Birds and Bees

Don’t worry, this blog post really is just about birds and bees!!

This week I’ve had to handle both creatures in a way I wouldn’t have anticipated a few days before! I happened to be in the right place at the right time for a little swallow that had taken a wrong turning on Tuesday. I was next to my mum’s conservatory whilst she was out on errands and heard some fluttering noises. I put my head around the kitchen door just in time to see a Swallow flitting desperately from one side to the other trying to escape through the glass. It came to rest in the corner and Ginger the big tom cat prepared to leap on it. I roared at him and also dived for the corner and managed to bat away Mr. Ginger and scoop up the poor Swallow just in time.

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Luckily it wasn’t harmed at all and flew out of my hand just after I took these and went off to catch more insects.

The Swallows seem to be all nesting in barns this year. The house eaves have been taken over by a population explosion of House Martins – which is a good thing as they are on the Amber list. They really seem to like the wood cladding and bulkhead timbers as well as the shelter of the big overhanging eaves of my strawbale house – perhaps they recognise a fellow straw-and-mud-building fanatic when they see one!! Joking aside, the fact that the timbers of my home are durable ones that haven’t had any form of chemical treatment to preserve them probably helps; we chose them specifically for our own health and for the environment so the stamp of approval from these little guys seems like a small justification for that.

I’m not sure if they re-use nests or build new ones every year. There are some fairly solid constructions up there already but these pairs seem bent on a place of their own. I’ve not seen any coming or going from this one for example – apparently goose feather decor is so last year dahling.

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I’ll have to keep an eye out in case it actually has eggs in; we’ll soon see some hungry beaks poking over the edge if it has!

On the other side of the purlin are a young couple hard at work and having major domestics about how to go about it. I have to say that I somewhat sympathise with them – it’s always easier to work on a creative project like house renovations on your own I find!!

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This one has really got an eye for detail – or thinks it has. It’s quite fussy and precise about where each beakful of mud and twigs needs to be put and takes its time over placing carefully.

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This one just hasn’t got the same flair – apparently. It got told in no uncertain terms to go fetch some more materials and just stop messing up the progress willya?

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So the next time it just did a quick drop off before heading back for more gloop!

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I know where they’re getting it from, there’s a muddy patch near a dripping water butt tap that is perfect for them and I see them when I pass there several times a day. It’s outside the barn where I shear my sheep too and as that’s been one of my tasks this week there are plenty of woolly, strawy materials for them to dunk in the gunk to make a really well insulated and strong nest for their coming babies.

On the other side there’s more building going on too.

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I think somebody has already started on their family as one of the old nests is in use.

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It was hard to try catch them in flight but although the photos aren’t good, it’s nice to see them frozen in midair as they zip about so quickly you just can’t see them properly at all in real time.

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The other thing I didn’t expect to handle this week was our bees. I used to look after them but I became allergic to them about 5 years ago and I don’t go near them now. I do think they’re a vital part of the smallholding ecology – without bees and trees there would be no nature. And I really love their honey!

My mum has been looking after the bees in recent years with lots and lots of help and advice from some good friends who live quite some way away. Like most jobs it’s easier to do things with two people and bee-keeping is one of them. It’s important to work quickly and quietly once the hives are open so as not to annoy them more than is necessary and not to chill the brood (baby bee larvae) and eggs. Full supers of honey are pretty heavy to lift as well – in all, an extra pair of hands really helps.

I know mum was anxious that the bees might swarm on a warm day earlier this week and they certainly looked and sounded like it was on the cards for early afternoon. So I said I’d give mum a hand; it would be a shame to lose either a swarm of bees or the honey after the work she’s put in (and me, I’ve been helping to build some new hive parts!) So I cobbled together a bee suit out of various weird odds and ends and we went through them and moved some bees around.

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Hopefully it’s given all the bees enough work and space to be getting on with for now.

I removed this chunk of brace comb from the brood chamber. It had capped brood in and a little honey but it needed to go and the hive was chockfull of baby bees in the making – so although I don’t like despatching even one bee, it had to come out. I left it in front of the hive for the bees to clean out. I’ll probably remove it soon and melt it down and filter it into pure beeswax to store.

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They’re all busy working today. Just watching them on the flight board this afternoon, it’s funny to see how many crash land and roll in! Their pollen baskets on their legs are so full, it must be really heavy to fly with and awkward to manoeuvre. I’m glad they have lots of flowers to work though. Such a busy month of May!

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Bodnant Garden

Hello! I meant to come back before now to share some of the photos I took at Bodnant, I’ve been quite busy in my own garden amongst other things and had not found the time.

But I’m amending this now – this will be a picture heavy post. If you’re ever in North Wales do go and visit, it is just incredible. Make sure to leave plenty of time to explore; the gardens cover a huge area and it’s like entering another world going down into the bottom of the valley to the waterfall and mill race.

