Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Round up of the year

I have never gone in for New Year in the least. It is my mothers birthday today and, as a family, we always celebrated that rather than the date change. It is many years, I have to admit, since I have even stayed up until midnight, much more likely to be found tucked up in bed like a chaste old maid. So no doubt this year will be no different.
I also don't tend to go in for things like new resolutions. I have always believed that if you want to change something you just start immediately, there is no point in imbuing the date with a significance that it is going to help. Whatever works for you I suppose. I changed my life by simply making a decision and sticking to it, which had nothing to do with a new year.

Much more interesting to me is spending just a few moments reflecting on the year that has been, the highs and lows, the changes, the achievements. There have been changes in my attitude towards where I live. The first year I was here was about making my new house habitable. This year has been about making it my home. There have been disasters, a foot through my bath meant I was without a bath for over 6 months, but with a (hell of a lot of) effort, I have now a completed bathroom that I am proud of as well as new skills learnt in doing this myself. As I showed in my last post my garden has really come to something lovely this year too. That aside, I have not really done any more work on the house and I feel it is just about finished (or as finished as it can be on my budget). So I have used the time to fully settle in here and put down roots. Long, permanent roots.

Of course putting down roots has meant that there have been struggles in other ways. Leaving for months at a time for work has become a strain this year and I realised something very important: that although I had changed my life and moved to the other side of the country I had not committed fully to the change and had left my working life in the South. Well, of course it was slightly more complicated than that but I found the drag of packing a suitcase for 8 weeks at a time away from home in a place I didn't want to be, hours of driving and a whole summer away from home, is not the way I want to be so this year has brought a massive attitude change with all of that. Now I have fully committed to a life here I have no regrets, no doubts, nothing negative. Well that has to be worth plenty.

There have been ups and downs, new friends made, others lost. I have blogged (all be it sporadically at times) and lots of you have followed the journey. Some of you have gone beyond that and made the effort to check that I am alright at times of silence (you know who you are) and every one of my followers is appreciated.

Oh, and I turned 40 :-)

I think it is worth spending a few minutes reflecting on the year and looking forward to what the next will bring and I wish you all joy and luck over the next 12 months.

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Garden Dreaming

As the beginning of next year approaches I find my mind turning to the garden again. It appears that not a lot is happening  out there at the moment but there is a lot of promise of things to come. I squelched on down to the greenhouse this morning to grab a spade as I had a tiny camellia and a rose that wanted to go in. Even though it was gently raining, the wind has died down and it was a pleasure to be outside again and to soak up the inspiration I always get from being in the garden. Somehow it fuels my imagination and I came in all excited about the prospect of what I will grow next year.
I am pretty organised with my seeds (well I am a pretty organised man in general but I take it to extreme with my seeds) and as it happens I still have a lot of half packets all of which have best before dates on them for 2014 and a few that I saved from plants this year. That means I may as well plant every single seed and see what happens.
I then made myself a hot chocolate and had a happy couple of hours going through gardening catalogues indulging in a bit of day dreaming what I could do. I chose 10 new sorts of flowers I want to try (I don't need any new veg seeds this year as I have plenty) as Mr Fothergills has a buy 4 get a 5th free on all seed packets, plus £5 off orders at the moment. It meant that I got 10 pack of seeds for just £12 which is a bit of a bargain. Probably means I will have way too many plants, but I will enjoy it all thoroughly. I have bought Echinacia (so far I have had zero success with this), Chrysanthemum Snowland, Ageratum Red Sea, Morning Glory heavenly blue, Cornflower Blue Ball, Hollyhock Giant, Campanula, Geums and some Rudbeckia. The tax man has just sent me a substantial refund as I paid him far too much money last year, so I thought the least I could treat myself to was some seeds. My brother gave me the most wonderful Christmas present too this year: an electric heated propagator so I am very excited to try this out in a few months.
Now I will have the fun, over the next few weeks, of deciding where I will put the new plants, I will change my mind a dozen times and in the end they will probably go in new spots, but it is such fun experimenting. My brand new bed (the largest border in the garden so far) is, at the moment a quagmire of clay and manure with a few new perennials in there (and a small ornamental cherry tree) and so much of these new plants will be going in here. I will do more sweet peas this year as they are heavenly both in sight and smell, but I will choose these seeds another time.

My garden has gone from this:

to this, in just two years:

And from this:

to this:

So what will 2014 bring? Oh it is going to be such fun to find out.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Merry Christmas to everyone.

I wish all my readers a peaceful Christmas away from the hectic rush that most people seem to experience.
Thank you all for reading over the year, thank you too for all your comments and emails, they mean a lot and the blog wouldn't be here without you all. I have another big year of change ahead and I look forward to sharing that with you.
Merry Christmas.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Greenish Fingers.

When I labelled my last post title as a date it is a stark reminder that 2 weeks has passed since my last entry! Sorry. All is well. After my nasty bug I returned with from London (laid me out for about a week actually) I'm now fighting fit. I have been preparing for winter which doesn't seem to have hit with full (or indeed any) force yet. I spent a few days putting the garden to bed as it were. I have cut things back, laid some mulch and manured some beds. I have spent many an unhappy hour picking cat poo out of the new flower bed (I really love cats but truly this does try my patience) but my favourite job of the last week was to do out the greenhouse. I emptied it, washed a lot of the pots and put them back in good order. I have enough pots to last my a lifetime quite honestly - it is funny how quickly a stock builds up. It got me very excited for next year and the gardening I will do. As I will be away from home less (if at all) I will be able to make better use of the greenhouse this year and with any luck some of my veg from seed will do better. So far my green fingers have only displayed their hue when dealing with flowers, my veg has been a disaster over the last couple of years. Even my leeks which were doing so well, succumbed. Here's me thinking that they could be left out for as long as you want (I'm sure I read that somewhere) and what do I find when I come to use them? slimy leeks. If the weather is okay this week my final garden job of the year will be to clear the raised bed ready for next year. Over Christmas I will have the pleasure of reading through garden seed brochures and decide what I want to try next year. Most of my old seed packets have dregs in that are so old that I doubt they would germinate now so it is time for some new ones. The anticipation is great.
Looks like it will be a sunny day.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

December the 1st.

