Monday, 17 December 2012

Candles and a Wassail Bowl for the Winter Solstice

Some Mistletoe, a Candle and a Wassail Bowl for the Winter Solstice
As the winter solstice approaches, I'm celebrating this time of year in the house by lighting some candles and preparing some mulled cider.  I've often made mulled cider in the past, but this year, with my recent visit to the Saxon chapel still on my mind, I've decided to create a wassail recipe.  I've an image of this warm, spicy drink being passed around in a mead hall under flaring torches - but I admit this is a romantic view; an impression I've gained from poetry such as Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and also from Tolkien's Golden Hall in The Lord of the Rings.  The truth is, the wassail bowl has a different history than that.

The Origins of Wassailing

In Beowulf, the warriors gather in the "beorsele", which has been translated as a beer hall or feast hall.  In the translation of the poem I possess it's called a "wassailing place" - so this is obviously where I got the image from!  "Wassail" apparently originates from words in Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse, but it wasn't seemingly used in literature until the Middle Ages. Today, we understand "wassail" as a traditional greeting meaning "Good Health!" and which is followed by the reply; "drinkhail".

The Wassailing Tradition

Most of the wassailing tradition hasn't taken place in a hall at all; it has taken place out in orchards where people have gathered to wish for a good apple harvest for the following year.  The wassailers gather around the most important apple tree in the orchard (known as the guardian of the orchard) and pour cider or ale on its roots.  They then drink a toast to the tree and drive away any evil spirits by making as much noise as possible with horns and bells. Bonfires have also been lit in the orchard; firelight and candlelight, at this darkest time of year, has always been seen as a way to banish evil.

In other traditions, wassailing parties of agricultural labourers used to go to the houses of the rich to sing traditional wassail songs for money; or in some areas women would dress up and visit different houses with a decorated wassail bowl to offer good wishes to the householders.

The Time of Year

The time of year this all takes place varies; but it's usually in midwinter, around Christmas and on Twelfth Night.

Wassail Recipe

There are different recipes for a wassail bowl; some are based on cider, and others on ale. But all recipes generally include roasted apples (in some areas called Lamb's Wool) and/or pieces of bread.

For my recipe, I've used cider, brandy, spices and apples, but I've left out the bread, because even if this is booze-infused, I don't fancy soggy bread in my drink.

I've used:

1 1/2 litres cider
2 cinnamon sticks
2 pinches of nutmeg
2 pinches ground cloves
2 tablespoons of caster sugar
A dash of brandy
6 roasted apples.


Remove the core from the apples and then roast the apples for about 40 minutes at 350 F/180 C/Gas 4 or until the apples have begun to soften and the skins are beginning to split.

Pour the cider into a large pan on a low heat.  After a few minutes, when the cider is warm, add the spices and brandy, let it boil and then turn the heat down and let it simmer.

When the apples are roasted, add to the cider and serve warm. 

Saturday, 8 December 2012

The Saxon Chapel in the Marshes: A Midwinter Visit to St Peter-on-the-Wall

This weekend, as the Christmas shopping crowds flocked to the local towns, I disappeared off in the opposite direction to the remote salt marshes of the Essex coast.  There, I visited St Peter-on-the-Wall; a small, Saxon chapel standing at the very end of long path (or pilgrimage route).  It's a simple, unadorned place; there's little inside except for a stone altar, wooden benches set on the flagstones and several, burning candles.  On this winter's afternoon, there is a silence inside the chapel, and little noise outside, except for a light whisper of wind and the distant cries of birds.  A visit here is the perfect antidote to the madness of Christmas shopping.

St Peter-on-the-Wall is St Cedd's chapel.  St Cedd arrived here in 653 from Lindisfarne, and the following year built his cathedral on the site of the (abandoned) Roman fort of Othona.  St Cedd also founded a Celtic style Christian community and there is still a Christian community (the Othona Community) nearby today.

The history of St Peter-on-the-wall after the early years is largely unknown, but by the early modern era it was no longer used as a chapel.  Instead, it was used as a farmer's grain store and cattle shed and it wasn't to be restored until the twentieth century.

Each year, in the summer, there is a pilgrimage to the chapel.  As I walked along the long path to the chapel I had the sense of reaching the edge of somewhere.  Beyond the chapel, there is the salt marsh; a nature reserve for birds and plants that stretches out to the River Blackwater, and the sea.

I can't put off Christmas shopping any longer, so I have to return back.  But I now feel more able to cope with the crowds after being in such a spiritual, peaceful place.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Cheese and Spicy Apple Loaf with D'Arcy Spice Apples

Cheese and Spicy Apple Loaf with D'Arcy Spice Apples
I adore old English apples and I'm saddened that so many old apple trees have been carelessly (or deliberately) pulled up.  Because of this, I love to hear about people committed to planting and preserving the old varieties - and if I have the chance to try an old variety of apple I always do.  I enjoy undertaking a not-very-scientific study to compare the tastes of different apples.  I also like to find out where the variety of apple originates from - in Essex I know of four varieties: Discovery, Queen, Chelmsford Wonder and D'Arcy Spice.  Discovery is an early variety and Queen and Chelmsford Wonder are cooking apples, but perhaps the most unusual of the four is the dessert apple; D'Arcy Spice.