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South Stack

A quick 48hour trip to Anglesey last week to deal with some work things ended up being more frustrating than I thought. Sometimes life is like that no matter how carefully you plan but it’s still irritating. Normally heading to Anglesey is a happy thing for me even if it’s for work purposes rather than recreation, a change being as good as a rest. I think life got just so busy in recent weeks I lost the ability to stop and savour the good moments and my head got into a bit of a tangle and I felt quite sad and upset.

Life is short.

It’s something I appreciate more and more with each passing year and see the truth of this much quoted cliché in other’s lives as a flag that you really do have to make the best use of time. Sometimes people use this to justify selfish acts. I prefer to take this to mean how we work, how we act, how we behave to those around us. Not to be frivolous of time or resources and especially not with other’s love or feelings.

But I also think also means to take time to enjoy what we have and appreciate it in the everyday rather than going through life blinkered to that which is around us. Realising I’d temporarily lost sight of that whilst fretting about things that I couldn’t do anything about I decided to “seize the carp!” as I like to pun and went up to one of my favourite places to walk Marley for half an hour or so in the evening before the next meeting I had planned rather than just sit around waiting.

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South Stack is known both for its lighthouse and for its amazing seabird colonies. I’m no birder; I merely stand on the sidelines hoping to absorb new information with every encounter. Although I’ve visited South Stack since my earliest childhood, I’d never actually been inside Ellin’s Tower which the RSPB use as an educational resource and bird-watching hide for visitors. By the time I got there it was closed for the day but instead of heading for the lighthouse carpark and surrounding paths as I do normally I decided to walk along what the map showed as the lower path along the coastline.

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This was a mistake!! I hadn’t appreciated quite how close to the edge of the cliffs it was and for those with a head for heights this is fine as it’s actually quite safe. For someone like me who can make myself feel faint by looking at a photograph taken from a high viewpoint it was a Really Bad Idea. This is a normal coastal walk for most people. For those like me it’s a panicky adrenaline-fuelled torture of an over-active imagination and by the time I’d appreciated this it was better to carry on than turn back!

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Having a bouncy Labrador with a life motto of “act first, think later” on the end of a lead just added to the stress. Dogs are meant to be kept on the lead but I wouldn’t have trusted Marley not to absent-mindedly bounce over the edge in pursuit of a seagull anyway! I kept him very close whilst we were walking… err… crawling here.

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I couldn’t really appreciate the stunning beauty of this path because I was too busy reminding myself to breathe and kidding myself I was walking through a wood a very very long way away from a cliff… I did stop for a sit down for a minute though and took a couple of photos to appreciate later on when I was back on less worrying ground!

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The cliffs by the lighthouse were raucous with the sounds of the Guillemots and Razorbills, Herring Gulls and Black backed Gulls. Once I was back on terrain I felt comfortable with I felt it was a shame I couldn’t have got there earlier and gone inside the hide.

So the next morning although I was heading back home I decided to make another quick trip back specifically to go inside Ellin’s Tower.This was definitely not a mistake. Leaving Marley in the car this time and driving up I joined the tourists and students already gathered there. For dedicated and knowledgeable bird watchers this must be paradise. The RSPB staff were very kind and helpful in showing people like me how to spot different birds and explaining about their breeding habits. The webcam showed some Guillemots in close up getting ready to lay their egg on the cliff edge (“nesting” is a bit of a strong word to use for the haphazard parenting methods they use!) and we smiled as a curious Razorbill hoved into view and photobombed the webcam and unknowingly peered back at us!

This is the picture I took with my little compact camera I carry with me most times. I would have loved a long zoom and my DSLR though – I must remember to take it next time!

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People come to see puffins here too but actually there are not very many unlike on more remote islands mostly in Scotland (but including “Puffin Island” on the other side of Anglesey). The rats that steal their eggs from the burrows they lay in can still access puffin nests here on an island connected to the mainland. There are only a few breeding pairs here. The RSPB man I spoke to said they had spotted 6 puffins so far at South Stack this year – really not very many amongst the thousands of other birds. He’d seen one that morning on the sea and explained how a solitary puffin would hang out near a group of guillemots on the sea. After a bit he quietly said he’d seen it again quite far out and trained the telescope on it for me. This was so exciting as it was the first puffin I have ever seen … even if it was a very long way off and through a lens!

After a few minutes observing I asked an older lady if she would like to see it too rather than me hogging it. She was very excited too and got her husband so he could see too. Then the RSPB man spotted another puffin in a group much closer to us below the cliffs and trained the other telescope for this couple so they could both watch. I grabbed a pair of binoculars and found where he was talking about. I was very happy to have seen these colourful little birds even if they are much more accessible to humans in other areas in Scotland. They are sadly an endangered species and really need help to protect them or we risk losing them altogether along with so many other bird, animals and plants.

I didn’t see any Choughs which are well known visitors here. I was told if I walked along the cliff path I might see some but I politely declined that experience again… Apparently they are quite friendly and if you hang around any length of time you’ll probably see them. I ate my sandwiches but didn’t have enough time to stop any longer. I hope to see them next time I come back.

I approve of the picnic area seating though!