I am back from my last trip to London. I ended up travelling home through the night on Friday rather than staying over which meant that I didn't get in until 3am. Seem to have a sore throat and slight temperature now so looks like some nasty germs from the Capital got me while I was there.
Anyway, London is properly part of my past now.

Thank you all so much for so many positive and helpful comments after my last post, it is very nice to have your support and the advice that some of you gave is great and much appreciated.

Anyway, after a week of concentrating on 'important' things and working in London, yesterday I wanted to relax and do things I enjoyed which, of course, meant an afternoon in the garden - my sanctuary. We seem to have good weather right now, even though December is here, clear skies and sunshine up here in the Pennine hills.
After digging out the large new flower bed a fortnight ago I ended up with a lot of large rocks, as I always do and in the ultimate in recycling I decided to turn them into stepping stones. I have been meaning to get stepping stones in for ages, but at about £5 a stone in my local garden centre I have not done it. Perfect solution, free stones, so now I can get from the house to the corner covered bench without stepping on the grass (which is squelchy and muddy and terrible right now).

I have dug them in and hopefully I will still be able to mow over them easily as they are slightly lower than the ground.

Well it was an enjoyable and rather easy (and free) job and with luck my lawn might begin to improve as I can avoid stepping on it quite so much in the muddy seasons.

Monday, 25 November 2013

New life? New plans.

As I hinted in my last blog post I have made some rather dramatic new decisions.
I have turned down my singing contracts for next year.

Wow, I have actually written it down, it is actually happening.

So what has prompted this decision? Well I don't need to tell you all that I have been struggling a lot with the constant going away, I moved my life here from London but kept my working life based in London which is a very hard, nigh on impossible thing to do (unless you have an income to afford such life-style). I felt that the time has come to put that right and let go of 'the South' altogether. Add to that the almost impossible cuts the arts are getting in the UK at the moment. We hear much about establishments losing arts funding, but what is rarely mentioned is the knock on effect these slashed figures has on people like me, let me tell you my income this year was only two thirds what it has been before and the proposal was to cut it in half again.

Sometimes it just isn't worth it.

Now, for those of you who are saying a horrified 'no don't give up singing' let me assure you that I will never give that up entirely, it is what I am, what I do, and I'm good at it, when all said and done. Let's just say I am diversifying.

Here are some of my plans.

I am writing to all the local choral societies. Plenty of choral societies have professional singers doing the solos in their concerts and it will keep me singing, but it will not require long, long rehearsal periods, in fact most of these just rehearse on the day and so can easily fit in with other things.

I have, in the past, been a competition adjudicator for music festivals, and on a word of mouth basis have yet again been booked for 2 more in 2014. I have the application forms to apply officially for a position as an official adjudicator. It will never give me a full income but there are many music festivals and once you on the list more will come my way and it is a great supplement for your income.

I have set up a recital duo with a friend of mine, another baritone. He will sing and I will play the piano. We have no bookings yet and we need to get our details to anywhere we can think of that puts on classical recitals. So if anyone knows of anywhere, let me know!!! Of course I am available for recitals, with me singing too.

Thirdly I am setting myself up as a singing teacher and piano teacher. I am very highly qualified to do this and have taught off and on for years (I had my first piano students when I was 15!)

So I have been working on my CV, which I will send to some sixth form colleges and universities that offer music lessons. I will also be teaching from  home and have set up a new website which you can check out should you be interested :-)) on http://danielhowardmusicteacher.yolasite.com

I am also having some flyers printed that I will send to local choral societies and Churches advertising as a singing teacher. There are lots of people who sing in amateur choirs and some may want singing lessons. When all said and done I am good at this stuff and have rather hidden my light under a bushel and I only need a few pupils to keep my head above water.

It is a daunting prospect and after Thursday I will officially be self-employed with an empty diary and we all know what that means - no income. But I have been preparing for this (some may say that frugal living has been preparing me for this for years) and I can probably survive (on little) until May if nothing comes my way from all these plans.

So wish me luck. I have to go to London for the last time at the end of this week, for my final performance there.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

What have I been up to?

The weather has been so strange, one moment raining, one moment sunny and then next snow! Last week had some beautiful days, so I got out in the garden and really got stuck in. I have completely dug the new bed now, it looks a bit of a mess, but I am thinking ahead to it being full next summer. It's the largest bed of the garden and I am carefully planning what will be going in there.
Believe it or not, I still have a £40 garden centre gift token from my 40th birthday last May, and I have been waiting for the right thing to spend it on. Now opporunity beckoned. I have put in an ornamental flowering cherry at the back of the new bed, which should be very lovely in a few years, and a couple of sweet box bushes and a couple of roses, one climbing and one floribunda. It's a start. I also have planted anenome bulbs, alliums and sown some ladies mantle (alchemilla mollis) in the border. It looks a little stark so, as always in the garden, imagination is needed.

I have a 2 metre obelisk which I have to put together to go around the climbing rose at the back. It is a pink one called pink perpetué which looks like it will be lovely.

As usual I had to dig out a hundred thousand rocks - the price you pay for living up a hill near a quarry - and they are piled around the corner at the moment. I am taking them to the tip in bagfulls every time I go, except some of the big ones, which can always be useful around the garden as stepping stones, lawn edgers etc. The problem was the weight of them and so I turned my attention to freecycle. Advertised for a wheelbarrow, and within a couple of hours had been offered one from a kind couple 3 miles away. went to pick it up on Saturday morning, fantastic. I love the entire concept and freecycle!

Cost me nothing except petrol and as it was a 6 mile round trip it really wasn't much.

Finally yesterday there was a massive change in the weather and I woke up to the first snow of the season.

It looked magical, but I am glad to say that it has all washed away this morning.

Meanwhile plans are afoot. To say that major changes in my life are on their way is an understatement and I will be unveiling my 2014 plans soon.

