Dreaming of Living by the Sea, Whilst I Work

The last you heard from me, July was a busy month and I was generally running around going “Arrggghhh! Stuff to do!!!!”. Halfway through August, that hasn’t changed one iota, as generally the list of Things to Do lengthens, and my freelance work remains (thankfully) steady. A couple of weeks ago, we managed to get away for a day to the beach in Suffolk. Walberswick, to be precise, and although it was a bit overcast and manky, in the evening we were lucky enough to watch the clouds roll away and be basked in the most delicious golden sunlight as we played games on the beach and ate from a barbeque.

The weekend after I went away with some friends for the weekend in Kent; again, we visited the beach – this time Camber Sands – and even though our afternoon jolly there was brief, after eating chips and curry sauce by the beach I was again convinced that it was a place that I needed to be.

Those visits to the beach cemented the idea in my head that I would very much like to live by the beach one day. There is something about the sea that really invigorates me and makes me feel settled and steady. I don’t think that I’d grow tired of it, either. With house prices the way they are, and no change on the horizon, it may well be a pipe dream, but one that I’m happy to hold on to for years to come.

It’s been a funny summer at The Smallest Smallholding really. I haven’t done that much. I always expect myself to be really busy doing this, that and the other but in a way it’s been Rich that’s taken the lead, mowing, cutting, watering, whilst I sit bog-eyed at the computer managing my little online business, writing and helping to organise this conference. There is quite a bit to do, but all in all things to seem to be taking care of themselves at this point – the chillis are slowly growing, the tomatoes are hanging around waiting forever to ripen, and the squash plants have LITERALLY taken over the greenhouse to the point where I can only step inside the door and go no further. I don’t mind really, because I’m hoping that the extra warmth in there will mean my squashes will grow to a good size, and there’s much less threat of frost damage that plagued so many of them last year.

I think with growing, the thing I look forward to most is the eating part. I do enjoy watching things grow from a tiny, inconsequential-looking seed into something quite magnificent, but it’s the part where you serve it up on your plate, knowing where you grew it, how you grew it, remembering all the effort that went into growing it… all that somehow adds to the feeling of satisfaction when you’ve finished. My ‘yields’ are very small, as there’s just two of us and I haven’t yet explored storing my fruit & veg yet (another one on the ‘To Do’ list), but at the moment I’m enjoying using my own garlic, onions and potatoes. These are three staple ingredients in many the easy, rustic dishes that I cook for myself, and there is definitely a difference in flavour there that I’m enjoying.

Our little patch of Smallest Smallholding is also proving to be a gold mine for feeding the rabbits, with grasses, thistle leaves, dandelion leaves and such providing free fodder, helping to keep costs down. I’m hoping that by autumn, with our squashes and leeks and carrots we’ll be able to do the same. Because we are limited on space, I tried to plant things that I would be using frequently, but also plant food that is maybe a little more expensive to buys in the shops. Whereas I can buy a £6 bag of good quality maincrop potatoes from our local farmer, growing them at home would take up valuable space. Leeks always seem to be quite pricy to me, and I use them a lot in my veggie dishes so it made sense to have my own crop this year.

Mum is lucky enough to share a field with her best friend, so she’s been growing her own food on a much larger scale than me. But then, Mum has more time to devote to it, so it works out for her and often, I’ll do a job for Mum – perhaps some painting, or fixing something, or some leaflets for her little business, and she’ll repay me with a vat of soup (or if it’s Rich, often Rock Cakes or Lemon Drizzle Cake) that means we don’t have to pay to feed ourselves for a couple of days (unless it’s the Rock Cakes, because they disappear too quickly). It’s all swings and roundabouts and it’s an arrangement I’m happy with.

So food aside, as ever there is plenty for me to be getting on with, but simply not enough hours in the day. I’ve booked myself off on ‘holiday’ in 3 weeks, just as the kids go back to school. We might head to the beach again with our tent for a couple of days, but there’s also lots of things I need to get sorted here in that time too. Repairing the window frames, weeding, and sorting the Mediterranean area to name just three. We’ve been umming and ahhing about whether to opt for gravel in the Med area, but we think for simplicity and because we have 6 million other things to manage and think about, we might grass it for now, and perhaps think about adding in a gravel path or stonechipped area later on when we have the resources and the time to spare. I’ll plant up my plants specially picked by Stephen from Victoriana Nursery Gardens in to get them established – even restricted in their pots, they’ve definitely been a target for bees and hoverflies this summer, and I’m looking forward to filling in the gaps once they’re in and rooted nicely.

So, in the meantime, it’s business as usual, with work and cleaning and not doing the weeding, and trying to keep the house from turning into a tumble-down fur pit and wondering when the car is finally going to go kaput and making plans for build a new shed because the old one is falling down and making sure we’ve got enough to pay all the bills and tackling the debt and looking for more, more, more work and on and on and on and on…

Mediterranean Eating Area and Funding Finances

Tortoise the cat sitting near the house in the evening sun

Tortoise the cat sitting near the house in the evening sun

Prologue: I wrote this about 5 weeks ago and never published it. Whoops. I’ve been so busy. SO busy – very sorry for the lack of blog updates. But I will be blogging again soon. Promise.

