Rainwater harvesting


This is WWOOFer and journalist Russel McLendon installing the down pipe for the rainwater harvesting. The roof produces more water than we can cope with, so we used only one small gutter above a window. It then runs down to the top of the garden, where it is stored in butts and gravity fed as required.


Stella the baby hedgehog

We have had hedgehogs in the garden for many years.  They can travel as much as a mile at night, so we can never be sure that they are same ones, but they are at least regular visitors. There are openings in hedges and fences on both sides, so they can come and go easily, and are often seen by early risers of our household.

To accommodate them, we have plenty of undergrowth making nooks and crannies for them to hide under.   There are slugs and worms and plenty of water sources – although we have to be careful not to  leave open water butts that they can fall in and not get out of.

Hedgehog house almost ready for winter

We always hope that they will choose to live here over winter, so we provide a nice hedgehog house that I bought from the recycling centre for £2, this year re-vamped with roofing felt, and plenty of autumn leaves. It is worth always wearing gloves when handling hedgehogs or their bedding – not because of spines, but because the human scent can scare them off.

The MegaBus Gold sleeper – Victoria to Edinburgh

I’m not 100% sure I’m cut out for public transport.  I worked out that the last time I stepped on a coach was the airport transfer to Havana in 2007.  The last time I took the coach to London: 1990 or thereabouts.  There are any amount of ethical observations that can be made about this, and judgements made of both myself and the public transport system.  But something has to be wrong somewhere if somebody like me, who likes to save money and do the green thing, pretty much always opts for driving.

So what finally drove me onto public transport last night?  Two things: Scotland, and MegaBus.  Scotland is so very, very far, and MegaBus is so very, very cheap.   Have a look at their website.  The calculator is nice to use: it shows all the services in a given day, but also has Next and Previous buttons so it makes it simple to find the cheapest service.  You can do Victoria to Edinburgh or Glasgow for about £14, but it’s a long journey and the seating is quite cramped.  We got the ordinary MegaBus from Exeter to Victoria – my tall daughter literally couldn’t stretch her legs under the seat in front.  It’s just not structurally possible due to the way knees (don’t) bend.  So I decided to shell out the extra and get the sleeper up to Scotland.  It leaves Victoria at 23.00 (beware that the MegaBus terminal is not the same as the National Express terminal – about 6 mins apart, so allow a good half hour extra for faffing and getting lost etc) and you arrive in Edinburgh at 7.15 the next morning.  The theory is that you arrive well-slept and ready for a day of exploration, saving accommodation costs into the bargain.

Hmm.  Well, sort of…

Firstly, please note that it is a ticketless operation – so when the person you are with says to you “Have you got the tickets?” don’t faint or panic or run off to the ticket office to ask.  You just have to have printed off whatever appeared at the end of the online booking process, or brandish your email-capable fancy-phone at the person in the high-viz jacket (the one by the door, not the one stashing your luggage).

Yes, so I queued.  I stowed my baggage.  I showed my print-out.  I got on.  Large baggage has to go in the belly boxes – one 20kg bag is the maximum – and pretty much anything constitutes ‘large’ for MegaBus sleeper purposes.  Inside there is literally nowhere to put any luggage at all.   Bring in as little as possible.  I slept with my bag and my food bag and my coat on my bed.  I left my boots on the floor for others to trip over on their way to the loo, as I tripped over theirs.

Pillows are meagre, so a coat or cardi rolled up might come in useful that way.  It’s hot and there’s a blanket so don’t bring extras just in case.  Bring your phone charger (I didn’t) and laptop as you can plug it in above your head, and gadgetry is back-up against waking up in the night with nothing to divert you in the blackness.

There is no undressing.  There is no privacy and no elbow room.  Either travel in your nightwear or be prepared to sleep in your clothes.  Since you straddle two days, if you might normally change your underwear I recommend panty-liners or similar.  I have no equivalent recommendations for men. (I know when I’m out of my depth.)

