Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Bank Holiday

I hope everyone had a good bank holiday weekend. Here in Cambridge the weather decided to gripe a bit on Monday, but K and I had already decided that we didn't really want to move terribly far from the flat all weekend (with the exception of a little canoeing with Scouts on the River Cam first thing on Saturday morning). Instead, we spent most of the weekend revising, refreshing and acquiring our dressmaking skills.

Regular readers may recall a post about dressmaking rather some time ago. Well, much to my shame, I never actually found the time to make that skirt and the sewing machine has stayed under wraps for most of the last year. Recently, however, there have been stirrings of determination to actually do something with it, and K hit on the rather good idea of offering to make little pinafore dresses for a good friend with a one year-old daughter. Said friend kindly consented to be our guinea pig (she has already received several knitted and embroidered gifts with very good grace) and we acquired a suitable pattern.

This weekend, our flat was a wonderful chaos of fabric, thread and moved items of furniture. We quickly concluded that we don't really need a living room (it's the only room we have, aside from a miniture bedroom, bathroom and kitchen), but that we do very much need a sewing room. Definitely something to aspire too when I grow up :-) Unfortunately I didn't have the presence of mind to take any photos, but I can proudly annouce that we can now:

- Thread the machine without having to look up how to do it first

- Cut out a pattern with confidence and fairly minimal wastage

- Assemble, pin and baste the pieces, complete with interfacing

- Sew a reasonably straight seam

- Topstitch a reasonably straight seam

- Pull out the tacking thread without wrecking everything, despite having sewn over much of it with many, many tiny stiches.

- Sew a buttonhole (although they haven't been ripped yet)

There seems to be a good chance that the skirt will get made soon after all!

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

The Awakening

Like gardeners everywhere*, I am being inordinately cheered by the arrival of spring in my garden, even if the garden in question is predominantly limited to a few windowsills of seed trays. I got my seeds planted a bit late this year, what with one busy weekend and another, but I finally managed to get the main seed trays done. The beans at least are already making a strong showing

So, what is planned for the patio garden this year? So far I have runner beans, two types of courgette (yellow and green), three types of tomato including the '100s and 1000s) which were much enjoyed last year, plus lots of lettuce and my favourite radishes. There will be a reprisal of the successful 'golden sweet' mange tout from last year as well, except that a surprising last-ditch attempt at growing from some over-wintered chard means that their designated spot is still occupied, so they will have to wait.

I must confess that I am not following last year's policy of heritage veg heritage veg so stringently this year, although my ideals remain unchanged. Last year was simply a bit too disheartening, and while I know this was partly due to the abysmal summer, I can't imagine that some of the varieties helped either. I'm also aware that my veg is at a disadvantage simply because it is grown in containers and not in 'real' soil, so for now I'm trying to knock at least one variable on the head by using more tried-and-tested varieties. When I have a garden of my own, there'll be a bit more room for experimentation. The exception to this is the 'Golden Sweet' peas, which performed so well last year that I'm tempted to continue growing them in containers in the future.

*That is, everywhere in the Northern hemisphere. Living with a South African has made me very well trained on this matter.

Friday, 17 April 2009

My First Handspun

After a bit of trial and error, here is a picture of the first results of my spinning attempts.*

I'm quite pleased with it, overall. It's a bit lumpy-bumpy, but I was definitely getting better at making a yarn of consistent thickness by the end (although the single strand on view here wouldn't suggest so). I'm definitely going to carry on spinning the rest of the fibre I have and see if I can't get something a bit more even by the time I finish it all. If I can, then I'll consider the spinning experiment a success, and I'll probably get in some more fibre supplies. I also want to knit this yarn and see how it comes out - I imagine it'll be pretty bad, but we shall have to see. The current plan to to knit a scarf with all the handspun I produce until I am capable of actually coming up with anything decent. Unless I make some unexpected Great Leaps Forward, I imagine it will look like an 'organic' version of that amazingly long and brightly-coloured scarf that Dr Who used to wear.

A few observations about hand spinning have struck me so far:

- Spinning seems to be one of those things which arevery, very easy to start and do badly, but which take a lifetime to perfect. The simple action of tying some fibre to a spindle and letting it drop practically does itself, but feeding the yarn through in such a way as to produce a consistent thickness is bloody tricky business. Apparently learning English is much the same, albeit without the scraps of fibre that end up covering the carpet.

- Things in spinning happen surprisingly fast, much faster than knitting which tends to take forever even for the fastest knitters. This means that, unless one is careful, a whole wodge of yarn can end up being unintentionally spun and ends up being a thick, lumpy Right Mess.**

- I realised very quickly why spinning wheels are so great, since essentially they allow the spinner two hands to feed the yarn through rather than one. Many disasters occur with a spindle when the spinner is temporarily distracted from the fibre by the need to get the spindle spinning again.