I’ve just been on a pre-lunch potter, and discovered that in just one square metre of our pretty substantial nettle patch, there are no less than 63 ladybird larvae. I’m quite impressed by that.

It’s been blustery here in Smallest Smallholding land for a good month. In the space of around six weeks. my garlic have been subjected to drought-like conditions (despite my best efforts to water them regularly), 30mph+ winds, as well as a mixture of driving rain AND wind, and I think there may have even been a ground frost thrown in for good measure. The result is that they’ve decided to just lay down and get on with it. I’m quite sure that they’re a soft-neck garlic variety, so I’m not at all surprised. I was hoping that the bulbs underground would continue to swell and in a few weeks, offer me some fat, pungent garlic to cook with for the next few months. I love my garlic SO MUCH. Shop-bought garlic just doesn’t do it for me any more.

But no, the first garlic harvest was absolute crap. So it’s finger’s crossed that the next look (which, admittedly, look so much healthier and robust) make the grade.

In my last blog post I wrote about the chicken rescue I was lucky enough to tag along at. The good news is that the next instalment is in the pipeline, and I’m so ready for another go. Now I know what I’m doing I’m chomping at the bit to get in there and help get those girls out. Finances still won’t allow for me to get my own girls – not that keeping them is expensive, but around here, the vet bills are. The Smallest Smallholding resident white queen cat Lilla had some eye problems last month, and one vet visit, two injections and a tube of eye ointment cot us £60. Then she had an allergic reaction to an insect bite and that was another £50. We’d do anything for our cats, but it does come at a price. And at 9 years old, I don’t think we can get Lilla or her sister or my two ex-stray fat cats Tom and Tortoise insurance, so we have to lump the costs.

Money. Money, money, money. It’s been on my mind a LOT lately, as usual. Basically, I don’t have enough of it to pay off debts, save up for tax, have a life (even a modest social life), save up for a holiday for my 30th, and just pay the bills to get by. Deposit for a mortgage? Upgrade our falling apart car? One day get married and have kids? Dream on.

So it comes down to the fact that I have to make more money via my freelance, save harder and spend smartly.

Going through our bank statements, we’ve realised that we’ve been spending a heck of a lot of money on food. My Smallest Smallholding veg growing exploits aren’t yet anywhere near a level that can sustain us outside of the mid-late summer months. We shop at Waitrose, which isn’t the most competitively priced supermarket, but it’s not bad, and its ethics are generally better than the scourge of British consumerism that are Tesco, Asda and Morrisons (yes, I’m a supermarket snob, and I enjoy the superb customer service for a change!). With our Waitrose being very very local, our problem is that we shop there several times a week, often popping in to get something inane like carrots or tin foil and coming out with £40 worth of goods. There’s not much planning, and its costing us much more than it ought to.

So, as Rich and I are both on a healthy eating thing at the mo (he has lost 6kgs, I have lost 2, boo), we’ve decided to introduce a healthy wallet plan too, where we withdraw a currently undisclosed (because we haven’t worked it out) amount of money for our monthly shopping budget and stick to it. There’s something about paying in cash that makes you realise just how much you’re handing over. All to often I can pay for something by card, not think about the amount that’s been deducted from my account and then a few days later have a small heart attack at just how much I’ve spent. Ridiculous, stupid and irresponsible, in short.

So hopefully we’ll be that little bit better financed throughout the month if we get ourselves sorted out. Time and bank statements will tell.

In other news, I’ve been writing a lot (children’s/YA book, been thinking on it for about 3 years) and continuing to dig a lot. The Mediterranean eating area is coming quite close to being dug over completely. Only one small, but challenging area remains. I say challenging because it’s probably the area most densely rooted with ivy, couch grass and bindweed roots. But with two of us on the case, dare I say it but I think in a week or two, in between work and other commitments, we might have it done. The next job will be to cut back the glorious thicket of honeysuckle and clematis montana so we can extract the fallen down trellis. Then we’re going to create a mood board so we can work out exactly what we’re going to do.

I received a couple of big parcels from Victoriana Nursery Gardens, having given owner Stephen a budget, a vague description consisting of “I need some Mediterranean style plants that the bees will like” and asking him to include some rosemary and lavender in the mix. These plants give us a base to work from, and should do well in the poor, sandy soil without much need for feeding and fertilising (ie, sustainable!):

  • Lavandula augustifolia ‘Munstead’ (a dwarf lavender)
  • French lavender
  • Ceratostigma plumbaginoides
  • Phomis fruitcosa (Jerusalem sage)
  • Perovskia atriplicifolia ‘Blue Spire’
  • Cistus ‘Anne Palmer’
  • Abelia x grandiflora
  • Lavandula augustifolia/spica – Old English Lavender
  • Santolina virens ‘Primrose Gem’
  • Phlomis Italica

I think we’ll probably bulk out the rest of the planting with lavenders and flowering/edible herbs. HOW we arrange our planting is yet to be decided.