a form of cricket, but using an old conifer branch as a bat, which makes the direction of the shot quite unpredictable. Matt is addicted enough to be happy simply bouncing the ball or throwing it against a wall (though not inside a sock!). However, it does mean that I'm having to curb too many prolonged outside breaks. I guess it's because we've finally got a bit of sunshine!

I was hoping to spend this afternoon working through some exercises on Figured Bass for the children's music theory lesson but the twins are SO close to finishing the dreaded Geography course (that seems to consuming their days) that I thought it best not to interrupt their cognitive flow - they need to get it finished before half term. Figured Bass is quite an involved topic (or I think it is) so I'd rather leave it until I can have their full attention. Instead, I spent the afternoon marking tests (my fault for leaving it for so long). It wasn't unpleasant though, as I took all the paperwork into the garden and spent a pleasant couple of hours under the gazebo, with the dog dozing on the lawn and the hens clucking down the garden - a sure sign of another egg!

Regarding eggs: Yaayy, Verity is no longer brooding on the nest all day! The tough treatment of locking her out of the nest seems to have done the trick. We just need her to start laying again. Charity does seem in better spirits now that the warm weather is here. Her comb isn't quite as shrunken and she is pootling about more and taking dust baths (when the others will let her). She mustn't be able to cope with the cold as well as the others, this first winter must have been a shock to her. However, she isn't laying yet...

17th May 2010

Gathering eggs is still something of a battle as Verity just won't shift! However, in order to show her who's boss, we lock her out of the hen house as soon as we know that all the other hens have laid their eggs - I don't want them dropping all over the garden. Once she has been ousted she is quite content scratching around with the others. Hopefully she will soon get it out of her system if we continue in this manner (I hope.)

I know this sounds silly, being the middle of May, but is it too cold to plant any veg out yet? I think last night was the first night we didn't have the heating on! We could have a fire in, but we haven't had time to sit and appreciate it recently - and the rest of the house would still be freezing. Isn't it sad, how those things that seem to be the important little details in family life seem to drop to the bottom of the list and get forgotten. Now that the children are older we don't seem to have toast on the fire anymore, or Em and I don't get any embroidery done, or we haven't played a game of scrabble in ages. Who'd think that you need to fight to preserve such times? Perhaps some of this is inevitable, as the children grow older they do more by themselves, or they have more responsibility and less time. Years ago I would have had the children working the veg patch with me. When we first started home schooling we lived on WW II rations for a week and tried a 'Dig for Victory' veg patch. Absolutely every meal required something peeling, I felt like I was never out of the sink. Although the children did their bit in the garden they preferred to just randomly dig, rather than tend the produce. Now they are busy elsewhere, so I have to decide whether or not to plant veg for my own pleasure, rather than as character building for my kids. Mind you, Em did ask that I at least put some beans in, she couldn't cope without anything growing. Perhaps just having to nip out and pick some beans for tea is sufficient - if they grow! I haven't seen a single bean shoot yet, and just a couple of tiny pea plants. Is it down to the cold weather, perhaps? Hopefully everything will shoot now the sun if peeping out a bit.

Had a lovely lunch with my home ed curriculum provider co-ordinator. She is such a lovely lady who drives all over the nation just to help and encourage. It is lovely to speak to someone who is a little older and wiser. Happily, she likes textiles and sewing as well! Sometimes it's good to hear someone reaffirm the old home truths, even if nothing new is being said. Having a nice lunch out finishes the picture!

13th May 2010

I do wonder if we are letting this little doggie take over a little. Today we took Beejay along to Em and Jonti's music lesson. It perhaps isn't quite as bad as it seems when you consider that their flute/clarinet teacher, Mae, is my friend and she did want to meet him. Nevertheless it did seem a little eccentric taking his bowl and a bottle of water to a music lesson. It did help, as it meant that the children could just get on with their work when they got back home as the dog had already had a good walk during their lesson time. I taught the children all their music for years, but now they are more advanced they would benefit from someone who is better than I am - my brain has been full of domestic matters for the last decade and a half. I do still teach them piano and music theory, although during this last half term lessons have been squeezed out owing to one thing or another. Why is it that the most important things are those that are most easily skipped? I suppose that it is easier to do the less demanding things - something which needs addressing! (My fault here - another reason not to get a job!)