The ‘beds’ transform from their daytime incarnation as seats with tables, and by the time we got on the whole upstairs of the bus was already turned into a dormitory of narrow, rigid, hammock-like bunk beds suspended from webbing straps and with a netting strung barrier to stop you or your overnight luggage falling out.  Or off.  Or through.


Some beds are almost certainly better bed located than others, but as they were allocated by the steward (conductor? bed monitor?) we had little control over it – although I reckon if you get there early there is more chance of being put at either end – which means fewer people swaying onto you en route up or down, a bit of a cosier feel and access to a window (except it’s dark, so it doesn’t really matter, at least not in winter).

If you are a couple, or otherwise constitute a ‘double’,  you get let on first and shoved into a claustrophobic, double, bottom bunk.  So unless you have someone you particularly want to scrunch up with, or have a small child to pinion into the inside, I would recommend avoiding this at all costs.   I am not clear how it occurs: I was never asked, but there was only one of me.   It may happen if more than one of you book together – in which case you might want to think about booking as two singles.   You’ll just have to pay an extra 50p booking fee.

My bunk was situated above a double.  I would also recommend avoiding this if you can.   It means you have two ‘outsides ‘ and feel rather exposed.  Worse still, if someone beneath you sits up they either poke you in the bottom or ribs, or their head suddenly appears beside you, incongruously close and at eye level as you lie there trying to convince yourself you are alone.

We were all issued with a small, complimentary bottle of water.  A few people asked questions, but they weren’t very interesting.  One of them was mine:  “Are the toilets downstairs?” to which the answer was “Aye.”  A few people snored, but only mildly.  I farted a few times, but I think I got away with it.

The good thing about not being able to sleep because the bed is too narrow and has hard, rigid bars digging into at least one part of you at any given moment, and because the little blue lights are really bright, and because every time the bus accelerates (or breaks, depending on which way you are pointing) you get a funny feeling of pressure in your head, is that you can get up for a wee in the middle of the night, thus avoiding the morning rush.   You can also get up really early, move downstairs to where there might be normal seat, at a table, and then you can peer out of the windows at Scotland emerging from the night sky.

The Weather – is the flood help always appropriate?

I haven’t got much personal news about The Weather.    It’s  been windy: the lid blew off the dustbin last week, and a bag of recycling fell over.  I could hear the wind up on the hill making scary noises, but down here we’re really sheltered.   Our broadband went off for five minutes yesterday.  It’s also been wet: the whole bottom of the garden has filled up and the soil  against the retaining wall is waterlogged to the brim.  But it is a no-tread bed and the ducks can’t get in there, so it doesn’t really matter.  It’ll just be nice and moist later in the growing season.   The water is still collecting in my erroneously designed step area, which can’t drain away, but it soon subsides.   The paths make a bit of a sploshy noise and could do with the wood-chips replenishing, but again, it doesn’t really matter.  Quite a bit of the extra water is probably attributable to my half-completed water harvesting, which still hasn’t got any overflow system and is just draining into the garden.  But from a wider viewpoint, I’m guess I’m sponging up the extra water rather than it going into the drains and – what?  Raising sea level, ultimately.  Never let it be said that I’m not doing my bit.


Totnes can’t compete with the ‘exploding sea’ on the Cornish coastline,  or the ‘living in a lake’ in the Somerset levels or along the Thames Valley.   There was a bit of seaweed on the grass down at Longmarsh, evidence that the river has been up a bit high, but that’s not unusual.  A pot-hole appeared in the road on The Plains on Sunday, and the road was closed yesterday when a tree fell down on the Dartington road.  Other people may have more dramatic stories, but I have been too busy picking up my recycling and replacing my dustbin lid to notice – oh, and watching the floods on TV.

This has triggered a few concerns in my mind.  Setting aside the wider and oft debated issue of climate change, and also the dubious competence of those responsible for preparing for floods (see for example The Spectator), what concerns me is who is in charge, and what inappropriate actions they will take in the name of  ’emergency’.