The sun has just come out so time to make hay.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Making lists on scraps of used paper.

A lovely reader has made a request of me to talk a bit about how I do my shopping, do my lists, plan my food week, based on my frugal food challenge this month. I am more than happy to do that as it is a pleasure if a blog post can actually be useful to even one person.

Unlike so many, and contrary to popular belief, I am not very organised. My brain is rather haphazard and my memory is appalling - I am one of those that can go to a shop for 3 items and instantly when I get there have no idea what two of them are, I think my head is too full of the complete script of 36 operas and there is not much room left for anything else.
So my answer is lists. I have learnt through bitter experience of wasted shopping trips that if I don't have a list I will not buy most of what I needed, I will spend more money and I will buy something that the clever old supermarket pushed on me without me realising it.
Some people have beautifully drawn up charts of what their menu plan for the week (even for the month in some cases) will be, and I am in awe of these people, I can't be that organised and it is good for me to have a bit of flexibility in my plan. And there is certainly no beautifully drawing up. In fact mostly the plan is written on the back of an envelope as I can hardly ever find a piece of paper when I need one.

I usually write my list, both menu and shopping list on a Sunday night. It doesn't take long, can be done in 10 minutes if you get a move on and don't get distracted by Antiques Roadshow. Two bits of paper, one for a shopping list, one for a 'menu', I start with writing on the shopping list what the house needs, that may be nothing, or it may be stuff like loo roll, washing up liquid, etc. Also it may be a kitchen cupboard staple that I know that I am running low on - sugar or tea or something like that. This week it happened to be baking powder as I noticed when I made some scones last week that my last dregs of baking powder was best before October 2012. No idea if baking powder loses it's oomph but don't want flat cakes.
Then certain things go on every list just about - eggs, butter, milk, cheese. I tend to get through one of these a week, give or take, maybe a fortnight with butter, depending on baking.
Next I just cast my muddled head through the week, and see if there is any day I am going to be out, whether I will need a packed lunch at any point etc. This week happened to be a very easy week. So then it is worked out, 7 breakfasts, 7 lunches and 7 dinners.
Breakfast is easily dealt with as it will always be either fruit, yoghurt or toast, or a mixture of the three. What fruit is in the basket? Do I need yoghurt?. That is breakfast dealt with as I make my own bread.
Lunch I keep simple, something on toast, a baked potato, a sandwich. I need to quickly jot down 7 possibilites. I know that I have certain things left over from last week, I made sweet potato and blue cheese pasties and have 3 in the freezer, 2 portions of Boston Baked Beans in the freezer so these will be remembered as possibilites. So this week had down eggs on toast, mushrooms on toast, baked potato and cheese and coleslaw, my blue cheese and sweet potato pasties, beans on toast. All can be made from stuff I had in, and it doesn't have to be written in stone as some is frozen and can be used any time, next week, next month even if I don't get to it.
Dinner is slightly more complicated in that it takes more cooking and usually has more specific ingredients. I will think what I have in the freezer, if there is some beef that wants using or some pork chops or whatever. Then I jot down enough for 7 meal possibilities. Pizza went down twice, with my blue cheese and pear topping (there is still some blue cheese and some pears from last week, so well worth doing again. Carbonara will do a couple of meals as I really enjoyed that and all I need is bacon, mushrooms and a tub of Quark (these get jotted on the list) and finally I know I have potatoes in the fridge and some minced beef in the freezer so I will make my favourite comfort food meat and potato pie which will do three portions. So that is it. Scan through all of those things and make sure I have the ingredients, if not, pop them on the list.
Finally I will usually try and make one sweet things, either a cake or  a dessert and here I tend to scan through a recipe books. This weeks happened to be some fruity flapjacks, I had most of the ingredients and popped down what was missing.

As you can see, none of my meals are assigned to a particular day and there is a lot of flexibility in what I choose to eat when, but I have a good skeleton frame-work. I will then look down the shopping list and give everything an approximate price to check there is no overspend, if I know something is much cheaper in a particular shop then I will make a mental note to get it there.

This week my shopping list looked like this:

Baking Powder £1
Eggs  £1  (Free range eggs are this price in Lidl and Aldi, more expensive everywhere else)
Onions 80p
bacon  £2
Mushrooms  £1
Milk  £1.30
Butter £1
Coleslaw 50p
Condensed milk  £1
Coconut flakes £1
Cheese £2

That comes to approximately £11.60 I reckon

And my Menu plan looks like this

Meat and potato pie   x3
Pizza x2
Carbonara x2
Cornish Pasties x3
Beans on toast x2
Eggs on toast
Mushrooms on toast
Baked potatoes with cheese and coleslaw

Now I know that there will be leftovers here and there from this week that will go onto next weeks plan, I may not eat all of those pasties or all of the beans. There will probably be a baked potato or two left.

As for timings, well I know which of those things I will be cooking are very quick and which take most time and effort. The meat and potato pie will take most effort so will probably get made on a day when I have lots more time. Baked potatoes get put in the mini oven in twos, to save time and money. One will be put in the fridge until I want it while the other is eaten there and then. I tend to, kind of, decide each morning what I will eat that day, so if something needs defrosting I can get it out, but I am fairly relaxed with it all.

So it is not an exact science with me, just a 10 minute effort on a Sunday night, It actually took me far longer to write this than it does to make that small preparation and it is great when I get into the supermarket with my list in my hand (so long as I didn't leave it on the kitchen table) and zoom from one place to the other, not looking at anything extraneous  and there is a lot of satisfaction when I see that a whole weeks worth of food has come in well, well under £20. It's a game to try and beat what last weeks was, but I know, for example next week will be more expensive as I need loo roll. Pop it on a list!

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Frugal drive week 2

Week one was a big success, I managed to spend only £20 for the whole week. Week two has started with a food shop spend of £15 and I have enough ingredients for a weeks food. The strange thing is that with a bit of planning and a good shopping list I have ended up eating far far better, like a king in fact, than I did when bad habits drew me into random shopping. I think because I have planned to actually cook something at a specific time, I just get on and do it, where as without the plan I tend to just grab whatever I can that is easy. The results have been a batch of scones and pear and ginger muffins in the tin and some absolutely delicious meals that have cost me next to nothing. Roll on week two.