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I was really glad that I’d taken just a little time out of the trip home to come back, to see these birds and to learn a little more about them. I asked when they had arrived and was told just 48 hours earlier. So by seizing the moment I had been able to see something I might have missed later in the year. Instead of adding to the busyness it refreshed me and I felt better for it.

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Marley and I turned around from the tip of Wales and headed off back to the mainland and mountains of Snowdonia and the next stop I’d planned on the way home – Bodnant Gardens…

 

 

 

Welsh Patagonia

It’s been quite a long blog break! This spring has been very busy, probably even more so than usual. If I can snatch the time I’ll come and tell you about some of the things I’ve been working at but for now I just wanted to show a new spinning fibre blend I’ve created and which will be available from this weekend.

When something interests me I like to look around and read around the subject rather than just focusing on one aspect. The collateral research enriches both my appreciation of something, further embeds the knowledge I’ve gained and frequently sparks new areas of interest or creativity.

I’m always on the lookout for new seeds of inspiration and in the past six months or so I’ve deliberately turned away from seeking that inspiration from within the same areas I work in and towards other sources. As a visual person I find it easier to look at something creative and then translate it into dyeing or textiles or colour schemes. But sometimes I think I’m at risk of repeating the same things because they appeal to me and so getting into something of a rut. So this has been a personal challenge to whet the blunt edges in my mind and hopefully spark new areas of interest or ideas.

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One such small “spin-off” has been designing a new fibre blend. Whilst studying the work of two Welsh creatives, one a late artist and one a contemporary weaver, I found they had common ground in that they both travelled and studied in Welsh Patagonia. These travels informed their body of work and although I’d come across this Welsh colony in South America, coming across it again twice in quick succession intrigued me and made me look into this a little deeper.

The brief outline of this colony is that in the 19th century, a North Walian patriot, Michael D. Jones, proposed establishing a new Welsh colony overseas away from the influences of the English, to preserve “Welshness” and the Welsh language which he felt often disappeared in close proximity to other cultures and languages. The leaders of this movement considered several options around the globe. At that time, Argentina was offering incentives for peoples to emigrate and settle tracts of land and so the Welsh nationalists took up the offer and a colony settled there.

There’s a great deal more to the story; the misleading information given to the pioneers who struck out for a new world, the hostile environment they landed in, the hardships endured and losses encountered and the living they scratched and hacked from the harsh Argentine landbase that so very nearly conquered them. The co-operation of the native Tehuelche people (or Patagones as the Spanish called them) in assisting them to settle and the slightly dubious pay-offs from the Argentine government that induced them to “welcome” these benign Celtic invaders to their land. It’s not the purpose of this blog post to detail the whole story but it makes an intriguing, if rather baffling, tale for those who are interested in finding out more.

What struck me though was how very, very Welsh this story was. So gloriously and stubbornly Welsh…

In seeking to preserve a language and a culture, to give up homes and extended families, communities and comforts and transport ideology across an ocean to make more of a home in exile than the home you already live in. To chose separation from the thing you love best and to sacrifice that for a belief in a better version… I cannot really understand it. I admire it whilst at the same time feeling slightly … I don’t know… shocked? Perhaps that is too strong a word. Perhaps I am just too much of a British mongrel to understand the depth of Welshness. Perhaps I am too much of a home-bird to make sense of voluntary exile…

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The second thing that struck me however was how wonderfully balanced the current Welsh Patagonian community are between their Argentine land and their Welsh roots. Speaking Spanish and Patagonian Welsh, with their unique blend of Welsh chapels and Chapel Teas and asados and gauchos, it would seem at first glance that the founding fathers had lost the end game of retaining the Welsh “purity” they seemed to value above all else.

And yet I can’t help feeling that this shows the power of humanity at its greatest, being able to retain its cultural identity whilst adapting to those around it. Blending those things so that they lie comfortably together and make something new and strong that they would not have had without each other.

It made enough of an impression on me that I wanted to further explore this in fibre!

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So I’ve created “Patagonia” which is a rustic yet soft wool blend with subtle depths and textures.

Patagonia is created from Black Welsh Mountain and South American wools – Patagonia being a vast sheep farming area producing wool from mostly Merino, Corridale and similar breeds. (The pure Merino I already use is from either South America or South Africa from non-mulesed flocks). These very different wools are also blended with soft alpaca to represent other important fibre-producing animals from South America.

It spins up to a yarn with plenty of body and character which is great for those who find it harder to spin thicker yarns. I feel it would lend itself to great sweater – or poncho! – yarn (I fancy this is a project in my future!) and make garments that would be as equally at home on a Welsh mountain as on the pampas.

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I’ve gradient dyed this batch and it will be available for sale at Wonderwool Wales this coming weekend 22nd-23rd April 2017 at Triskelion Yarns (stand G8 – Hall 1).

A further selection of dyed, carded and blended spinning fibres will also be available there too and I really recommend that even if you aren’t a spinner or felt-maker that if you’re a knitter going to Wonderwool this year that you put Triskelion Yarns high on your shopping list; gloriously saturated colours on interesting yarn bases hand dyed in West Wales.