We've got Verity up and about this afternoon. To begin with Matt has been ousting her from the nest a couple of times a day, but she doesn't stay up and about for very long - straight back to brooding in the nest. This is a problem as, not only is she not laying, but she could prevent the others from laying and she isn't eating, drinking or moving either. Once I knew that the other hens had laid their eggs I locked them all out of the hen house and have given them the run of the garden - herb garden included! The others were quite happy with this arrangement, having lots of lovely things to nibble. Verity seems quite happy, on the whole, but does keep nipping back to the shed to see if she can get in. At least she is eating and moving now. Hopefully she'll get the broodiness out of her system soon, if we continue in this way. I might consider locking her away from the hen house all day tomorrow, if the weather is good.

12th May 2010

Verity is broody! This is not a good thing. Not only has she herself stopped laying but we have to risk life and limb to get any eggs that are in the nest - if the other hens can get into the nesting box themselves. She is sitting on any available egg and hisses and bites us when we try to collect them. I was hoping she would get it out of her system quickly, as hybrids aren't bred to be broody, but I guess hens will be hens!

A neighbour of ours encountered this problem and the only solution was to give her some eggs to hatch, and so she mothered some of the cutest little ducklings. I'm not sure how to go about this though. Only the other day Em and I were chatting about family life and I suggested that having the hens, and now the little doggie, were part of building a home - as opposed to just cleaning a show-house. But, I think I'm changing my mind... Verity has become a sufficiently vicious creature and I'm not too hot on the topic of breeding and fowl husbandry. I hope she snaps out of it, but I'm reading up on raising chicks just in case.

22nd April 2010

Who would think of all the repercussions arising from this volcanic cloud over England? My friend, Mae, has been stranded in France (lucky thing) - and she has had our Grade 8 exam results sitting on her doormat! I have been advised, by some, to break in and get them! (But, 'Thank you Lord for teaching me patience!) Nevertheless, our suspense is over and we have passed! I got a plain and respectable pass - and am pleased, Em got a merit - and is disappointed! I do understand (she had a blonde moment in the aural questions and it cost her those few extra marks) - but it is a very good mark. Jonti passed his piano in his usual style - by the skin of his teeth. Sheesh, what can you do with these children - it's one emotional overload after another! Now that Mae is back Matt is going to start having Clarinet lessons with her, instead of me, and so today is quite an exciting day for him. Up until now he has only ever had music lessons with me at home, but I think he warrants a little more expertise now. I'll still teach all the children their piano and theory. I think it will do him good to see somebody else now. He was moved up to 2nd clarinet in wind band and 1st clarinet in clarinet choir, so a bit a of musical maturity from another teacher will be good. The first concert I played as 1st flute was momentous - I fell off the edge of the stage. "Ta daaah!" Yikes, I really did, how embarrassing. Amazingly nobody seems to have noticed, despite me ending up in the middle of the Timpani. We were playing Haydn's Surprise Symphony; it really was a surprise!

This cloud has also meant that I've been stranded and alone at choir rehearsals for a couple of weeks. Because my usual friends weren't there (Mae included) I had nothing better to do than to browse over the second hand books that are sold there to raise funds for the choir. This is always a dangerous thing to do because I am a compulsive reader. For me, reading isn't a gentle recreation - I get so sucked into the world of the book that everything else (literally everything) gets left. I also stay awake until the small hours reading, even when I am exhausted, because I can't put the book down - not a healthy approach I know. When the twins were babies I read The Lord of the Rings. David would leave for work in the morning (he had to get a job then, during a 'starving artist' phase) and I would be reading whilst dangling the tassle of a book mark in front of the babies to occupy them. I'd be in pretty much the same position when he returned home - he did ask if I had fed them at all during the day (of course I had!). Well, they do say that children should grow up with books and reading! Matt and Jonti have picked put this love of reading, though Em is more of a 'doer' than a reader - humph!