The weather is promising today so I will get on and carry on digging the new bed in the garden. It is looking a right mess at the moment, these things always look an awful lot worse before they start looking better. That is why I have left it until November to do, as the garden is looking tired anyway.

This is where I'm up to so far, as you can see, just a bloody great big hole. Eventually the bed will carry on right to the back wall in a, hopefully, perfect arc. That stone was the biggest thing you can ever imagine to dig out, I can barely lift it!
My method is to double dig then put the turf back in at the bottom. Cover the lot up and then put plenty of manure and soil improver on top and let the worms do their work over winter. I'll probably cover the bed with something as last year when I dug a new bed and left it the cats had a field day thinking it was a brand new huge litter tray. I might get some of the plants that are suitable for planting out at this time of year in like roses but for the most part the bed will just be left until next spring planting can start.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Boston Baked Beans on Sourdough Toast.

Okay, that sounds like something only dear Nigella would think up to call beans on toast, but it happens to be the truth. If you remember (those of you who have been reading long enough) that way back last March or April time I started a sourdough starter and began learning how to make my own sourdough loaf? Well I haven't really updated since, but I am thrilled to say that the same sourdough starter is still alive! That is about 7 months and counting, still as healthy as can be and producing great bread. As for me, I think I have improved no end since those first loaves and am knocking one out about every 5 days or so. This was yesterdays offering:

I really do love making it and I really enjoy the 'dark' taste of sourdough loaves and especially the wonderful toast it makes and the starter is almost like a pet. (for those of you unsure, sourdough is a bread made without yeast but using a starter which is kept alive by feeding with flour and water, it then produces it's own natural yeast)

Yesterday I decided to make my own baked beans to go with the bread. Why? I hear you ask. Is there any point in toiling in the kitchen to make something which is perfectly good out of a tin? Well the only (and rather inadequate) answer I can come up with is why not? The ingredients are very cheap, I know what  has gone in them when I make them myself and who know, they may just be nicer than tinned ones.

Okay, so maybe you don't want to undertake them if you are busy, not really because they are complicated and make you spend much time in the kitchen, they really aren't, but they do involve soaking the beans 24 hours before and then cooking them before you even start the recipe. Not hard, but you can't be spontaneous and 'want them now'.

Anyway, what were the results?

Well they certainly look like baked beans but they were incredibly tasty. Now I have nothing at all against tinned baked beans, a great staple and wonderful to have in, but having tasted my own, these ones definitely do have a more 'natural' taste to them and I can taste what went in them, which is always a nice feeling (which was really the beans, water, tomato puree, cloves, dark brown sugar, garlic onion, mustard and smoked bacon, salt and pepper)

So in conclusion, if I can be bothered I will definitely make them again, they taste great, it makes loads (I reckon the equivalent of 5 tins), they freeze well (apparently) and can be done in the slow cooker so are cheap to cook (as it happens I did them in the oven today through pure impatience because I wanted them for lunch. There again, if I can't be bothered, I have tins of them in the cupboard :-)

Friday, 8 November 2013

Virtually fat free carbonara

2 recipes in a row! It's interesting, but this months frugal drive has made me use my imagination and get cooking new and interesting things again.
Today's recipe is for spaghetti carbonara. Now I love this, but very very very rarely have it because it is rather fatty, using plenty of cream in the sauce.
Well here is a version that is guilt free as it is virtually fat free and still tastes as good - in fact, I would challenge anyone to tell the difference.
The secret is Quark. For those of you new to this product (probably most of you know it already, but it's new to me) it is a naturally, completely fat free soft cheese, yet has a deliciously creamy texture.

So here is the recipe for one:

Mix half a tub of Quark with one egg and plenty of black pepper.
Put on some spaghetti to cook.
Fry an onion, a chopped up clove of garlic, add some chopped bacon (remove the fat) and then some mushrooms and then remove from the heat when all well cooked.
Drain spaghetti, add the quark mixture to the onion mix and then add the spaghetti and toss to coat and season well.
That really is it.

You could add some parmesan and serve but it was good enough without any. Delicious and guilt free carbonara.

(Has anyone else noticed that on Blogger at the moment posts are taking hours and hours to make it onto the reading list?)

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Pizza with a difference

I don't generally like pizzas. Perhaps I should qualify that, I don't generally like pizzas unless I have made them myself. Bought pizza bases are thick, doughy and rather unpleasant things and I would rather give them a miss personally. I like my pizza bases to be thin and crispy and fresh with a crunch.
Fortunately pizza bases are one of the easiest things to make in the world and my recipe is split into two with one half of the dough wrapped and in the fridge for another night. They are cheap, lovely real frugal good (depending what you put on them) and don't have to be unhealthy because they don't have to be loaded with fatty meat and cheese.
It was with great interest that I watched a River Cottage episode the other day in which Hugh made a simple pizza with no tomato on it. I admit I have never tried this, just usually knocking together a quick tomato sauce, a few veggies and a sprinkling of cheese on mine. This recipe looked like it could go either way, could be incredibly dull, or tantalizingly stupendous. It was - STUPENDOUS.

There are only 4 main ingredients for the topping: onions, spinach, pears and blue cheese.
and 3 minor ones: nutmeg, olive oil, chilli flakes.

Here is the recipe.

Basic pizza base recipe - makes 2 pizza bases, one of which does a large appetite like mine for a main meal

250g strong bread flour
5g salt
5g quick yeast
up to 180ml water.
2 tbs olive oil

Form the above into a dough (you may not need more than about 150ml water to get the desired consistency, but use your noggin) and kneed for 5 - 10 minutes, it really doesn't take long to become stretchy. Leave to prove for an hour and a half approx.
Split in half and roll out one half to make as thin a pizza base as you can manage. If you are not using the other half wrap in film and store in the fridge and use in the next could of days.