I do empathise with the indignation of people in the flooded communities who have been forced to conduct and implement their own relief operation during the period before Cameron et al got hyped into helicoptering down to have a look.  It’s not right that they should be left without support, and I’m sure there comes a severity level when anyone, however autonomous or self-sufficient, welcomes help from emergency services.   But I can’t help thinking that it might not be such a bad thing for the people, with their local knowledge and personal involvement, to be in charge – even if not actually doing it themselves.  Yes they need resources and supplies, but let them ask for what they want – and reject what they don’t.  Because it is a worrying thought that once the authorities get involved, backed with Cameron’s “money is no object” (oh yeah?  How has that suddenly happened then?) and their media-spun need to ‘be seen to be doing something’, that they are just going to steamroller over local people and their land.

Men are in charge, and men love diggers – and Hey presto!  JCB have donated a fleet of them.   Are they being deployed appropriately or are they just going to plough in with their great big machinery and mess everything up?   Put a digger on saturated ground and you’re going to compact the soil and inhibit absorbtion.  Do a load of indiscriminate digging and… well, maybe it’ll help someone, in the short term, but will it help in the longer term?   Surely flood defences – and remedial measures – need to be planned and precise and sensitive .  I haven’t seen much active opposition to or questioning of the actual remedies and measures being taken – maybe they’re doing it right, or maybe I’m using the wrong search terms.  Or maybe residents don’t feel they can question the methods when they need urgent help.  The problem with asking for help is that it can easily turn into a surrendering, an abdication, where those who help are liable to take over and do whatever they like, ride roughshod over the very people they are helping.  How much – or how little – say are the local people having in what is done where, and how?

Once a ‘national emergency’ is declared, how much adherence is there to normal laws,  procedures and rights?  What powers do ‘gold command’ have to instruct their operatives to take measures that would not normally be permitted?   What’s the betting they can do pretty much  anything they like?  Start with s.5(1) Civil Contingencies Act 2004…

On a personal, micro-scale, I always remember the time I had an unexplained fire start on my woodpile outside the front door.  I called the fire brigade as an over-cautious precaution, because the woodpile was next to the gas meter and I thought that it was better to have them on site than to call them later, after a gas explosion.   They sent two fire engines, and next thing I knew there were great big men striding down through the garden, and shouldering past me into the house, insisting I let them get to the kitchen.   I had to really protest – that the fire didn’t start in the kitchen, that it wasn’t in the house at all – in fact he was walking right past it.  Even then he argued with me… turned out he assumed that the wok, which was the closest, largest vessel to hand for carrying water out to put out the fire, was the culprit.  The problem was, once I had called them I surrendered my authority to theirs.  They had a duty of care to assess the situation and do whatever they thought was necessary, in their professional opinion, based on their assessment of the circumstances.  This is sort of alright, in theory, but that still doesn’t change the facts: I knew where the fire was, I knew where it wasn’t, and I tried to explain all of it to him but he didn’t listen.   He substituted his opinion for my knowledge.  Why?

In Westonzoyland in Somerset homes are in danger of worse flooding due to measures being taken to divert water away from Bridgewater.  According to The TelegraphAn Environment Agency source said: “A 40 square mile area of the Somerset Levels could be flooded deliberately to save Bridgwater and Taunton.”  A spokesman for the Environment Agency said: “This is an emergency situation and some very difficult decisions have to be made.”  A woman in Somerset had a drainage ditch dug across her land to drain surface water into the river – yet her  own property was left cut off and flooded on the other side.   An artificial weir was created with 30 ton sandbags to divert water away from Winchester, intentionally flooding 300 acres of farmland.  I don’t know whether these measures are justified, sensible or necessary, and whether due consideration has been given to alternatives, but I can’t help remembering foot and mouth and how badly that was handled by people with the power to enforce it.

Ultimately, when drastic measures are being taken, it becomes more important  than ever to be able to trust the people in charge.   And I don’t.  I simply but emphatically don’t.  When the operation is being motivated by political concerns to be ‘seen to be doing something’, rather than by the genuine long-term best interests of the community and the land, I don’t have any confidence that the correct decisions will be made.  Do you?