After a holiday it's always a relief to get back to the routine of term time. This is last term of compulsory education for the twins, so they have an awful lot of work to get done by the summer. However, in many ways not much will change as Jonti and Em are going to continue to home educate for their A levels. They can have a quality curriculum in the comfort of their own home (without the usual distractions) and - thanks to the local music service - can be part of several bands and choirs which far outstrip any school orchestra. The children already work under their own steam, so this will just continue. The only thing that will change is that Jonti and Em will no longer be inspected by the LEA. I'm just not sure what to do with my time now that they don't need me quite so much...

Just as we were wondering whether to commit Charity to the pot (I don't think we ever could really) her comb has shown the tiniest signs of growing back. I'm thinking that she just doesn't cope well with the cold. The comb is where a hen sweats, hence battery hens having such large combs (the environment of a battery farm is really hot) and so Charity may just be feeling the cold. She has a small black dot on the tip of her comb, which may be frost bite, and so might start to revive as the weather warms up. We spoke to a knowledgeable neighbour and he says that sometimes you just get a hen like that - a bit of a dud. We'll see how she goes, but hopefully she will pick up soon.

12th March 2010

Yipee; five eggs a day again! I know that the weather is still really cold, but at least the hen's are laying again and their water isn't iced up now. Two of the hens (Constance and Emelia I think - Constance staying true to her name) have laid eggs pretty continuously all winter. Now we are just waiting for Charity to pick up the pace. I really can't work her out. Her comb has stayed shrunken, ever since her first molt last year, and she just doesn't do anything. She hardly moves about and rarely bothers to scratch around. I would think that she was ill, or even dying except for the fact that she must be eating loads as she is huge! She has sunk to the bottom of the pecking order but waits until all the other hens are out of the shed and then goes back in and tucks in to her hearts content. We'll see how she goes on when the weather warms up.

10th February 2010

This is the first 'real winter' that the children have known. Previous years have only offered minimal sledging opportunities but this year we have had prolonged snow - not too good for academic progress, however. This picture of the UK is from Nasa's Terra satellite, taken on the twins birthday. It's such a lovely momento; I've had copies printed for each of the children - I've even scrap booked it! (Only very special things get entered into my Winnie the Pooh scrap book!)

The children have really enjoyed experiencing a 'real winter' with regular flurries of snow, but it is getting a bit wearing - having to keep de-icing the hens water. Ordinarily I would leave the water in the hen house overnight and then it wouldn't matter so much if we were a little tardy in letting them out (in fact some suggest keeping them in to make sure they get a good amount of nutritious pellets before they go scavenging) but it either ices over through the night, or they knock it over! It has been cold enough to ice up during the day too. No excuses now, I'll have to get up (or delegate the task!) to let them out on time and give them fresh water. I suppose it's good for me too.

1st February 2010

We had our annual LEA inspection today. It's always a highlight! It acts as a sort of validation for our year's efforts - so very different from the sense of OFSTED. It's strange to think that this was the last official visit for the twins as they will have completed their compulsory education this summer. I did ask if I needed to lock them away next year, when they come to look at just Matt's work.

In reality we all sit chatting, drinking coffee and eating biscuits - so I guess the twins can join in really. I suppose it would be a different scenario if we hadn't done any work. I guess we'd see the sterner face of the LEA. I know there is a lot of fuss from some who disagree with an inspection - I disagree! We are pleased with the work that we've done and welcome an external witness. The LEA are so encouraging. Our inspector took away an article that was written about us and our hens - our girls (the hens) are famous!

20th December 2009

Yippeee! Christmas concert season is finally over! The children have all worked really hard on Brass Concerts, Wind Orchestra Concerts, Barn Dances... the list seems to go on. It's absolutely wonderful the opportunities that they have, but it is tiring.

The winter has really set in now! This is the first time that the children have had any prolonged snow. Usually a days sledging is the maximum but the snow is here to stay for a bit. Sledging and an 8' snowman are a great treat. I'm getting a bit fed up of endless soggy clothes, but I guess that's how it goes.

I like Calvin's snowman house of horrors, in the Calvin and Hobbes cartoons by Bill Waterson. On some he is carrying out brain surgery with a saw, to the disgust of his neighbour, Susie Derkins. They are so funny. In one drawing all his snowmen are decapitated and in another he has put himself inside the snowman's mouth. He turns to his mum and says' "You don't like my snowman, DO you!" - GREAT!