- It's clearly far more trouble than it's worth, but tremendous fun all the same.

*OK, technically not the very first attempt. There was no way I was going to put up a picture of the very first attempt.

** This would be why I'm not putting up a picture of the very first attempt.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

St. Amand, patron saint of booze

Today I discovered a new Saint, St Amand. St Amand was born in what-is-now-France in the sixth century and spent most of his life as a missionary in what-is-now-Belgium. There was a famous monastery dedicated to him at St-Amand-les-Eaux near Tournai in Belgium. This monastery was attacked by vikings in 883, which is how I came to be reading about St. Amand this morning.

The reason I decided to write about him is that St. Amand turns out to be the patron saint of all those involved in the production and trade of wine and beer, which I thought made him an appropriate saint for all those of a self-sufficient bent, much like Saint Perpetua. Rather amusingly, St. Amand is also the patron saint of Boy Scouts, although I confess that I am not entirely sure what the link is here. In case anyone is interested in honouring his feast day with the copious consumption of his favourite beverages, it falls on the 6th February, conveniently just before Lent (I imagine the Boy Scouts are optional).

The other reasons I decided to write about St. Amand is that firstly, I am a bit too busy with vikings today to write a proper blog post, and secondly, it gives me an excuse to post another picture of a medieval manuscript. Not that I need a great deal of excuse.

Friday, 3 April 2009

Cardigan Complete, and a Daffodil Festival

Here's a picture of a mystery parcel that was lying on our Living Room floor for a few days last week.

Can you tell what it is yet?

It's a cardigan!

Congratulations to K for getting this finished, blocked and ready to wear. She beat me hands down when it came to finishing, since not only was the cardigan ready a week before my waistcoat, but she had to make sleeves as well. In case you're interested, the pattern comes from Sirdar's Simple and Easy Knits , which is remarkable for the unfussiness of its designs. K, like me, is rarely impressed with the majority of clothes for 20-somethings available in the shops; unlike me, she prefers things that are classic, simple and elegant to things that look like they have only just come off the sheep.

She was able to wear her creation proudly all weekend, which turned out to be a good couple of days for all things sustainable and craft-related. On Saturday our local Scout Troop ran their annual spring jumble sale over the road, which as ever turned out to be full of bargins. I think the final haul was one Monsoon skirt (possibly for Mother), one cosy Monsoon zip-up cardigan for K, one Hawkshead polo-neck for me, one green Kew cardigan to share, and a long, cosy, natural wool, cabled cardigan for me. The latter is so, precisely, exactly, perfectly me, that my immediate reaction on seeing it was 'great! That will save me making one just like it'. I also got a nice length of tweedy brown fabric, which would make a very nice winter skirt if I get round to spending some quality time with the sewing machine.

On Sunday we went with neighbour Zoe to Thriplow Daffodil Festival. It was pretty good (albeit not cheap), if you like that sort of thing. There were sheepdog trials, which I definitely do like (I still mourn the loss of One Man and His Dog on BBC, even though I was a trendy 16 when it came off air). There was also some fine Morris Dancing from the good men of The Devil's Dyke Morris Men , who usually crop up at this kind of event in the Cambridge area. I have a soft spot for Morris Dancing, even if it is one of the two things in life one is never supposed to try (and the other being incest, that is hardly a recommendation), although thanks to having spent my teenage years spent reading Terry Pratchett, I still have a tendency to regard it as a slightly sinister activity. Apart from Morris Dancers, they also had the obligatory tents of 'local' craft stalls (including the equally obligatory 'African Crafts' stall - K has a small collection of photographs of 'African Crafts' stalls at unlikely locations worldwide. The current winner is from the Christmas market at the Norwegian Folk Museum in Oslo). There were quite a few daffodils, not to mention bouncing lambs in fields, just as it should be at this time of year, and these made me very happy, since at this time of year I greatly miss the fields full of lambs that marked the springs of my childhood. I also bought a woad plant from a herb stall, so perhaps I'll be dying my own cloth Boudicca-Blue later this year (it'll be a loom next).

Perhaps best of all, there was a working smithy, and I would recommend the Thriplow Daffodil Festival just to go and have a peek at this. The smithy itself is the original village smithy, which has presumably stood on the village green in one form or another since the year dot. It ceased to operate regularly in the early 20th century, but has been kept going as a heritage concern and centre for village history, and there are clearly people around who still know how to use it. Indeed, there even seemed to be a Young Apprentice. The smith-in-residence was selling lucky horseshoes for a quid, so needless to say I bought one.

Does anyone else have Views on which way up a horseshoe should be? I was always taught that it had to be 'upwards-pointing', otherwise the luck would drain out, but perhaps that is just a Yorkshire thing.