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That top quarter of Hall 1 is a pretty exciting place for hand-dyed colour-lovers altogether really as there are a cluster of amazing hand dyed fibre stalls up there including HilltopCloud and Oliver Twists the silk specialists, MandaCrafts (with amazing Qaria cashmere) Freyalyn’s Fibres and The Threshing Barn amongst others. If you’re ever stuck for inspiration as to how to spin indie-dyed fibre, Katie Weston of HilltopCloud is also launching her new Spinning Hand Dyed Fibre guide at the show. Written by a sought-after UK spinning teacher, this is sure to be packed with useful tips and information for getting the best out of your show purchases so don’t forget to go and get a copy!

Happy spinning!

 

A River Runs Through It

The river theme for my yarns started with this yarn I blogged about yesterday. When I was planning it, the lustre of the wool once scoured really caught the light like sunlight playing off water and so I thought a watery theme would give a good yarn name as well as giving a sense of place. It helped with my decision to enhance that by adding 20% silk for a really shimmery lustre that is brought out strongly on the dyed shades.

I’m lucky enough to live in a really beautiful place. Wales is a very varied country and the scenery never fails to nourish me whether I’m at home or travelling elsewhere. At home we are on the top of a hill looking down into valleys – or cwm – whichever way we look.

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We catch quite a lot of weather here! The high level of rainfall drains off our wet clay soils and, along with the natural springs that rise all over the land, flows into the ditches we have to maintain. And at the bottom of our fields, this water run-off starts to form a very baby stream which almost dries up in summer. In the rare summers that it is scorching hot, it’s nice to go down under the trees and listen to this tiny waterway trickling its first “steps” to the sea.

It flows into the brook down to the village and from there into the first small river it turns into – the Afon Miwl. This joins up with the River Severn which is our local main river – or Afon Hafren in Welsh – and from there carries on to England and meanders its way south before heading out into the Irish Sea at Bristol. From small beginnings powerful things can grow and I liked the thought that the small batches of fleece my sheep were growing on our little fields were slowing gathering together before being turned into a proper grown up yarn.

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Late last Autumn I started to wind and dye a few skeins to test out my colour palette. When it came to photographing them, I knew I had to go down to the river and take the wool back to where its namesake flowed. This walk down the Captain’s Pitch is one that Marley and I enjoy occasionally – despite the fact it’s reputed to be haunted by the ghost of a local man murdered on his way back from chapel in the distant past!!

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The October light filtered through the trees for just half an hour or so as I tried to catch the colours (and not topple my basket of yarns off the bridge into the stream!)

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The colours played nicely against the moss of the bridge.

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And the soft shaded light really brought out the lustre.

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There are remains of various mills around this area. The farmer who lived at our smallholding before us was very interested in local history. Before he died he tried hard to enthuse me in the same passion. Sadly in my late teens and early twenties I didn’t fully appreciate all he wanted me to understand, nor had I yet developed the love for my new home, something that takes time to root and flourish. I thought he’d told me that the mills along here were sawmills and that the oak they milled from this land base was felled to provide timbers for the ships for the Royal Navy fighting in the Napoleonic Wars.

I asked for help from someone who has long been associated with local history and textiles in this area and who was also a mutual friend of my farming mentor and she kindly corrected my hazily remembered misinformation, for which I was very grateful. She explained that although later they were converted to grain and sometimes sawmills, in the 19th C they were in the main fulling mills used for the local flannel cloth industry which was in its heyday in this area. As you might imagine, I was delighted to know that the mill was used for woollen textiles rather than wood!

She also directed me to the Cynefin project archives of the tithe maps for the area so I could see for myself the “flannel racks” or tentering frames where the wet woollen cloth was stretched and dried outside after fulling. They’re marked on land behind the trees opposite the bridge where I took the yarn photos above. This shows very clearly to what use the power of the river was being put – and in the 1840’s it was most definitely for wool! This screenshot detail of the overlaid map shows the racks as well as the Walk Mill woollen factory and river.

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I’m a bit clumsy with technology, although it is undeniably as useful to me as it is to others. In the main I prefer to do things by hand, it sits more comfortably with me and I find working things out by hand less frustrating. So when it came to making yarn labels for this yarn and for my other dyed yarns I wanted to draw – literally – on the landscape around my home. Whether looking west to the Cambrian Mountains as above or Snowdonia

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or behind us to the Kerry Ridgeway bordering England or to the soft undulations of the fields around my home…

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…wherever you look are hills, mountains and misty valleys; sheep, cattle and trees. They are connected to each other sustaining, shaping and evolving with the humans that tend them all. I started to sketch a stylised version because these are the things of my daily life.

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Which eventually turned into this label for the Hafren and Gwy yarns.

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And in the case of this Afon Miwl yarn, I’m able to bring the detail right down to the animals names!