Meanwhile while it was proving fry one onion, chopped into rings, until the rings are soft and golden colour and cook some spinach in a tiny amount of water and squeeze out the water after. The original recipe called for some fresh spinach, but I rarely have this in as it is pricey here, I used frozen spinach and about 2 or 3 block is enough.

Peal and chop the pear, pouring on a little olive oil and a shake of freshly grated nutmeg on it, I also added a few chilli flakes.

Get the oven on to it's hottest.

Assemble the pizza: spread the onion and the spinach on the base, arrange the pear over that and then dot with some blue cheese (I used a cheap stilton, but anything would do) here and there - don't need tons of it. another spinkling of olive oil and some ground pepper and you are good to go.

Bake for about 10 to 15 minutes, depending on your oven, until crispy and gorgeous looking.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Frugal Living UK - back to basics.

November is here and I have to get a bit serious with myself, bad habits have become every day occurrences and it has to stop.
I have become used to handing over my card, not for frivolous purposes, but for every day stuff, but without being aware of what is in the account, this is partly due to the unstructured way in which self-employed people like myself are paid. If you have only ever been in a salaried job, just imagine how tricky it can be when some months nothing comes in at all and other months lots comes in and other months in dribs and drabs. How sometimes you have to chase up payment and don't get a penny until months after you did the work. I would love to be paid a monthly salary rather than lumps now and again, I would love to be paid if I am sick and can't work, I would love to be given pension contributions, but sadly self-employed people get none of these things, sure there are benefits, but definite minuses.
Anyway, to get back onto the point, before I was side-tracked there, I have let things get away from me and it has to stop.

So today I went onto all my online bank accounts to see how serious the situation was and it is not great, not dire, but not great. Last friday I had to spend yet another £140 on my car (gasket blown and lightbulbs replacing) which has not helped the situation. I will be back on track if I can spend only a maximum of £100 on everything (food, toiletries, household, petrol etc) in November and the same in December. A lean Christmas? no, just a well thought out one.
It's a challenge although I know many people (some of you included) who live on less than this so not that serious a challenge. I have a freezer packed full of stuff, I have a lot of knowledge and resources to fall back on looking at cheap recipes etc. The petrol could be tricky, but the car is full and I hopefully can get through most of the month on what I have if I don't take any long trips (exempt from this challenge is having to travel to London for work towards the end of the month - there is no way around that expense and I have just to budget separately for it)
So today I did what I used to do but have got out of the habit of doing: I made a meal plan, a shopping list and took £100 cash out of the bank.
Oh what a joy it was to be back in the supermarket with a structure, order and plan to what I was shopping for, I had forgotten how easy it makes shopping, how satisfying to spend so little, what a great feeling it was.
I spent just £9 on a weeks food (might have to top up buying some milk). Yes, I have a lot of things in the freezer, but even so, it just took some imagination and get out of ones head the idea that each meal has to be something 'special'. Home cooked, cheap food is always special, just because tv chefs like us to think we should be eating bloody pheasant croissants or cod roe curry doesn't mean we have to.
So the challenge is set, let's see if I can achieve it.
The irony is that because I have structured my week, I will probably end up eating even better than usual.

Beautiful weather today, done an hour and half gardening and that on top of the 2 hours I did yesterday has tidied it all up no end. I believe the rest of this week will be wet, so it was good to get it done today.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Books Books Books......part 2

The last post was about books and in a round about sort of way, about a new bookcase I built.
But it got me thinking about the power of books in my life as well.

Some books are a diversion, some books are like old friends that you know are always there when you want to see them again, some books are a bit of nonsense, but make you smile all the same and some make you sad, but in a good way. Books are there, often at bad times (and I've had a few of those of late) and can be cathartic, can be enough to take your mind off troubles for a few hours.

Some books conjure up associations and memories with certain people, or certain places, or certain times in our life.

And some just pass through our lives, seemingly unnoticed.

I have memories of certain books. I remember reading Pet Semetary by Stephen King, when I was 14 or 15. I remember I was in my bedroom and listening to some music at the same time as reading the last chapter of the book. There is a chilling final sentence, as his wife, Rachel, recently buried comes back from the dead as something murderous, It reads something like:

'In a gravelly voice, full of dirt, "Darling", it said.'

That isn't wholly accurate but it was something on those lines. I remember as I read them a really weird thing happened. The tape I was listening to get chewed up in the machine (remember how that sometimes happened) and started playing all wrong. It sounded like something from beyond the grave itself had got into the machine. Rather funny now, but at the time it really freaked me out! One of those moments you don't forget when timing is everything.

Other key books that I associate with moments are Jane Eyre, which I read when I was about 16 for the first time. I couldn't believe how fantastic it was and stayed up until about 2 in the morning when I started it, reading and reading - just one more chapter. For anyone who only knows this story from one of the many (in my opinion) very poor TV or film adaptations, I urge you to read it.

The book I have probably read the most times is probably a very strange choice for most people. It is called The Magic Cottage by the recently deceased author, James Herbert. I have probably read this book 15 times over the last 30 years. Why? What a strange choice? you may say. It is something to do with a) the couple moving from the big city of London out into the countryside, in the middle of nowehere (seems this idea might have been in my head for way longer than I thought), their relationship and, of course, the Magic, with a capital M. Even though it all goes wrong, it never has failed to captivate me.

I keep short stories and ghost stories by my bed, for those times when I may wake up in the night. My favourite author of short stories is Katherine Mansfield. Each one is a gem in its own right. Often nothing much happens, it might describe a day out at the beach, but always, there is a real beauty in the way she creates characters, so quickly. I can imagine there is quite an art to scaling a story down to just a few pages, not one that many authors have and I can think of none better at this particular art.

I still have my shelf of Enid Blyton's and occasionally reach for one and read it, can be done in about am hour and a half. Such memories. I will never understand why she is given such a hard time by teachers and parents. She was singly responsible for starting my off on my love of reading and that is worth everything. Maybe her language is limited and so is non-educational, but should reading only be about education when you are a child? Surely not.