A bit of light reading:

The Civil Contingencies Act 2004

The National Flood Emergency Framework for England

Seven Heretical Virtues

New Year is the time for a bit of unbridled introspection, and I have been reflecting on my good fortune at having certain virtues that stand me in good stead.  These vastly undervalued characteristics are often presented as character flaws – but are they, really?  (Some of the traditional ‘vices’ are worth a second look, too.)

1. Stinginess

There is nothing like generosity to generate a ridiculous amount of unwanted crap – particularly at Christmas, but at other times of year too – birthdays, visits to/from relatives, return from holiday, birth of a baby, etc.  Think of all those acrylic matinee jackets that manifest during late pregnancy.  My well cultivated stinginess at birthday and Christmas has bred into the children (now adults) that we don’t give presents to all and sundry, and amongst ourselves we give only one small gift.  For years I reckoned on a tenner for each of the kids, my mum and my boyfriend if I had one.  In latter years this has turned into one larger but pre-arranged gift.   Dispensing with Christmas stockings, advent strings etc has been a glorious relief and dramatically reduced the pile of surplus crap.  I normally give about three or four cards – but to different people each year.   I like homemade or exceptionally well chosen cards, and I would prefer re-display the one I like from a previous year than receive a new inferior one.  Crackers are OK if they are made from old newspapers, but even then a lot of work goes into them just to be destroyed. I don’t like bangs, I don’t like jokes and I don’t like silly hats.  To be honest, I don’t know anyone who does.

Stinginess in the highstreet and unwillingness to spend money on something just because I want it, has been an invaluable protection against overspending and debt.   I don’t waste money on new items that I’ll get secondhand if I wait, or on rash purchases of things I don’t need.  I made a rash purchase once.  I bought a deep fat fryer for thirty quid, thinking we would make chips and tempura.  We rarely made chips or tempura, yet the horrible thing was always there,  sticky and brown on the worktop, looking far worse than the ones that immediately appeared at the carboot for a couple of quid.  Never again.

Stinginess means I could never be a gambler.  Gambling to me is spending 50p on a book that may turn out to be an Amazon ‘penny book’ and ‘losing’ is having to sell it off at Pilton for a quid.  Occasionally we’ll put a few 2ps in those machines in the amusement arcade, the ones that slide backwards and forwards and coins pile up until you get a satisfying tumble of them in the tray.  But I can’t imagine feeding money into a machine that doesn’t do that.  Like parking meters.  Thinking of which, being too mean to pay for parking leads to more cycling and visiting charity shops in more obscure places.   Thinking of which, stinginess leads to increased revenue for charities.

Stinginess means I could never be a cocaine addict: it is just such bad value for money (or so I hear).  Stinginess results in accumulating savings and never being in financial difficulties.  Stinginess means never throwing anything away and then, when I have a job to do, always having the materials to do it.  Stinginess leads to lots of recycling and composting and very little landfill.  It is assuredly good for the planet, and it saves a lot of hard work in sweatshops.


2. Laziness

Being lazy means doing less, which is lighter on the planet and also far, far easier.  Being too lazy to look at airfares and bothering go on holiday reduces Co2 emissions, but in any case going on holiday is hard – think of all that rucksack carrying and traipsing around ruins and museums and what-not.  It is much easier to stay at home.  Going to bed early saves tiredness and electricity.   Laziness lowers productivity, uses fewer resources and saves energy for sudden bursts of necessary activity.  Procrastinating and not getting around to things allows time to change my mind, for the task to atrophy and drop off the To-Do list.  Laziness stops me from getting fat and spotty, because I can’t be bothered to go to the shop for chocolate.  Being too lazy to help people prevents them from feeling patronised or interfered with.  Preferring comfort and ease to stress keeps me sane and happy.

There is a whole philosophical thing with ‘not doing’.  There’s Carlos Castaneda’s ‘stopping the world’ in Journey to Ixtlan; Eileen Caddy at Findhorn talked about being still and listening for the “still, small voice”.  Meditation requires stillness and quiet and not-doing.