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Afon Miwl is quite a sleek drapey yarn with little elasticity. Although it knits as a fingering weight / 4 ply yarn, its dense 80% longwool/ 20% silk worsted construction means its yardage is closer to sport weight yarn at around 290m / 100g (or 317yds / 3.53oz). It is in 100g hand-dyed skeins and is priced at £22.50 per skein. Colour batches are small, around 3 skeins in each colour batch.

It definitely lends itself to shawls and lace knitting. I think it would be amazing woven and hope there may be a few remnants after skeining that I can try this with myself.

I haven’t skeined all of the yarn yet but there will be around 150 skeins in total. And that’s it. I’m unlikely ever to make this yarn exactly like this again. The first batch of around 50 skeins will go on sale shortly once all the labelling is complete. Do feel free to sign up for my newsletter (subscribe button on my website www.barber-blacksheep.co.uk) to be informed of the planned update time.

I hope you enjoyed reading about my yarn project and will maybe want to knit with it too!

Advent: Christmas Eve

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An old photograph – we’ve not had a snowy Christmas for a few years.

But this is “home” and it’s prettier than the winter we’re having at the moment!

Home.

I feel so very blessed. My family are the people I love most (closely followed by my animals of course!) and I am lucky enough to have seen all of them in the past few weeks which is unusual. But the past two days as we and our neighbours have met and called on each other to exchange cards and gifts and wish each other well and see how each other are I’m reminded over and again how the people I live near are also like family to us. How much we rely on the love and goodwill of those nearby, even when our own relatives are so very far away.

We don’t make much of a festive fuss. “Things” have never really mattered that much to me. People do. The greatest joy I know is to spend time with someone I care about and enjoy their company and friendship. If that is the most precious thing someone can have then I am rich beyond measure in the people I have in my life and I am grateful to have everything I could possibly want in that. I hope I have given of myself to those who need companionship too. None of us take each other for granted but at this season when we all take the time to say “thank you for being there” to each other it cements the bonds we share. Almost like resetting us for another year of living and working together.

I know there are many without, not just at this time but all year round. More than usual, those who “have not” are more on my mind and I find myself asking if I can do more about this. So many people who do not have someone to look out for them or just to care enough to ask if they are OK. Knowing how fortunate I am to love and be loved, I want to keep this in mind for the coming year, not just at Christmas time.

Wishing you joy, peace, love and good cheer this season and for the coming year xx

Tempus fugit (when you’re having fun)

The past week has involved a good deal of dove-tailing the different areas of my life. It’s been kind of busy – even more so than usual – and wow, hasn’t it gone quickly! Today has been a day to pause, reflect and hibernate just a little because it suddenly got rather chilly here with the wind blowing down off the first snows tipping the mountains to the NorthWest this morning…

It’s been a good week including lots of time with various friends from around the UK on trips out and celebrating gatherings closer to home. Making, writing, sketching, thinking, planning, walking, eating good food … and rather a lot of old fashioned grafting! Although this week we had help in for the major job of breaking up a large part of our farm yard and relaying the concrete which had become damaged over the past 10 years by frost and salt in the more bitter winters. It’s a job that needed doing for a while so although the new surface currently looks as stark as bleached bones, we’re rather pleased with it. We can work on “prettifying” the surrounds next spring!

I’m continually amazed at the glory of this Autumn though. One thing I’ve always thought I’d love to do is to go “leaf peeping” in another country renowned for Autumn/Fall colour. This past week though, I feel replete with all that arboreal Wales has offered during October. It couldn’t be better and it’s right here outside my door…

Here’s a few glimpses of the fun I’ve had both at work and play:

Baking butter cookies and roasted pumpkin soup this morning

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Around home with my animals and daily life:

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A change of scene for a day, exploring somewhere new and catching up with old friends.

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I didn’t have my camera last night for our neighbours’ awesome Bonfire Party they host each year but this is definitely something not to be missed, although sadly this year a few people weren’t able to be with us. As usual we finished off by roasting our faces and marshmallows sitting on the straw bales we loan for the occasion. There’s nothing quite like being huddled together round a fire with home made food and drinks, laughing with your neighbours to feel like you’re reinforcing bonds that will last through joy and adversity – and they do (marshmallows optional extra).

These times together are so cherished by us all that we were only halfway through the evening before our conversation turned to our next two usual gatherings – at Christmas and New Year and even projected onto the possibility of a new Midsummer madness!! Smokey smiles all round!

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What I can’t show you is the progress being made on the Spinner’s Advent Calendar – it’s top secret until December of course!

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I’m working my way through packing the pre-orders, they were so popular this year and I’m really grateful for that. There may possibly turn out to be a couple of spares at the end of this. My Ravelry group update thread is the best place to watch for the chance to snap one up…

What I can show you is the newest addition to my stitch marker range – Autumn Sheep! Now in stock.

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There are more things in the pipeline once the Advent Calendars have winged their way to their new homes. So many things to squeeze into the time. It’s all good!

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October. The trees are not stripped bare, not yet (sorry U2). They are however turning some glorious colours that make my heart sing and I’m struggling not to turn every fibre I dye into a mirror for everything I see around me.