The hens don't agree with me, though. It's the first time they've experienced snow and they just won't come out. I don't understand that as they've had some heavy frosts that haven't troubled them in the slightest. In the end David has had to clear away a patch of ground for them and they've just begun to venture into that, but no further. When the snow fell they were all outside and were stranded under garden benches and trees - we had to carry them back to the shed!

21st October 2009

Charity doesn't seem so well :( Nothing seems to be definitely wrong, but she doesn't seem quite well (just like the children!) She is still eating and pootles about, but isn't as active as the other hens. Her comb is quite shrunken and pale too. In all the books they suggest Red Mites as the problem, but this doesn't seem to be the case here as I'm really strict on cleaning and spraying the hen house to prevent them. I've even been down in the dark with my torch to see if there are any (as they only come out at night), but there wasn't a mite in sight. We are wondering if it's just an accumulation of being at the bottom of the pecking order (she does get to eat, but after a while she gets chased off as the others finish up) and maybe the weather turning colder. The comb is where a hen sweats and so if she is feeling the cold, being a little run down, then it makes sense for the comb to shrink - to conserve heat.

To help the hens get through the winter comfortably we have started to give them warm porridge for their tea - often with bits of soggy cornflakes (none of us can eat the bottom bits of a box), bread crumbs and a little honey. The first time they had it they didn't quite know what to make of it, but they soon developed a taste for it. It's really funny though as they have to do swiping movements with their beak across the ground to get the stodge off their beaks, quite comical to watch.

Even though we fenced off the veg plots from the hens it seems my brassicas still aren't safe! Something still keeps nibbling at the leaves. I've put crushed egg shell down and then, in desperation, some slug pellets - but they are still getting eaten. I'm not too keen on using slug pellets: I don't want to risk the hens eating them (although they are supposed to have something in them that repels animals) and I don't particularly want a slug pellet resting inbetween the leaves when we come to eat them (if there is any left). I'm just hoping that as the weather chills the slimy predators will be less likely to go a-wandering.... I hope.

29th September 2009

Penkhull Music Festival was brilliant. In terms of general appeal Voces8 stole the show - particularly in my children's view. However, each evening had it's own appeal. We forgot that we were 'British', when Voces8 announced their 'Opera Medley' as the encore, by almost yipping! The Glendower Duo gave a premier performance of a piece written by John's clarinet choir tutor, which felt very prestigious - I've never been to a premier performance before. The final evening was a lovely performance by the string quartet, The Cavell Quartet, with some truly exceptional playing. The evenings were nicely finished off with David sketching each performance.

Poor David! After all his efforts the hens still managed to push the chicken wire and creep through to get at my broccoli! A quick amendment remedied the situation, but it was too late for at least one broccoli plant!

Disaster struck again as David did a major pruning job on our Mock Orange tree. He has always begrudged the tree it's garden space - as it so easily takes over - but it's doom is now set. Because the children have used the safety goggles at some point, from which time they have never been found, David had a branch hit him in the eye. All was well until a couple of hours later, when driving back from the tip, he was hit by a searing pain and was soon unable to see. An amazingly short wait at the walk-in centre revealed a huge scratch across his pupil. The agony (as was apparent) was unbearable, resulting in an agonisingly sleepless night and temporary blindness for about 24 hours. It was quite something to have to lead him around for a while, pass him his drinks etc. Some quite humourous moments occurred, too; he would be talking to someone - not realising that they had left the room. Thankfully, we can laugh as the damage was very short lived and he is almost back to normal - just a little blurring of vision at times. Quite worrying though, nevertheless.

21st September 2009

As prophesied, David spent a long day in the Garden this Sunday - wrestling with chicken wire. He fenced off the herb/kitchen garden and the raised veg plots so that the hens can't get at my winter veg collection. This will also make the chives out of bounds. I was really surprised that the hens liked them so much. I've just planted some garlic next to the herbs and I don't want garlic tasting eggs - yuk!