Of course there really isn’t any such thing as ‘not doing’ because you’re ‘doing’ whatever form your not-doing takes.  In law, ‘acts’ and ‘omissions’ are rarely treated differently, recognising that both have an effect.   Yet ‘not doing’ tends to get  bad press, as if it is failure, in conventional society, or gets applauded as a virtue in more spiritual circles.  Laziness is a good compromise between the two.

Politically it is the work ethic that upholds capitalism.   Zeal makes us fanatical and resentful.  Non-co-operation is the province of the anarchist; striking the province of the worker; skiving the province of the schoolchild.  Laziness makes us free and uncontrollable.


The Idle Traveller by Dan Kieran

The Idler Magazine ed. Tom Hodgkinson

Slow Movement

3. Dirtiness

Oh, yeah for dirtiness!  For not caring about whether my clothes get dirty; for not taking my clothes off in the winter or getting cold water on my skin on a freezing day; for not killing off the ‘good bacteria’; for not polluting the water with bleach; for not wasting money on fabric softener; for not filling the kitchen cupboard with cleaning products; for leaving the washing up and watching five episodes of Breaking Bad instead; for not caring about poo or being squeamish about dirty nappies; for picking up food off the floor; for scavenging from skips; for not washing protective oils from my skin or hair; for not caring whether or not I’ve got running water; for not peeling mushrooms or washing vegetables; for sniffing the armpits of my clothes rather than putting them in the washing machine indiscriminately.

There’s all the stuff about immunity and disease resistance, so personally I wouldn’t want to take the risk of not exposing myself.  You have to keep your tolerance high.   My mum’s friend Kathleen, who had her baby at the same time as my mum had me,  didn’t take her baby out of the house at all for the first six months, and then she wouldn’t take her on public transport.  When Clare started school she got ill all the time, and  stayed a sickly child for the whole rest of the time we knew them.  Dirtiness is all relative.  As my eyesight has deteriorated with my age, things become less dirty.  I simply don’t see the dirt.  The ‘dirt’ or the ‘germs’ are always there, it’s just a question of how big.  Like breathing in tiny-wincy buggies or beasties on vegetables.  Bluebottles and slugs: they go.  A lot of it is microscopic: it stays.   It’s only when it bothers us that it bothers us.   I  just made the decision to set my ‘bothered’ tolerance quite high, because it’s easier (see ‘Laziness’ above).

Germs May Be Good For You   Live Science – just one example of loads of this sort of thing

FreeganInfo  Freeganism – eating food that others throw away

4. Intolerance

I’ve no tolerance for doing or putting up with anything I don’t like.  It makes me unhappy.    I don’t like ‘funny-business’ or weirdness and I’m not going to stand any nonsense – not as a matter of pride or principle, but just because I don’t like it.  I’m utterly intolerant of jobs I don’t like – money is no way a satisfactory recompense for getting up in the dark to go to some horrible place full of frustrating and aggravating people to do something that I either don’t enjoy, or do enjoy but have my enjoyment spoilt by my co-workers.  Intolerance has empowered me to finish with boyfriends after one small but symbolic incident,  protecting me from entrenched relationships that culminate in aggravation,  abuse and depletion of resourses.  Why put up with something you don’t like or that makes you feel uncomfortable?  Nipping it in the bud is far preferable.

5. Tactlessness

Tact is just a version of dishonesty.  I can never get my head around why honesty and straightforwardness are so often maligned.   Tactlessness simply gets things out in the open where they can be aired rather than bottled up.  I consistently find that people respond well to a refreshing question like “How much do you earn?” or “Have you ever been with a prostitute?” etc.  Skirting around issues that matter simply prolongs the pain, whereas broaching a subject cleanly makes it easier for the person to talk about it.  Honesty, straightforwardness, humour all result from not worrying unduly about being tactful.   Being tactless is really funny – usually at my own expense, as I cringe and recoil in horror at the enormously huge diplomatic boo-boo I have just made.  But so what?