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Sometimes I can’t help myself though when gradients flutter from the hedgerows on my dog walks, begging to be plucked and arranged…

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Yet again, it’s been another kind Autumn. Last year the good weather went on and on into November right up until we’d done some of the hedge laying and then Winter suddenly crashed in with downpours that wouldn’t stop. However, the beginning of this month – so warm and sunny – has given way to fogs and the kind of damp chill mornings that seep into your very bones although thankfully it’s still dry. I’ve layered up on handknits and am turning over possibilities (had I the time) for new garments to cast on. Time for everyone to wrap up now…

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Almost all the apples are now picked and in the cellar waiting for me to find time to crush and juice them. There’s a lot going on just now and they will keep for a bit whilst we turn our attention to things that really can’t delay.

Before the rains come we need to tackle a job that’s been put off for some years. When we built the house the landscaping round it got left and somehow, as so often happens, just never really got finished. Grass grew over the soil and rubble areas, frosts and rains made the square edges of the plot crumble and slide in and during summer it’s a never ending job strimming the grass just to keep it from seeding and in winter it turns into a quagmire that gets trampled indoors by eager dog paws before they can be halted.

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Not to mention the fact that the temporary front door “step” into the house has been an old wooden pallet propped up on spare blocks for far too long. When it’s wet, it’s slippy. Last winter I slipped over on it myself whilst helping my elderly dog get outside and broke my big toe. It still clicks madly as a reminder that next time it might be somebody else that gets hurt and it might not just be a toe!

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Apart from being messy and unsatisfactory, it’s also not good for a house largely constructed of timber and organic materials to have earth and grass so close to it. The logistics of clearing out what has fallen in and building the retaining wall that never quite got done constituted a fairly large headache. But a headache we can’t really afford to ignore. Because access becomes impossible for more than half the year, we had to do it now or leave it for almost another year – the summer is far too busy with other jobs to contemplate it. It was now or never.

A mini-digger and mini-dumper were booked for yesterday and today along with the ever-marvellous Phil who can do anything it seems. It is no exaggeration to say that I would not trust a single person other than him to manoeuvre heavy machinery in such an awkward spot fraught with the potential for utter disaster. Having said that, even I had misgivings when I saw the size of the “mini” digger and Phil patiently pointed out that a really baby digger wouldn’t have the reach to scoop out the bottom of the pathway so we needed a larger one to do what was required.

It’s fair to say that I’ve spent an awful lot of the past two days flinching and literally holding my breath as he inched the monster-muncher meticulously around the house that took so much blood, tears, toil and sweat to construct. I trust his judgement and skills implicitly but even so, I was heartily relieved when the machinery could be sent back to the hire company.

This does mean that everything from this point on has to be done entirely by sweat and muscle though … and we’ve done a fair bit of this already today. I’ve spent most of the time with pickaxe and spade, reminding myself of upper body muscles I rarely use whilst digging out the footings for a retaining wall. The digger could only reach certain parts and so manpower – and woman-power, however feeble – was called for!!

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The pictures at the beginning of the job were taken yesterday morning just as we were about to start. By close of finish today we’d reduced it to a dusty soilscape ready to receive hard “lamb-skating” as Phil calls it. The image in my head of happy little woolly animals careening about in a carefree manner bleating joyfully puts a smile on my face that sees me through the sweat and grit.

I think I’m going to need to visualise a lot more lamb-skating in the coming weeks as we deal with this lot!

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It needs doing and it will be worth it in the end. I suspect I will be staring glumly at liquid mud if the rain comes soon though … so I hope it stays dry for me and my skating lambs until Christmas this year!

 

Nuts about Autumn

We’re back into my favourite season again! September has been changeable and October certainly didn’t start promisingly yesterday but today is glorious and crisp, chilly and sunny. All the hope and beauty of Autumn, crystallised in one dewy, smokey, morning that begs to be wrapped in a hug of woollen knits and natural fabrics whilst cherishing a cup of cocoa…

I’m not really done with summer or our short Welsh growing season yet though. I’m doing too many things to concentrate on the veg plot properly and as ever, I realised too late how much I was going to miss fresh tasty veg from the garden to make the best of it. I did squeeze a few things in the areas I managed to weed in time but this year I decided to really try properly to extend our growing season in the polytunnel instead of growing summer mediterranean veg in there only. I’ll come back to that in another blog post to show you what I’ve managed so far and what I’m planning.

Outside our temperate climate is heavily into autumnal orchard fruits just now. Some have been picked, I missed to gather the damsons altogether so no damson gin this year (but mum put a few in the freezer). And although the blackberries have been amazing, we have a cupboard bursting with jams and jellies so any bramble jelly would probably not get eaten for a few years! I’ll make a blackberry and apple crumble later today but otherwise I’m happy for the wild birds to stock up rather than gather and freeze fruit we probably won’t use.

One fruit I most definitely want to rescue before the wildlife get it though is a rather special first appearance of walnuts.