We've had to sacrifice aesthetics for practicality. We may be able to 'pretty it up' at some point in the future, but needs must. I just hope the veg grows after all this fuss. It is lovely to have the hens roaming about the garden again, though. When David let them out they shot out with great enthusiasm. They did head straight for the areas that are now out of bounds, but soon found compensation elsewhere. I hope they leave Charity alone now, though I don't suppose it will make much difference as they weren't really short on space before. We can but hope - I don't like having a sad hen (if that's at all possible). She mustn't be very happy, otherwise she'd be laying (I think).

7th September 2009

Yipee, the winter veg plants arrived today. Em helped me plant them out before I started teaching. We planted 20 cabbage, 20 Chinese cabbage (which can be used as salad leaves or fried with a stir fry), 10 broccoli and 10 cauliflower. I'm hoping that the colder weather will reduce the chance of slugs etc. ruining the crop - we can but try!

Of course this means that the hens are confined to their enclosure again. The chives are only just recovering and there's no way they're getting at the brassicas. Another Saturday shredding fingers on chicken wire is on the cards for David before the hens can have the run of the garden. I'm so glad that they've got a decent amount of space as Charity really is at the bottom of the pecking order at the moment. I recently found blood on the water feeder and all but two of her tail feathers are missing. She isn't laying either - I don't suppose she feels like - with all that bullying. When they're outside they leave her alone for the most part, it's just when they are in the shed in a morning before being let out, or while they are settling down to roost in an evening. There's not really anything I can do about it. I suppose that you just have to let them sort it out. Nevertheless, it's quite upsetting.

Term officially starts today but the children are spending this week filing and finishing off essays etc.. Em and Matt are off to a choir residential weekend on Friday too, so we'll start of with the heavy bookwork next week. Unfortunately, although term has started, most of my pupils didn't turn up for their music lesson either. I don't mind having an extra cup of tea here and there, but it's tricky waiting around wondering if they are coming, or not. As there are no choir or brass band rehearsals tonight David and the children went to visit Grandad instead. A nice quiet evening for me, but not very productive. I lost the plot a bit, really; heading off to get a job in a school instead of sitting at home waiting around. However, that would have been a real disaster - home would fall apart and so would the kids education. The whole point of home schooling was because it seemed all wrong to be teaching other people's children and not my own. I really think that it's important to keep the home fires burning - the whole point of Swiss Family Suburban! The overwhelming pressure to 'succeed' in executive and monetary terms is, at times, overwhelming. You think you're on track and out jumps another curve ball. Oops - my 'wobble' is over now though, and my compass is pointing north again!

3rd September 2009

I've started reading The Water Babies, by Charles Kingsley; it's really weird. The main story line is very strange (a chimney sweep becoming a water baby by means of quite a trauma) and I'm finding it a little spooky, especially when you consider it's a children's book. What makes its even more strange is the pontificating narrative which the author intersperses in between the plot, to theorise or give a moral lecture. For example:

"His mother was a Dutchwoman, and therefore he was born at Curacao (of course you have learned your geography, and therefore know why); and his father was a Pole, and therefore he was brought up at Petropaulowski (of course you have learnt your modern politics, and therefore know why): but for all that he was as thorough an Englishman as ever coveted his neighbour's goods. And his name, as I said, was Professor Pttmllnsprts, which is a very ancient and noble and Polish name."
(The Water Babies, p. 86)

or:

"The subanhypaposupernal anastomoses of piretomic diacellurite in the encephalo digital region of the distinguished individual of whose symptomatic phaenomena we had the melancholy honour (subsequently to a preliminary diganostic inspection) of making an inspectorial diagnosis, presenting the interexclusively quadrilateral and antinomian diathesis known as Bumpsterhausen's blue follicles,"
(The Water Babies, p.94)
The Water Babies, Egmont Books Ltd (2001)

- quite hilarious, but surreal!

I read the above while Em had her flute lesson. The rest of the day, however, was spent doing more mundane things; filing in an attempt to get organised for the start of the new academic year next week. I spent the day marking tests and filing results (which should have been done over the holidays). The main satisfaction was spent in adding up 216 Spanish test results to divide and find an average - twice! (Twins, eh!) It feels good to be getting back to it and getting life back under control. I've enjoyed the summer, but I think we are all ready to get our teeth into something more substantial (though I doubt the children would necessarily admit it).