If people say what they think without trying to be tactful, it allows the people they are saying it to to make an accurate judgement of their position – for good or ill.  My mum calling Wishy-Washy Andy Wishy-Washy Andy to his face, simply informed him that he was… wishy-washy.  Would it really have helped him not to know?  Oh, and tactlessness has a certain winnowing function.  People who prefer to fiddle about at the edges with politeness and decorum simply don’t hang around.

6. Selfishness

Selfishness is embodied in the principle that you put on your own oxygen mask in the plane crash, and then put on your children’s, or in Aleister Crowley’s maxim “Do what thou Wilt shall be the whole of the Law”, the principle that everything would be at its best if we all followed our own true ‘will’, i.e. what we are ‘meant’ to do.

Bar a few buddhists we are all the product of our own ego.  We are all the centre of our universe, born at the top of the planet looking down on the rest of it from our own point of view.  Selfishness is simply looking at things from our own point of view (which we do anyway, even if we dress it up as something else) and I can’t see the point in not being honest about it.  Plus there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with it.  Where it all goes wrong is when people start interfering with or ‘helping’ other people.   I can’t see how it can’t do anything other than cause confusion if we all go around being ‘unselfish’ and trying to pre-empt what other people want or need and then doing that.

Cultivating the practice of  doing things for a reason other than that someone else wants you to, or thinks you should,  is useful and calming.

7. Grouchiness

Grouchiness and bad-temperedness are great.  They deter a huge amount of peripheral social twaddle.  That’s not to say that you can’t be friendly and cheerful in ad hoc encounters at the bus stop or checkout, but it does mean you don’t have to be gracious to men who call you ‘love’, and you can walk straight on past the religious stall at the carboot simply because they’ve said a synthetically cheerful “Good morning!”.  You can sit at the junction on your bicycle and resist the patronising and increasingly frantic gesticulation of the person in the car who is determined to let you out, even though they’ve got right of way and you know full well they won’t have given mind to whether a motorbike is coming up the middle or even noticed that the car coming the other way would have hit you if you did.  Grouchiness means you can ignore the person waving you into a parking space you were (a) perfectly capable of getting into without their waving or (b) never going to get into despite their waving.  It means you can not say ‘Thank you” to someone who has done something for you you did not want them to do in the first place.  It means you can completely ignore people who jolly you along thinking they are being clever or funny when actually they are being sexist and irritating.  It means you can say ‘No’.

And another thing: ‘fun’ is overrated.  It seems to be some holy grail that people are  looking to find in the future, but apparently can’t do without inflicting it on others.   It always seems to involve staying up late, drinking enough alcohol to get a hangover and dancing.  Dancing is the worst.  What is it that makes people think it’s OK to try and force their preferred creative expression onto innocent bystanders?  I’ve seen people dragged onto the dance floor, only to make complete pillocks of themselves bobbing and jerking around.  Some bloke at Port Eliot tried to jolly me into dancing – always a little patronising, the subtext being that they are helping me to ‘enjoy myself’ or ‘let my hair down’.  No, I just don’t like dancing.  I asked him what it is with dancing that people always try to encourage others to do it, when they don’t bully and cajole any other form of creative expression.  No one tries to get me to write:  “Come on,  sit down and write; write a story; just one.  It’ll be fun!”  or “Come on, let’s get up and do some stone carving!”  Nah.  Never happens.

The whole thing with grouchiness is that people are different.  We all like and enjoy different things, and see things in different ways.  I don’t necessarily see it as a good thing to have forced on me what you like, or how you want to be.  I reserve the right to like what like, and not to like or expose myself to what you like.  I haven’t got ‘no sense of humour’ because I don’t find your jokes and wind-ups funny, I don’t want you to talk to me because you are friendly, I don’t want to be called ‘love’ – because you think you’re being nice.   The upshot of all this grouchiness is that I really have rather a nice life.