If I had a list of only 10 books I could take to a desert island to read over and over for the rest of my life, these would be them:

Katherine Mansfield - collected short stories.
Charlotte Bronte - Jane Eyre
James Herbert - The Magic Cottage
Victoria Clayton - Running Wild
Agatha Christie - Hallowe'en Party
William Thackery - Vanity Fair
Barbara Erskine - Midnight is a Lonely Place
Donna Tartt - The Secret History
Stephen King - The Shining
Charles Dickens - Bleak House

Covers most bases and women authors seem to win, 6 to 4.
Have a go yourself. It is hard. What is your favourite book?

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Books, Books Books..............

As I may have mentioned before, I have a love affair with books. I have hundreds of them, too many to count. Over the last 40 years I have collected many, many and although I buy very few these days unless they are 1p on Amazon or found in a charity shop, I still love browsing them.
Many people have a different attitude to books, reading them once and giving them to charity (for which I am eternally grateful), and much as I have nothing against this - each to their own - I am a collector of them and am happy to re-read most of them over and over again, which is why I don't throw them away (obvious exceptions are books that I didn't enjoy). In my youth, I had three bookcases crammed full in my bedroom, which I left there when I went away to Music College. The time came when my parents wanted to clear the room and because, being a student, I didn't have room for them, most of them went to charity - something I am still sad about 20 years later, as there were some gems that I have never had again. I have never made that mistake since.
I love the feel of them, all sitting together on a shelf - Stephen King, squashed up against Daphne du Maurier and Howard Spring, with the tiny Collins Gem Book of Card Games at the side, (I am not terribly organised with them, enjoying the higgledy-piggledy nature of them) - all containing their own stories, their own people, just waiting to be brought to life when I reach to get one down. For some reason that is why an e-reader doesn't appeal to me. Yes, they are useful and mean you don't have to store books, they are light, easy to take a whole library away with you, yes, there are plenty of advantages and I have tried reading a book on one (my mother's), but to me they don't have the soul of a book. I love turning the pages by hand, I love the paper with the nice font written on it, and the feel of a book. I even love the way they all look together on a shelf. If I ever have any money (unlikely) I would convert my garage into a library with floor to ceiling bookshelves on every wall.
As it is, I have books crammed into every space.

In the bedroom, here you will find a real mix, comedy, thriller, murder mystery, romance, horror.

By the bed, all the books I may reach for in the night if I can't sleep, usually short stories and ghost novels.

In the spare room, on the right is my collection of the complete Agatha Christie in beautiful hardback edition (£25 on e-bay - bargain) and classic novels, and on the left a real hotchpotch.

Oversized books are in the kitchen, mostly cooking and gardening, a bit of DIY and anything else too big to fit elsewhere.

Even one of the kitchen cupboards has recipe books crammed next to jars of pasta and rice.

Jane Austen stands behind the day's post.

So it was that the time had come for me to find a new place for the piles of books that had developed around the house that had no home yet. I decided to build a new, small bookcase yesterday, to slot nicely in the hall and hold small sized paperbacks.

Total cost - £12

Bought enough wood, measured it out to fit precisely and screwed it together and put a nice, decorative front onto it.

Stained it dark oak, so that it matched the other colours in the room, then polished with a good wax polish.

And problem solved.

I am delighted with it, very low cost, and now these poor souls have a home. What's more, they are in order (for now).
Of course there is still no room for any more books that may just find their way into my home. Oh well, I am sure I will find another spot when the time comes......

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

New purchase

I have been thinking about one of these for a very long time as it is recommended by so many of you, so I went to Argos today and got myself a Mini Oven. Seems perfect for heating a meal for one without wanting to put the big oven on. It was £40 but I had a £10 voucher from someone, so it cost me £30. I had a perfect spot for it above my large oven too.

So I tried it tonight, was a little worried that it might not come up to par, but no need to fear, I waited 5 minutes to heat up, but it was hot before that and I chopped up some potatoes to make wedges and put in a chicken breast. They were cooked beautifully and in slightly less time than the big oven. The power is 1300 as opposed to my large oven which is 2000 so it is uses about 40% less electricity which is good news. So now, when I am making a small meal just for me there is no need to wait for the big oven to heat up and to waste all that space. Hopefully the money I shelled out for the mini oven will come back to me in money I will save by using it.
I will look forward to trying other stuff in it now.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Chirstmas cake recipe

A couple of people have asked me for my Christmas cake recipe, there are lots of different versions kicking about but this is the one I do:

1 kg mixed dried fruit (cheapest of the cheap own supermarket brand in my case)
100g glacé cherries
100g chopped walnuts
400ml liquor (anything you want, brandy is traditional, but I didn't have any, so used some rum)
300g butter
180g dark brown sugar
4 eggs
2 tablespoons black treacle
300g plain flour
150g ground almonds
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon of ginger

23cm cake tin


1) put all the fruit and cherries in a bowl and pour over the liquor of your choice. Cover with cling film for as long as you can, up to a week, but certainly not less that 24 hours. You want the liquor to be absorbed.

2) preheat oven to 150 degrees C and prepare the cake tin, you want it greased and lined with greaseproof paper (double thickness) and have it coming up the sides at least twice as high as the cake tin.

3) Cream together the butter and the sugar, then add the eggs one at a time and mix them in then beat in the treacle.

4) Sift the dry ingredients together then mix the soaked fruit alternatively with the dry ingredients into the creamed mixture, mixing thoroughly.

5) Fold in the walnuts.

6) Put the mixture into the prepared cake tin and bake in the oven for between 2 and three quarters and 3 and a quarter hours. put in a skewer to check it is cooked - it should come out clean (ish)

7) When the cake comes out, sprinkle on a couple of teaspoons of some liquor and wrap it up, in it's tin, in a clean tea towel - this helps keep the top moist.

8) When it is completely cold you can remove it from the tin and peel off the greaseproof paper. Double wrap in foil and store in an airtight tin or tupperware for at least 3 weeks before you do the next stage. I will not do the next stage on mine until December.

Feeding the cake.