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The house my brothers and I grew up in had a neighbouring garden with a prolific walnut tree in it. The squirrels would strip it each year and bury the nuts in our garden. I spent many hours watching them as a child, chewing the green husks, digging furtively whilst keeping a lookout and patting the ground back over. Invariably a lot of these walnuts would get forgotten by the absent-minded furry thieves and we often had seedling walnut trees popping up which my father would lovingly dig up and pot on. He’d give the small tree-lets to friends and when we moved here he brought the last baby trees he’d grown on with us and planted three that grew big enough in the hedgerows on our new farm.

They all survived for some years. Two are definitely still growing although one got plonked down in an unfortunate place in its container and became pot bound and is still rather tiny due to the restricted root system now too deeply entrenched to dig up easily. One over the far side of the farm I haven’t checked on for a while, it may have got lost and trimmed off in the hedges as it’s alongside the road. Those hedges get cut by machinery each year so we can’t always control how much gets cut back!

But the third down our drive has grown and grown and now overshadows our polytunnel. I can’t bear to cut it back though, I’d rather get a new polytunnel. Walnuts take some 20 years to fruit although you can buy grafted varieties which fruit sooner. Daddy’s Walnut has never fruited but to me it’s a special tree, it reminds me of him and his love of nurturing living things and is a link not just to him but to my childhood home. We discovered this week however for the first time ever it has just a smattering of nuts, it felt like a kind of birthday gift.

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I don’t know if the squirrels will steal these before they ripen. But in a way it doesn’t really matter – I’m just happy Walnut is settled enough after 19 and a half years to have nut-children of her own. It would have pleased Daddy immensely to know it had finally fruited more than 20 years after he carefully scooped it out of our garden flower borders to give it a chance at a future elsewhere. I wish I could tell him…

The orchard we planted a decade ago has definitely come into its own.   Despite our harsh climate, the constant battle against weeds and occasional butchering by my escaped sheep, the apples have marched on like the stout troopers they are. The pears and plums lag behind and the cherries are really too delicate for this high up. But apple-picking and juicing is only just around the corner now and the orchard looks so pretty with all the different varieties … in a wildish overgrown kind of way.

The quinces have cropped extraordinarily well – Vranja normally only puts out a couple of fruit – if that. This year she is covered. Not really sure what to do with all of them as they are too hard to juice and will need to be processed some other way involving cooking … that’s an awful lot of quince jelly and cheese!

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Almost no pears but the Duchess has done her best. They aren’t very pretty but once ripe the peeled pears are tasty and I’ll be making pear mincemeat with them most probably.

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Brambles aside, there are still a few autumnal soft fruits. My favourites; raspberries and alpine strawberries are welcome at breakfast or with some yoghurt for dessert.

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Not everything growing in the orchard is a fruit or nut. You may remember the goslings we hatched earlier this year? They grew into large white geese in the space of weeks and are full-size lawnmowers that have done a great job of keeping the grass down without the aid of fossil fuels. It’s said that geese eat as much grass as a cow. I thought that was a granny’s tale but now I’m starting to believe it! Adult geese just nibble but hungry growing goslings can rival teenage lads for the amount of food they can pack away!!

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My mother’s hives have done really well this year too. We had more than enough honey and because we don’t farm them to sell honey my mum decided to leave the last crop of honey on the hives for the bees to keep over-winter instead of feeding them artificially despite the supers being rammed full of capped honey. Unfortunately this kindness may have backfired as the heavy honey crops have attracted raiders … one hive is able to hold its own but the other had lost its queen and had a virgin queen later in the season. This one has been heavily raided by wasps and the bees have had their hands ? feet ? full trying to defend the hive. You can see one just coming in to land here behind the darker coloured bees.

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The bees will valiantly drag out any intruders, trying to pull off legs and wings, dropping the heavy wasps over the edge of the flight board. I watched one last week fly staggeringly some 5 metres dragged down by the wasp in its grasp and then it carefully dropped the stripy burden into a spider’s web stretched between two grass stalks before flying back to the hive. I was amazed at such a deliberate action and may have let out a cheer for the clever bee. We try to help them (and next year we’ll be taking the honey off!) by shutting down the entrance and putting out wasp traps.

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But only time will tell if this colony has been weakened too badly too survive the winter. It’s tricky because wasps too have their place. I’d just rather they didn’t kill our our bees!

There’s always something to be done when you’re surrounded by growing things! So far we’ve got most of our wood under cover and there’s hay and straw in the barn. But the apple-juicing is the next major task and I’ve still more wood to cut up and stack before the winter closes in. Onwards to next week with gratitude for the kind weather we’re having. Long may it last…

 

Hyggeligt

I’ve always been fascinated by words; individually, their etymology, their use and construction in sentences as a means to convey information or emotion. I don’t converse in other languages (a sad failure on my part) but I am intrigued by words from other languages also, especially those that don’t translate well and remain unique to their own tongue.

Hygge – a Danish concept and  Norwegian word – is one of those words that has percolated into my consciousness over the past couple of years, especially in the cooler seasons when hygge comes into its own and more people talk about it.

