Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Lighting the Wood Stove

Setting the fire in the wood stove I position one split log of oak across the back of the grate, and one along each side. Until late last autumn these logs were a branch blown down a few hundred yards away from here in a public park in Lancaster. From that park I brought home three burstingly heavy bike trailer loads. I'm assuming the branch must have been weakened for a while before it fell, because my new meter shows the moisture is already below 25%. The logs don't hiss or bubble, and our chimney sweep tells me 25% is fine (although the meter makers recommends 18%, or less). Into the space between these three logs I place torn and scrunched up junk mail, then reach into a small wire basket which hangs above the stove. It contains dried and drying orange (or other citrus) peel which makes a surprisingly fierce, oily firelighter (and is generally considered too acidic for good garden compost). The grandsons help us with peel collection and always have a bag ready when I visit. On top of the peel goes a handful of dry birch twigs collected recently on a short walk around Baines Crag (a former quarry for millstones, five miles away on the fells), and on top of those go several snapped hazel sticks which after a few years in my hurdle fence had become brittle beyond repair. The hazel stems once grew twelve miles north of here in a neglected coppice near Yealand Storrs. On top of the hazel go a few slightly larger pieces of long-dried willow driftwood collected with the bike trailer from the banks of the Lune two miles from home. As the fire gets established I feed it with three years old chunky wedges of sycamore from a friend's garden across the city, alternating with more oak from the park. Adjusting air input as necessary, I occasionally check the gauge on the stove pipe as it quickly pushes up into clean burning temperatures, then it's time to sit back, stare at the flames for a while, and watch the new heat-powered electric fan as it pushes generous warmth all around the sitting room, into the kitchen, and up the stairs.

Monday, 2 January 2017

The Wood Store

On Friday the cloud was low enough to hide Farleton Fell as I drove through the Yealands then as far as I could get down the track without making a muddy fool of myself. I parked the van and in heavy drizzle walked along the edge of a wood where oak takes forever to grow, birch lean uprooted like long silver skittles, and ash, hazel and hawthorn consistently fail to thrive in the greasy, black, bog bottom soil. A drift of breeze was bringing a steady shish of traffic from the A6 three fields ahead of me. A firm believer in Sod’s Law, I refused to look for any deer - if you look, you won’t see them, but if you don’t, you might. A minute later I’d forgotten about them, which surely explains why then I noticed those grey shapes moving to and fro below a steeply leaning holly tree, the only evergreen in sight. I walked on until I could make out the spotted coats of three, four, four, counting, counting four, five indecisive fallow deer tottering to and fro like high-heeled girls on a pub crawl. I walked. They stopped. They stared. I walked again. They stared, broke away, trotted, stopped and stared again. As well they might. I was pushing a stripped down, steel-framed three-wheeler pushchair – exchanged several years ago through our local swap shop for a bottle of (vegan, organic, French rosé), wine - and I must’ve looked more like a bag lady than any rambler, pheasant feeder, or hunter within the deer’s experience. (I worry a little that these deer aren’t as scared as they should be).
Beneath their holly tree the ground was as dry as any deer could want it. Further on I glimpsed the first of several stacks of firewood I’d made fourteen months ago when clearing back from a long neglected ditch. To keep my crop off the ground and in the breeze I pile it between forked trunks of birch, but this is a tolgy wood, particularly here on the leeward side, and seasoning can too easily become rotting unless I can get my hard won lengths back home to our wind-tunnel woodshed. A roughly five feet length will make me six logs the larger of which will burn better for having been split to a rough 3” x 2” size. I’ve found that in locations nearer to public roads any cut lengths of wood tends to “walk”. I don’t enjoy wasted effort, so logging and splitting is done at home. I carefully loaded the pushchair. I keep it close to its backward tipping point so that I can lift the front wheel and swerve it around mud holes, tussocks, rocks and stumps (generally only after I’ve hit them). With three screamingly tight stretch hooks I secured what is inevitably a top heavy load and shoved off. As I joined back onto the track there was another fallow deer, so indignant to see me that it tossed its head and stamped a forefoot before making an abrupt turn and disappearing as only deer can. I’d thought to bring home three loads that day, but soon two seemed enough. Now the wood’s in our shed and drying well. Perhaps in 2012 I’ll finally get around to bringing home enough to get us through the whole winter without these extra trips. But I doubt it. By the way, should anyone be wondering where to find the rest of my woody stash, it is (sire), “a good league hence Underneath the mountain Right against the forest fence By Saint Agnes' fountain.”