Sprinkle a tablespoon of liquor on the cake once a week, turning it each time so you are alternately sprinkling both sides.

After it has 'matured' you want to wrap it in marzipan, using a jam glue and then ice it with Royal icing and decorate. I'll be doing this in December so you can check back how I get on.

Here it is for now.

If any of you try it, do let me know how you get on.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Christmas cake in.

Thank you all, I am sure I will be firing on all cylinders again soon.
The rain never stops in October. Did I once write a post on how wonderful I thought Autumn was? I think I was lying. All I want to do is get out in the garden and make a start on things, roses need pruning, weeding needs to be done, the veg patch needs to be cleared, fences need painting, deck needs oiling, greenhouse needs cleaning and clearing, beds need digging - never stops, but I don't especially want to get out there and get soaked for my troubles - call me a wuss. So I have a Christmas cake in the oven right now - it looks massive! I'm sure it is bigger than last year even though the recipe is identical. The smells wafting out of the kitchen are lovely - the smells are the best bit of Christmas I think.
I hope you are all okay and thanks for bearing with me.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Picking myself up.

As you may have noticed from my recent posts (or lack of) I'm struggling a bit at the moment and just going through the motions, I suppose it is inevitable at times for all of us and I'm not really used to feeling like this because most of the time I am quite self contained and content but I am a tad lonely right now and wondering quite what I am doing.
So I am trying to pick myself up and today I am going to soak some dried fruit to make a Christmas cake as successful as the one I made last year, hopefully. On top of that I am looking out at the garden and contemplating another large bed, the largest one. The problem I have is getting rid of the turf, it is heavy and annoying and I don't really know what to do with it. I have a big pile of it from the last beds that I did, dumped under the decking and it is a bit of a pain so adding to it doesn't sound like a great idea as, ultimately, I will still have to do something with it. I read once that if left long enough it does made good compost, but how long is long enough? Once the bed is made I would like some taller things in it so suggestions welcome, nothing too exotic as the whole feel of the garden is country traditional, but maybe a small conifer would be nice, one that goes up instead of out and doesn't get massive. A lot of my garden dies off in winter so it would be nice to have a few permanent things in there that look good all year. I like box too, but wish it wasn't so expensive as a small box hedge around the bed would be my ideal. Planning and more planning is my approach, as always.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Now what?

After 6 months of endless work, endlessly 'on the road', with all my spare seconds taken up with refitting the bathroom, I am suddenly at a loss. Days stretch out before me with nothing to do, no renovation project left (and not much work, sadly). Now, I hear you cry, what I would give for that problem! Well yes, on the one hand it is nice, but on the other I am finding a slight hole in my life where it was so full before and I know it won't last forever so I should probably cherish it, but it is easy to feel a bit lonely at a time like this and see days stretching ahead with only my own, dubious company.
So I have to pull it together and stop feeling sorry for myself and think of my next project. I am already thinking about next year's garden, next year's veg. I'm not going to be able to keep on putting off the front garden forever, but it is one place that I have not yet a plan, or in fact an idea. I think the general problem is that to get the front garden in any shape is going to take a bit of money. The paths are in a terribly state and really need widening (thanks to having 3 stupid wheelie bins that don't fit on my paths properly  - don't get me started) and as the entire garden is on a slope, landscaping of any description is something that takes careful consideration and is very very difficult to do by myself, especially without good equipment. yes, if money were no object I would have new paths in and walls built to make the lawn area flat, but that is well above and beyond.

As you can see it is rather flat and dull and the one border is in a terrible state.

I have enough to do in the back garden, so I want something low maintenance. So I have considered pulling everything out of the one, sad border and planting rhododendrons - I have good acidic soil for these, I love them and I have the space to let them grow big over the next few years. I am not allowed to have a fence or wall at the front (not entirely sure why that is, but it is in the house building regulation deeds) but I don't think anyone could stop me putting in, say, a lavender hedge along the front. But then I have to consider where to put beds.
When I did my back garden I took months doing drawings, making plans and doing more, updated drawings before I put spade to soil, so I think I will do the same for the front over the winter and then make it next year's project.
So any and all ideas are welcomed, As you know, I love cottage garden styles and am happy to do quite radical things, but budget budget budget (after all, I have no work right now and the money I have made this last 6 months won't last forever!!!)

Friday, 4 October 2013

Bathroom transformation - finally.

Yes, it is done, 9 weeks of toil and swearing but I have finally completed the bathroom transformation and this morning had my first shower in there for 9 weeks. I am proud that I did it, but I swear I would never attempt to do it by myself again, it is way beyond me really and although I will have a go at anything the reason it has taken me so long is because I have been learning on the job. Now just pray nothing leaks - ever.

So this is how my bathroom was before:

It's difficult to tell on this photo, but the bathroom suite was green, the carpet brown and the walls dirty. If you remember, last February I put my foot through the bath and rendered it useless for bathing, a bit of gaffa tape meant that I could, at least, shower.

First things first, strip off the nasty wallpaper.

Then all the tiles off the wall

And finally back to basics with the room emptied - this was a rather frightening moment.

It is very difficult to photograph a small room like a bathroom well to give you the full affect


here is how it looks now:

Nothing is left from before, new blind, new light, new floor, new tiles, new suite. It all looks so clean!

New shower was the final thing to go in.

The sink is now I pleasant place to brush my teeth.

So there you have it, the hardest transformation I have achieved but I am very proud of it. Nothing about a bathroom is particularly cheap and costs mounted up as I kept on havign to have another trip to B&Q for another bucket of tile adhesive, but in the end the cost for the complete bathroom has come in at well under £1000, which is not bad (is it?) considering how much it would have cost if I were to have got someone else to do it for me. Labour here, was free!

Friday, 27 September 2013

Comforting when things stay the same.