As the academic year begins the main growing season ends. We harvested the last of the green beans and then gave the remaining foliage over to the hens - oh, what happy chucks they were! They have a short window of absolute free reign before the Brassicas arrive (hope they turn up soon) and then we'll have to net off sections, otherwise the crop will be very short lived.

30th August 2009

A sense of panic (owing to the end of the holiday looming) has led to a spurt of energy enabling a deep cleaning of the kitchen. I've scrubbed down all of the tiles and cleaned out all of the cupboards. Drastic as this might seem, it's less of a task than having a new kitchen. Instead I've opted for a retro appeal - but clean! Some postcards of an old soap advert and a Jacob's Crackers advert picturing an ornate royal livery (not sure what the connection is there) alongside a jigsaw of a 50's 'Heartbeat' style kitchen (Em's first proper jig-saw) set the tone. So it's a 50's style kitchen, with original 70's tiles (?) - but it pulls together. I like this style as it can cope with being lived in. A modern, minimalist style (apart from being expensive and creating momentous upheaval) wouldn't cope well with constant use. A loaf and some jam cooling with a few dishes draining and keys left out don't stand out so much this way. I like this, as well, as I do sometimes think that most modern kitchens look the same, so impersonal. A trip to Ikea, to buy a shelf, was the finishing touch. It matches the shelving unit we draped my birthday present 'hearts' on and it covers some rough gaps in the tiles where the boiler used to sit.

I recently read Black Beauty which I've never read before. I vaguely remember a TV series of the story from when I was a child which I really didn't like and I think that has always put me off reading the book. However, I really did enjoy reading it. Because I'm not very 'horsey' (I think you have to be born 'horsey') I enjoyed reading the equestrian detail of saddle paraphernalia and the changing, and sometimes quite cruel, fashions of reigns and carriage. It's quite a gentle read, almost boring if you are looking for a fast paced plot, but calming to read with lots of interesting background detail - my kind of book. I'm thinking I might go back and read some of the other classics I missed. I'm considering The Water Babies, but I think that was another book that was serialised on TV that I didn't like, which put me off. I'd better hurry up because when term time starts I'm going to have to have a brush up on Keighley's Harmony book, and get cracking on some playing because I can't remember which end of the flute you blow down.

The children and I went blackberry picking at Mow Cop and I made some blackberry jelly, but it'll probably end up down the sink. It tasted so sugary that any taste of blackberry was masked. I know that jam has lots of sugar in it but this was astronomical. How depressing. Never mind, there's a few tubs full in the freezer - plenty for some crumbles. The hens appreciated the blackberry pulp left over from the blackberry jelly, delicious with bread crumbs and corn. I'm glad it wasn't all wasted. I'm not sure we'll have time to go again which depresses me when there's fruit going free.

18th August 2009

Disaster! The canes that support the beans have collapsed. The weight of the plants pulling towards the sunlight must have pulled the canes out of the ground, by degrees, at the back of the border. I've managed an unsightly patch up by tying them back and weighting the string with a tub of soil and lettuces. Hopefully it will keep the beans upright for the remainder of the growing season, but it doesn't at all match the idyllic image of a Victorian Kitchen Garden (a clarinet piece by Paul Reade which perfectly conjures images of it's title) - Matt is learning to play this at the moment.

The potatoes have gone into storage now. The best thing I could find was a Tesco jute shopping bag which seems perfect for the job. It's a breathable material and some brown paper bags should keep any light creeping in at the top.

Bought a huge bag of Layers Pellets to stock up for a few weeks. David made a great feed bin by converting an old ottoman and placing partitions inside to divide pellets, corn and grit. It's made of really old wood so any mice that might want to get at the food would have some serious gnawing to do and we should see signs of activity first before they get in, although it's shown no evidence of such activity so far. I also gave the hens their 6 weekly dusting (and David too - a black tee shirt wasn't a good choice). When we got the hens the lady suggested that now was a good time to 'worm' them, but our local shop doesn't sell any products and nobody around here seems to bother. I don't know what to do about that. I know I could buy some from the internet but it is really expensive, especially to herbal stuff which doesn't require egg withdrawal, so if possible I'd rather not.