Monday, 26 December 2016

It's Xmas 1963.

It's 1963. Well, imagine it is. My parents have been in the habit of taking us en famille to a Methodist chapel in Newent, Glos. My sister and I are bored almost to tears by the Sunday school, but sometimes in summer the family cycles from our home in Highleadon to and from the chapel on two tandems. This very much brightens my day. My parents have soon made friends most of all with a family who live in a modern house on a dairy farm near May Hill. (Being a get-up-early farmer, it seemed acceptable for the farmer to snore during sermons. Tolerance, you see).

We have been invited to lunch with the family on xmas day, but when we arrive the mother seems to be consumed by an entirely unexpected grumpiness caused by... Her sons and... The Beatles! Waking that morning the mother had started Handel's Messiah on the family's record player, but her sons, 16 and 18, quickly swapped it for With The Beatles, the brand new album, a present that very morning from their grandfather, himself a retired Methodist minister! Incensed by their disrespectful attitude the mother returns all her sons' presents to a hiding place then hands them one quickly wrapped. Opening it, the sons, tall, confident, Mod-styled young men, both of whom went on to become doctors, find... a dead beetle in a matchbox. A few days later our family goes to visit Eric, my grandfather's brother, a lovely man, and Gracie, his cantankerous, skin and bone, rheumatism-riddled wife in their mock-Tudor house in Hereford. The adults' conversation turns to The Beatles - they were very big news at the the time - and suddenly Gracie pins me with a steely stare from the watery eyes in her skully old head, "All that yeah, yeah, yeah... You don't like them, do you!" It isn't a question, but it is an opportunity, and some force, far bigger than I was, makes me take it. "Yes, yes, I do!". It was quite untrue, I'd been surrounded by classical music only, and had no understanding of pop, but from that early age the thrill of taking a contrary standpoint has never left me, with the result that I habitually still look for alternative viewpoints at almost every turn.

Sunday, 25 December 2016

1,000 Light Years from Lonesome

Once upon a time about one thousand years ago I didn't know much at all about The Rolling Stones music, but my good friend Keith... no-o-o-o-oh, not that Keith, lent me the newly released Sticky Fingers, then several other Stones' albums, and I became, like him, a fanatic. In 1973 we persuaded Karen to take us to see the Stones in Manchester. It was my first ever gig by any well known band, and I'm not sure I've ever been to a better one. (Karen became their greatest fan for two days, then reverted to being a fan of Roxy Music. Tsk, I say). On leaving school I went to college in the Lake District and Keith went to London and became a builder. Three decades went by before we met one Boxing Day in The George in Brecon. We found we'd both been disappointed by the Stones' music ever since Mick Taylor had left (late in 1974), and had finally stopped collecting Rolling Stones' albums round about Steel Wheels, which I won in a music mag's competition. By that time (1989), we already owned about 28 each. Again we fell out of contact, but since a school reunion in August this year have stayed in touch. Exchanging seasonal greetings today we were much amused to find we'd both been given The Rolling Stones' new Blue and Lonesome album. And we like it.

Monday, 5 December 2016

Prepping and Trialling.

Today my nurse (Joanne), went to work while I stayed at home and went xmassy as I made two nut roasts (one for Will, who's not keen on cooking), and our xmas cake.

This afternoon I cycled into the little city of Lancaster, Lancashire, met Joanne and Abigail - unplanned, and Jonny and Gail - unplanned, bought a few xmas cards and presleys - undetected, and cycled home, alongside the canal, of course.

Not long afterwards Jonny arrived - planned, and for about 90mins we nattered in the cold shed, conversationally almost tripping over ourselves, as folks do when they've made only a little time to discuss adventures shared and unshared, past, historic, prehistoric, and projected.

The nut roast was good, I say modestly - really it was very good - and it was followed by baked plums in spiced red grape juice. I'm finding that as more and more people jump on board the good ship Vegan Bandwagon, the greater the need there is to tweak newly published recipes. And that's what I did today because I'd rather mess up a book with my scrawled alterations, than mess up a meal. And I'd rather fill a day in early December with food trials, than produce a duff meal on the big day. Whenever we decide that might be.