As you know, I have been extremely lax with my postings of late and have, I am afraid, been equally lax with my reading of the 70 odd blogs I follow. Life just sometimes gets in the way and I have been very preoccupied with other 'stuff' going on. When a future is uncertain and you can't quite see beyond next month, let alone next year, it is comforting to dip a tentative toe back into blogland and see that it all is still going on, just as it did. The posts about other peoples lives and still there, recipes and gardening tips are still being shared, dogs antics with lurid purple bones are still to be witnessed and all you lovely people are still commenting as if I had just popped out to the shops for half an hour. Thanks for that.
Comfort comes in the oddest of places.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

I'm still alive

Hello everyone.
Sorry (again) for my absence, I have, for the most part, been away working. I got home last night to very long grass and the start of the Autumn in the garden. The glorious blooms have faded somewhat but it has it's own charms still.
Anyway, the biggest thing going on is still the bathroom complete refit, but I am nearly there. It has been 2 months so far and to be honest I am been very fed up of it all, it is one hell of a big task and perhaps slightly beyond me (hence the huge long amount of time it has taken me) Anyway, all the suite is in (minus shower) and today I finished the tiling, tomorrow I will finish the grouting. Then it is the fun part of just doing the nice bits that will make it look like mine. Hopefully the grand unveiling will take place at the beginning of next week, fingers crossed. I am very pleased with it (although my mother's comment was: 'it looks a bit like a gents public loo'. gee, thanks mum).
SO just wait and see, nearly there.
Thanks for not all stop following even though I have been hopeless for months. I am ok, just had a lot going on in my life.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

The grand unveiling

I've finished my arbour!
A friend of mine has nicknamed it the Moomin House, because it reminds him of the house from the cartoon I used to watch 30 years ago called the Moomins.
It just started raining as I finished it and it does exactly what I wanted it to - keeps me dry! It was very hard to construct by myself I must admit and should probably have tried to get someone to help me, but I perservered and am thrilled with the results.

I think it compliments the garden pretty well, I'm sure you will agree.

Monday, 29 July 2013

Summer garden photos

The weather is still a bit grey and rainy today, but I went out and took some garden photos anyway as it is looking nice.

 It is a riot of colour and everything looks so healthy out there.

Looking back at the house past the inferno of runner beans.

The new bed. It has done very well, although the nasturtiums are slightly past their best. They will look better when the next flowers come.The foxgloves were at their peak 2 weeks ago but I still like the long green seed stems.

Giant daisies always make me smile.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Sorry for my absence.

Hello everyone,
Yes, it has been weeks, I know. Thanks to those messages asking me if i was ok - nice to be missed. I am fine thanks, just been away working a lot and when home just overwhelmed with so much to do.
My garden is looking glorious. I was very worried because i was away for the 10 days we had of glorious weather. Amazingly, not only did everything survive, but it all positively thrived. I will take some photos on the next nice day.
Most of my time since I returned has been taken up with the bathroom refit. Gosh, bathrooms are hard. I think perhaps I have bitten off more than I can chew, and it takes a lot for me to admit that. I have everything installed but the u-bends leak on both the sink and the bath. Bugger. I am thinking it is time to call in a professional to just stop the leaks before I go any further. Well, at least I have installed everything and laid the new floor. once the leaky u-bends are started I can get going on the tiling and finish the thing off. I have been without sink and bath/shower since last Thursday and it is wearing. At least the loo is in, working and pretty (as pretty as any loo can be) and I have put in an outside tap. The shower seems to be ok too, although I can't use it until the other problems are sorted and I have tiled.
I'm off to France for 11 days on Thursday (work) so it would be great to at least get a few things finished before I go. My most exciting thing is that I am building a covered arbour in the corner of my garden. Another difficult one man job, but it will be worth it. What I discovered in the mini heatwave was that it was simply too hot in my South facing garden with no shade at all (boohoo I hear you cry) so decided a covered arbour would be lovely. also somewhere to sit if there is light rain too. Pictures of that to follow too, when I eventually finish it.
I'll try to get back into the swing of blogging soon, and I will try taking and uploading some pictures to make it all a bit more interesting next time.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Evolution of a flower bed

Short photographic post today.

Remember the island bed I dug out earlier this year ready to create? I thought it would be fun to show the photos of how it has changed to date.

Just wait until the flowers begin to bloom now!

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Little working holiday in Purbeck.

I am having a duvet day. I was working in Dorset for a couple of nights Thursday and Friday and I started my 5 hour car journey back to Lancashire after work finished at 10pm Friday. You can tell just why I am so tired today. Crazy most people called me as I set off but, for me, more crazy is wasting the whole of yesterday on busy roads when I could be home. I managed it all without a stop (for once, my pea sized bladder didn't let me down) and was in my bed by 3 am. What made it most exhasuting was the fact that I only drove there the day before ready to work from 2 until 10.
No other expenses as a lovely lady put myself and another singer up for the night and was most welcoming to us, so kind of someone to open up their home to two strange men, just because they assume opera singers are nice and honest people (which, of course, we mostly are).
Yesterday I only had to be back working at 3, so my friend and I went for an explore, which was like a mini (very mini) holiday. We got up early and were on our way by 9 with only a vague idea where to go, just drive and stop when we feel like it. We headed out and made our first stop at Corfe Castle for a quick wander around the town. It is very small, but exceedinly perfect in every way, a true Dorset village (overrun with visitors of course.) We didn't do the castle as it was quite expensive, but as it was a ruin anyway, just looked at it from afar.
It is everything that a ruined castle should be.

I was most excited because, so the stories go, it is the castle that Enid Blyton based her Famous Five's Kirrin Castle on (there is an Enid Blyton shop in the town)

Back in the car and on to Studland where we stopped and walked to Harry's old Rocks. It was a pleasant walk and we found a very small crop of rather tired, but still pungent wild garlic growing in the hedgerow. I took a few leaves and shoved them in my pocket for some pasta tonight.

After the walk we moved on again for a quick lunch of egg butties in Swanage, which is one of those very old fashioned coastal resort towns, now populated by retired people walking along the prom. It was really, really lovely (and my expectations had been quite low having been brought up near Blackpool).

A quick trip to a garden centre and finally on to my rehearsal at Lulworth Castle.

Quite a lot to pack into a morning off, but I loved every second and the weather was extremely kind to us.