Grumpy Old Men TV series

Grumpy Old Women TV series

Things to do with apples

Apple season is finally drawing to an end, and for the first time I won’t be thoroughly relieved.  I’ve got four apple trees in my garden, cropping from early September until the end of December – or longer, subject to them not getting eaten by birds.  They are all heritage varieties, all really crunchy and tasty in their different ways (I can never settle on a favourite) but a girl can only eat so many apples.
The work is – or seems – relentless, picking them up off the ground before they get pooed on by the ducks or squashed with a welly, working out where to put them while they are pending, then processing them before they do the ‘bad apple’ thing to one another. This year I seem to have had a bit of a break-through.  It’s been manageable rather than onerous (oh OK, it was a bit onerous at one point) and I have now found a number of workable practices that make use of the apples without… I can’t think of a good word.

So… here goes:

Eat them

The best strategy I have found is to put apples in all the places there is nothing else to eat.  There’s something about a bruised apple covered in duck poo that just doesn’t complete with an egg and tofu sandwich or a slice of Food For Thought’s Tarte au Citron.  But if I keep a basket of them in my bedroom I can sometimes eat 7 before breakfast, and manage a couple of hours of writing uninterrupted by having to go and eat.  Or a couple in my bag at the car boot sale will prevent me from buying crisps.  Or a few in the van, within reach of the driver’s seat, is enough to stop me from pulling in at Food For Thought for said Tarte au Citron (and a Vegetarian Scotch Egg, a packet of crisps and a tub of olives).

Dry them

I didn’t do this all on my own.  Rather than stand there blowing on pieces of apple all day until they deign to dry out, I purchased a Vigo Fruit and Vegetable Drier.   I saw it at the Devon County Show a couple of years ago and decided I wanted one, so I don’t know why I didn’t get one sooner.  It is made of plastic, and has 4 removable trays, so you can sit in front of the telly to load them, and wash them easily afterwards.  The actual dryey thing is like a hairdrier that pokes down the hole in the middle of the trays.  It’s got two knobs: a Low, Medium, High knob (1,2,3) and a timer knob (1-12 hours).  I don’t take a huge amount of notice of them, except in that the timer knob turns it on.

There is a little instruction booklet that says a certain amount of stuff that I have now forgotten, and includes a table of various fruit and vegetables and what setting you should dry them on and for how long.  I didn’t really find any of that bore much relation to anything – probably because they don’t know what variety of fig I’ve got,  how big my apples are or how much of a hurry I’m in.  Vigo reckon the dryer cost 6p an hour to run.  I haven’t tested it, but as a general principle I want to dry things in as short a time as possible.  I just cut everything as thin as I can, set it on 2 and put it on for a few hours.  If you don’t take them out as soon as they are dry, they tend to go a bit moist again from the air, so it is best to time it to finish when you are there – so a lower setting for longer would mean not having to get up at 3.30am to jar up your dried stuff.  Basically I think you have to use trial and error to devise your own timings.

I started with the figs, which was a great relief.  I love fresh figs, but they do all come at one time.  So each day I ate as many as I wanted, then dried the rest – even succulent, ripe, Brown Turkeys dried OK when sliced really thinly.  So, no furry figs, and a big jar full of leathery, seedy, dried figs for snacks or cooking.

But the apples are just perfect for the dryer.  They dry far quicker than other fruit, and the flavour is so concentrated it is almost like chewing fruit gums, but without the gelatine.  The instructions tell you to dip your apple pieces in lemon juice first, so they don’t go brown.  I don’t care what colour they are so I didn’t bother.  Neither did I peel them – which means that my dried apple is really, really tasty and chewy rather than puffy like the bought ones.   Initially I tried removing the core and cutting them in rings, but it is much quicker to cut them in quarters, take the core out, and then slice thinly into crescent shapes.  Then when they’ve cooled down, put them in an airtight jar.  I took some to Scotland and there’s no sign of those – jarred mid September – going mouldy yet, despite opening the jar quite frequently.  I am sure they’ll keep until next year.