Eek, still haven't done any music practice. Perhaps I'll try and do some tomorrow, though I don't know where to start ...

11th August

I did say that the beans were doing well, but I later noticed that one of the plants was overrun with ants - great clumps of swarming black, clustered around the stem. I've sprayed it with a soapy solution, so hopefully that should sort it. Even so, there are lots of juicy beans. (Pictured is a painting David did of our children growing beans which is available as a fine art print). I'm not sure that we always tick the officially certified organic box but we do try and avoid chemicals simply because we don't want the family (or the hens) eating nasty stuff. We've tried the 'no dig' method of weed control (and moisture retention) but I'm not pleased with the results; when it comes to planting time you have unworkable ground which is also covered in moss and a green algae type coating. Weeding, it seems, is always best controlled by good old fashioned hoeing and on your knees picking and trowelling. Pest control is something else though. Egg shells do a decent job in slug prevention, though not all the time - not a single marigold was left in the front garden. Nasturtiums in the herb garden always get eaten by caterpillars, such that I've given up with them for the time being. My chemistry is not so good, so I'm just learning about Bordeaux mixtures and the like. Horticulture shields a multitude of unsung scientists, I think. (Just not me).

We can't even come close to the smallholding/self sufficiency ethos, but we can nevertheless 'do our bit' by raising healthy crops in some of our own veg and keeping a few hens to collect our own eggs. We were offered a couple of goats, but we don't really have the pasturage and I don't particularly like goat produce. We could consider raising rabbits as food, but I can already hear disapproval from some of my peers. In Swiss Family Suburban I remember walking my friend's goats on a lead. I also remember David's dad happily skinning rabbits in the back yard, years ago. At present the best we can do is get our meat from a nearby abattoir which reduces food miles and also cuts costs.

We finished today by having a family games evening. Our scrabble scores were Daivd & Matt: 178, Me: 175 (3 points!), Em: 159 & Jonti: 151. The combined score was 663, which is quite good when you consider the age range of the players (39 - 13 yrs). After tonight I think we'll have a Scrabble league where we don't double up on a team (eg David & Matt). We'll also be a bit stricter on the rules now. - no haphazard looking up in the dictionary and proper challenges on an incorrect word. This left time for just a couple of games of Uno - Matt & David being the victors again!

9th August 2009

Began the day feeling jaded and oppressed, but an afternoon in the garden cleared away all the clouds. Now most of the veg has gone we let the hens have the full garden to roam in. It was so therapeutic, having chucks pecking around your feet as you hoe and weed - they follow you around like little vacuum cleaners, clearing away bugs and the odd worm. However, "A Grand Day Out" soon became "The Great Escape". We had woven bamboo canes in between the lower branches of the privet hedge to close any gaps (to try keeping the garden looking 'au natural') but the hens (and neighbouring cats) had nudged them aside and had wandered into next door's garden. Thankfully some corn was tempting enough to bring them back. Back to chicken wire, I guess. I also gave the hen house a thorough cleaning, which always is a satisfaction.

For tea we had a stir fry using some of the onion we gathered from our veg patch - it was lovely and sharp in flavour.

Musing over the day we discussed how we could have 'blown the cobwebs away' by donning our smart clothes and going for a coffee and browse around the shops at Trentham Gardens (we can't walk around the lake now, without paying a fortune in entry fees). Instead, we put on our scruffs and tidied the garden. Eating ice-cream with the hens pecking around next to us was cheaper and, I think, calmer. (My sister did visit Trentham today, as she has bought an annual pass, and reports that it was very busy).

The final touch to the day was collecting the dead and dried bluebells from the front garden, and arranging them in the coal scuttle (until the winter comes and we fill it with coal) with a ribbon to finish the display.

28th July 2009

Again, everyone seems to be complaining about the rain. I like the rain and it means I don't need to water the veg - though it will mean lots of weeding, sooner or later.

I went to check for eggs and the hens are all outside, looking SO bedraggled. They do look comical with their feathers soaked to their skin. Their necks look especially pitiful and thin. I notice that the amber in the Amber Links becomes more prominent. Verity (a Fenton Blue), with her comb flopping over one eye, looks the funniest.