Tuesday, 31 March 2009


One of the aims I have always had with this blog is to make it a kind of resource for anyone else who might want to grow vegetables in containers on a fairly large scale. I'm not sure if I ever will get round to writing my single 'definitive' guide to what I have found works and what doesn't, but I can at least add to it by talking about my kale.

I put five plugs of kale in one of my large planters back in September. At the time, I didn't have huge hopes of a great harvest, or even much confidence that kale could actually be grown in a container. What I did want was something to grow over the winter and occupy some compost that would otherwise just get waterlogged and mouldy. Initially, my kale experiment was a constant battle with cabbage whites and their wretched caterpillars (surprising, I know), who munched one plant into oblivion, but after the first frosts in October I stopped having to mount a daily counter-attack. Since then, the kale has been growing slowly but steadily until they reached a fairly respectable size. The lack of space meant that two plants of the four were clearly 'dominant', but even the weedy ones produced a reasonable number of leaves. We have had kale twice with dinner so far, and I reckon there are probably another two servings on the plants. Admittedly the leaves are more like 'baby' kale than the kind of whoppers generally seen on allotments, but hey, the last time I checked supermarkets were charging twice as much for 'baby' sweetcorn, carrots and beans as they were for the full-sized version, so why not do the same for kale

In summary, container grown Kale is clearly never going to reach the large size of a plant in the ground. There just isn't the space for the roots. On the other hand, kale does seem happy enough to grow to a medium-sized plant with perfectly tasty leaves in quite cramped conditions, and more importantly, will occupy a planter all the way through from September to March, a time when little else will occupy those expanses of compost outside the front door. At six portions of fresh veg for about £1.50's worth of plugs, I imagine that I broke even with the cost, but this doesn't take into account the pleasure of having something growing over the winter and the convenience of being able to space the harvest out, rather than buying a big bag and then having to eat kale every night for a week.

I would normally here include a photo, but we ate too many of the leaves before I thought of writing this post, and the remaining kale looks rather like it suffered from a visit from the Very Hungry Caterpillar and is consequently not terribly photogenic.

Friday, 27 March 2009

Spin like a Viking

I got a new toy in the post this morning and I am very excited about it.

Yup, it's a spindle, complete with four blobs (rovings? tops? I'm not quite on board with all the jargon yet) of natural wool and an instruction leaflet. A start-to-spin kit, if you will, thanks to the nice people at .

The spindle is a pure indulgence on my part. Yes, I would love, love to be able to spin my own wool. Of course I would. There is a passage in my lovely Stitch 'n' Bitch book describing one of their designers, who taught herself to knit from a book, then learnt to spin and 'is now trying to work out how she can smuggle sheep into her Manhattan Apartment'. I don't have a single friend who hasn't read that and not immediately gone, 'hah. Sounds like you'. I would love to spin, but I really don't have the time to learn. Even at the moment, when I'm reliably knitting every night, I usually don't get a chance to start until 9pm, or even later. This is why my long knitted eco-wool waistcoat is only now approaching completion around a year since I started it, and why I still haven't made my dream skirt, even though I've had the material and the pattern for over six months.

I know all this, but I still couldn't resist the spindle. It actually never occured to me to get a spindle, even though as a good medieval historian I am very well aware that it is perfectly possible to spin on one, since spinning wheels were only invented around 1500 or so. It took another knitting medievalist to point this out to me, when I was sitting have coffee with a her and talking about spinning, knitting, crochet and many other forms of craft, just like 20-something students do, right? She was being extremely nice to me after I had heard that I didn't get a job I had really wanted, and was happy to listen to me ramble on about how much I would like a spinning wheel, except that our flat is already bursting at the seams (the spindle is going to be a bit of a squeeze). 'Why not spin with a spindle?', was the helpful suggestion. Immediately, visions of strapping medieval housewives wielding spindles and distaffs while happily waving goodbye to their viking husbands sprung fully formed into my mind. If generations of medieval women could do it, why not me? (I suspect I am about to find out, since rumour has it that spinning is not as easy as this 14th century lady makes it look. At the very least, I think it will be a while before I can spin and feed chickens at the same time.)

I'll let you know how I get on. Once I've cracked this, the next step is the sheep.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

A Pocket Wilderness

One of the odd things about living in Cambridge as part of the post-graduate community here is that I’m friends with surprisingly few Brits who still live here. As many of you will have noticed , K is South African and my dear neighbours are Australian, and I might add that a high proportion of my fellow medievalists are from the US or Canada. These lovely people are frequently heard to comment that Britain is not an island with much in the way of wilderness, and their voices adopt a somewhat wistful tone as they remember the vision of an empty road stretching off in to the distance, not a roundabout in sight. Now, I cannot help but agree that Britain as a rule lacks the kind of endless empty spaces of South Africa/USA/Australia etc, especially south of the Humber (I am still such a northerner at heart). But it is also true, I think, that England is also full of secret ‘pocket wilderness’, little patches of desolate, beautiful, wild spaces that have somehow escaped the press of people and houses which are so evident in most places.