Vinegarise them

I always though it would be a good plan to make cider vinegar.  Cai always thought it would be a good plan to make cider, which I assumed we’d have to do first.  I also assumed that prior to this I’d have to press the apples and make apple juice – which was the sticking point, because (a) the press requires a big batch of apples at one go to make it worth the palaver, and (b) my home pressed apple juice is SO nice there’s no way I’d want to ruin it by making it go all fermented and cidery let alone all rancid and vinegary.

So you can imagine my delight when I came across this recipe: Make Apple Cider Vinegar From Scraps.  Basically you use all the pieces left over from making apple crumble, dried apple, etc, leave them lying around for a while, shove them in a jar, top it up with water, cover it with muslin and put it in the airing cupboard for a month until it goes scummy.  Sounds like my perfect recipe.

I’m about 2 weeks in and it is beginning to get scummy and is starting to taste a bit sour – a bit weak, maybe.  I don’t know if that is because it is scraps (i.e. not much apple juice) or because it isn’t ready.  So, I’ll have to wait and see.

If you are visiting The Healthy Eating Site, and are thinking of getting a drier, do have a look at the Salted Kale Chips.  They are absolutely amazing – just like ‘crispy seaweed’ from the Chinese restaurant, and very quick.

Press them

I’ve got a Vigo apple press, a predecessor to this one.   It’s good, but you do need quite a lot of apples at one go to make it worthwhile – and a certain amount to use it at all, as you need enough to make pressure.  You can get 9ltr ones now, I see, which is interesting.  That might also help alleviate the other problem, which is water use in cleaning it.  I have to wash it to clean off cobwebs at the beginning (maybe I should keep it in a bin liner), but at the end the crusher teeth are full of apple, and in between the wooden things.  It needs a jolly good hosing down, as you wouldn’t want to leave apople in it to dry on and go mouldy by next year.  Ideally you’d have a stream to wash it in.  It would be good to buy one between a group of people or for someone with a small orchard.

There are also events where they say ‘bring your own apples’ to be pressed.  I’d be a bit wary of that, unless you don’t like your apples and think you’d do better by getting some of other people’s.  I don’t really know how they work as I’ve never been to one, but you might want to check how they do it: do you each press your own apples while everyone else stands and watches?  Or do you all chuck in your apples and go away at the end with a batch of random juice?  Personally I’d want to know that.

Highland construction techniques

I went to another good museum – the Highland Folk Museum at Newtonmore.  It is, according to the curator at Laidhay Croft, a ‘living museum’ so called because it has things going on, not just to look at.  (different health and safety regs, different insurance policy, from what I gather).

They have recreated a 1700s township, with replica buildings based on actual remains found elsewhere – crick framed, turf walled dwellings with peat fires, thatched with heather, bracken and broom.

Picture What interested me about their construction was how little wall there was.  There is a low dry stone wall type layer – a thick wall two or three feet high – to serve as foundations – and possibly a damp-course.  On top of this turfs are laid – heather turf, cut after the heather has been cut (or burnt possibly).  They are sturdier than turf rom the lawn, with a knotted, woody root structure.  Above this is pretty much just roof.  This seems to have a number of benefits.  Firstly protection from the elements – snow drops straight off a steep roof. It is also easier to reach, and you don’t have to worry about the stability of the structure.  The weight of the roof is taken by the cruck fram design (they’ve got a build one yourself’ cruck frame kit at the museum, for kids to have a go).  So the walls, a few feet high is unlikely to fall over, even if you’re not much of a builder.  I can sort of imagine building one myself.  But the best thing about it is from the inside.  All the way around the house you’ve got this handy shelf come bench come alcove.  In this image, if you can see through the peat smoke (the museum had proper fires burning, although they don’t light them with flint and steel), you’ll see that at the back the roof comes down to a white splodge.  Well, that’s sheepskins or a woven blanket draped over the turf wall.  Very comfy to sit on very handy to put stuff down on – like your knitting or your baby or whatever.

I’ve got more examples of turf wall construction, but I’m in the visitor centre cafe at Glencoe – the internet is very slow and the weather is very lovely, so I’m off to the mountains.