As I am not Scandinavian, hygge is something I have to really think about to try and understand. If indeed I can. Its loosest association in English appears to be “cosiness” – surely a universal concept. But as with other words that don’t translate into other languages, reading more about it, hygge seems to be so very much more intriguing than just being cosy.

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Cosiness is something intrinsic to fibre artists the world over, especially those of us who work with wool. Knitters, spinners, dyers, knitwear designers; however much we enjoy summer, lots of us secretly long for the crisper days that allow us to dig out treasured woollen hand knit items, lovingly crafted and carefully stored.

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Grey rainy days pen us up inside and beg us to light the woodstove or a candle, find a mug of something warm and comforting and pick up needles and yarn.

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Autumn and Winter turn us more inwards to search for inspiration within. The darker days and longer nights perhaps allow for more hours to devote to crafts. And the chilly evenings and crisp mornings give us the excuse to cast on exciting new projects, peruse patterns and buy fibre, yarn and books…

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To a non-Scandinavian fibre-loving person, hygge would seem to be present in pretty well all of the tactile enjoyment of our craft – from inception to finished item – and the pure pleasure that creativity brings. Days off for me invariably involve time to sit and spin with a mug of good coffee and something tasty to nibble on. It will always be drunk from a hand thrown chunky mug and appreciated slowly to fully invest in the enjoyment “making” brings me.

I feel hygge when I carefully lay out ingredients in readiness to bake, when I enjoy the pure aroma of handmade soap whilst washing my hands, in the cool earth crumbling beneath my fingers as I plant out tender seedlings or harvest home grown food. In the kneading of bread, the line of a poem, the shape of a letter being laid down in ink on fresh paper…

Hygge however seems to be much more than the cosiness of our surroundings or simple enjoyment of the things we do alone. More than material possessions. We hygge when we meet with family or friends, enjoy a moment or a meal together. Whilst reading about hygge and the Danish way of life recently I found the following thought very interesting:

Hygge stems from a society that is focused on people rather than things. It is linked to the language of love and to the idea that real wealth is not what we can accumulate but what we have to share

So hygge seems to mean a kind of happiness and generosity of spirit. But so often happiness of a kind has been linked to a striving for something, a nebulous something that is perhaps achieved only occasionally and has to be chased down like a rare butterfly eluding our net or purchased in an experience. In my early twenties I felt trapped by my work and by illness, happiness was something I’d felt I had long since lost and in the words of my doctor when I sobbed in his surgery I could no longer “see the light at the end of the tunnel”. Giving up my job was the terrifying non-choice I took but I’d reached the bottom of the hell-hole I’d somehow fallen into and there was no place else to go. Hurrying through the days without living them mindfully, I’d suddenly been brought up short. Slowly I returned to the light. Family, nature, faith, whole foods, and being outdoors in natural daylight all played a part in nourishing mind, spirit and body. I had no income, no future plans, saw few people and had very little in the way of material possessions and no money to buy new ones or to go out socialising. Despite the apparent lack of trappings of the modern world I did discover something I’d not had for many years. Peace…

In between the new activities that filled my days; learning to grow vegetables, reading and study, spending more time making and building, finding alternatives to owning, buying and having things, I discovered a truth I had overlooked in my race to achieve something, anything, je ne sais quoi. Happiness was not ecstasy. It was contentment. Having less, doing less but accepting those limitations with simple gratitude gave me a peace I’d not experienced since childhood. I felt like I’d come out into a whole new world. I learned to invest in each moment and live in the present. I felt that the past and the future were linked by a trail of “nows” and that living each moment fully would build a better life. In the frugality I felt like I’d learned the secret of happiness and for a season nothing could shake that.

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In everything of course though there are good and bad moments. In time dark days returned and with them a level of pain previously unknown. The newly learned lessons of contentment were rattled and shaken by storms which often threatened at times to snuff them out altogether. But again family, faith, nature, the love of friends and now spinning and knitting gave me threads to hold onto and weave into the chaotic fabric of my life. And dotted in and amongst the turmoil I tried to find small oases of what I think were hygge or at least hyggeligt (hygge-like); moments to shut the door and sit and spin for a while, perhaps lighting a candle and sit with the window open listening to the night sounds or taking a few moments to properly savour a mug or plate of something thoughtfully prepared. Love pulled our family through the dark canyon to the other side, albeit each of us to our different shores.

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Since then there have been times when I’ve managed to live each moment fully and times when I have utterly lost sight of this. Pondering on the word hygge in recent weeks it reminded me of this need I feel to live each moment mindfully and find contentment that is in the here-and-now rather than always thinking ahead to what the future might bring. Perhaps. One day. Maybe.

I know there are busy times ahead and uncertainty. Winter is always our longest season here; we spend the short summer months preparing for the longer colder darker times, storing, mending, preparing. As we move into Autumn with the prospect of greyer light and fewer hours to pack things into, it increases my feeling that I need to savour each moment for what it really is and be thankful. This season to try make my life a little more hyggeligt. Piece by piece. Moment by moment. It will be good.

I’m almost tempted to say I can’t wait!