With the aid of a car and an increasing number of years spent living in East Anglia, K and I are attempting to discover some more of these pocket wildernesses. On Saturday, we were privileged to find such a one less than two hours drive away, on the North Norfolk coast. To tell the truth, I have always felt a bit embarrassed that I have not visited this part of the world before. We are less than two hours drive away, and goodness knows enough people have recommended it to me . Even the difficulty of finding a decent enough Saturday, weather-wise, rather ceases to be an acceptable excuse after about six months. THIS Saturday, I insisted. The weather was good, work had been moderately kind to us and we had enjoyed an utterly crashy, I’m-not-leaving-this-sofa-if-it-kills-me Saturday the weekend before.

It was absolutely amazing. We went first to Titchwell Marsh RSPB reserve, because I had heard of it and because I had a member’s pass so we could get free parking. Beautiful reedbeds, marshland and salt flats stretching out under the wide sky, dripping with avocets, teals, shovelers and gulls. I got to spend a pleasing amount of time playing with the shiny camera K bought me for Christmas.

A snipe obligingly posed in front of a hide, causing me to drop my lens cover.

The reserve itself wasn’t much of a wilderness, however. Far too many chaps wearing about twelve telescopes arranged about their person (and I shall not comment further on such folk, except to say that there were ridiculous numbers of lesbians there. Quite astonishing. How had I never noticed this tendency in my birdwatching phase as a teenager?).

The reserve wasn't much of a wilderness, but the reserve opened out on to a beach. The beach was an English wilderness if ever I saw one. Ten minutes walk up said beach saw us well out of the range of other people, and our only companions were the sandlings running in the surf at the water’s edge.

The place was eerie. A low mist hung over the sea, barely discernible except when we realised that it wasn’t actually possible to say where the sea stopped and the sky began. We got quite a shock at one point when a large animal appeared to be suspended in mid-air; it turned out to be a grey seal bobbing up for air. The waves were very long, light swells, lapping insistently at the shore. The afternoon sun made the sand fade into the sky further up the beach, and the only sign of human presence was a village in the far distance. The overall impression was that the edge of the world was just over the horizon, not far beyond the seal. It was a far cry from my familiar beaches of Yorkshire and Northumbria, where red-tiled fishing villages trickle down right to the shore and the coast is interspersed with high cliffs. Even better, tourists haven't really discovered East Anglia yet - the entire region receives about four pages in the Lonely Planet Guide to Britain (and yes, most of this is Cambridge), and is that isn't a recommendation, then I don't know what is.

All in all, a day out I would recommend to any one, especially if they end the day with fish and chips at Wells-Next-the-Sea. The first fish and chips since abandoning my eight years of vegetarianism - that is a blog post in itself.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Hello again

Now for some reason it has started occurring to me that I would like to start blogging again, so I have decided to succumb to this urge. After all, a girl needs her distractions during the final months of a PhD. Also it is nearly time to start planting seedlings again, and I do so love talking about seedlings. Before I move on to seedlings, though, I’ll give you all a quick flavour of what I’ve been doing since October.

I’ve written some fairly meaty chunks of PhD and taught several undergraduates while early medieval history is really quite so exciting.

I've applied to quite a few jobs, which has resulted in a lot of exhaustion and frustration but unfortunately no job yet

(These two are the reasons why this blog has been quite so dormant)

I spent three weeks enjoying myself in Africa over Christmas and New Year. I spent a lot of time driving through Namibia and Botswana in one of these...

Yes, I know, very environmentally friendly. It doesn't stop me wanting one of my very own though. I took to dirt-road driving like the proverbial duck to water. Note the cow on the road. The only surprising thing here is that there was only the one cow, and that it was not accompanied by large numbers of goats and donkeys. Driving on a main road in Africa is a lesson in learning to stop quickly.

As well as cows, goats and donkeys, I also saw lots of these.

Which made me very happy.

I then spent two weeks in Cape Town, where K and I got engaged!! This made me even happier :-) I have a very, very, very pretty engagement ring.

I strained all the sloe gin and elderberry schnapps. Some of the sloe gin miraculously made it through three sets of customs and was delivered to K's family for Christmas. The rest is sitting more-or-less untouched on the booze shelf in my kitchen, since in an inexplicable moment of piety and enthusiasm I decided to give up alcohol for Lent. Updates will follow after Easter.

I did lots of knitting. More on this later.

I did much less gardening (soon to change, I hope).

I marvelled at how cold the winter was. We had some good snow here in Cambridge (although not when returning from a three week holiday to find it has been below freezing for a week).

All in all, life has been good.