D'Arcy Spice is so called because it originates from Tolleshunt D'Arcy, a village close to the Essex coast and it's said to date from 1785 (although it could be older than that).  It's an apple known for its aromatic flavour; it has a subtle taste of nutmeg.  And it's a late variety; traditionally it's not picked until Guy Fawkes Day and then it needs to be stored for several weeks before it's ready to eat.  In storage, the apples sweeten and develop their distinct, spicy taste.  I also love the appearence of D'Arcy Spice; it has a humble, "traditional variety of apple" look about it.

D'Arcy Spice Apple
D'Arcy Spice apples have just become available in my local farm shop, so I bought some to make a cheese and spicy apple loaf.  I love this loaf - it's a real lunchtime treat; moist with lovely flavours and a crunchy crust.  I wish I could have included local cheese, but as I mentioned last month I've hunted for local cheese and found that Essex no longer produces any.  So I've had to use non-local  cheddar (from the north of England) for my recipe.  Still, the apples themselves were grown just a couple of miles away.

I'm now wondering whether to source a D'Arcy Spice apple tree and plant it in the new orchard.  It would be good to have a local variety growing there.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Homemade Irish Whiskey Cream Recipe

I recently came across a recipe (from many years back) for homemade Irish whiskey cream.  I've never made it, but for a Christmas treat I thought I'd give it a go.  I was interested to see whether it was actually worth doing - and to do some comparison with (let's call it) the "leading brand" on taste and cost.


Condensed milk - 400g (14oz)
Whiskey - 240 ml (8fl oz)
3 large eggs
Camp coffee - 2 teaspoons
Double cream - 275 ml (1/2 pint)

NB Add other ingredients, such as chocolate syrup, if you want to experiment with different tastes.


Simply blend ingredients in a blender.  Then store in the fridge in a sterilised, air tight container.

Is it worth making homemade Irish Whiskey Cream? 

The taste is definitely all there - I loved it.  I made a litre of it and it does work out cheaper to make than to buy.  I could save up to £8 if I'd bought the cheapest bottle of whiskey (or whisky) in the shop - but this wasn't Irish whiskey.  With the Irish whiskey I found available I still make a saving, but just not as much.  (I also had to buy the eggs, as I'm not getting eggs on the smallholding at the moment).

Final verdict: I'll definitely make some more for drinking by the fire at Christmas!

Comparing the two: the homemade drink is on the left

Friday, 23 November 2012

Wildlife, Wetlands & Crossrail: A Visit to Wallasea Island

Wallasea Island

Huge, overarching sky; pools of crystal-blue water; a vast, flat landscape stretching out to the horizon - this is Wallasea Island on the Essex coast.  I've just made a visit here, on a day of brittle autumn sunshine, to see for myself the beginnings of a project that will be the "largest man-made nature reserve in Europe", because millions of tonnes of soil will be arriving on Wallasea to create a wetland landscape of mudflats, salt marsh and lagoon, last seen over 400 years ago.

Wetland with the Crossrail material handling facility just visible in the distance
The soil is initially coming from the Crossrail project; the rail tunnels currently being bored through London - and the soil is apparently being brought up from a level so deep it won't be polluted.  The RSPB, the owner of the reserve, has partnered Crossrail to create this new wildlife haven.  Crossrail will deliver 4.5 million tonnes of material in total and at its peak there will be 10,000 tonnes unloaded on the island by 4 ships a day. A new jetty and material handling facility have been built to process this; it's a large development, which seems to rise up out of the salt marsh.  Next to it is a line of soil "pyramids" and as I came up to these, the automated conveyor belt bringing the soil suddenly started up, creating an eerie, echoing sound in the vast, windswept landscape.  It's an impressive bit of mechanised kit, but - as I watched - a man came up with a long stick and started poking at a blockage in it. It still needs to be fixed in the old fashioned way, then.

The soil from Crossrail
The new wetlands will reverse the loss of tidal marshes to arable farming that has been taking place for centuries.  The risk of flooding on the Essex coast and rising sea levels has led to new thinking here; the sea walls have traditionally held the tide back but now sections of these are being breached to allow the water to return.  I could clearly see here on the island where small sections of the sea wall have been breached.
Sections of the sea wall that have been breached
The new reserve should encourage wading birds, ducks, geese, fish and seals.  It is hoped that lost populations of spoonbills and Kentish plovers will return to this site.  On my visit, I saw flocks of beautiful golden plovers; the sunlight glinting on their wings as they flew off - as well as lapwings and curlews.  I also saw a sparrowhawk, but sadly no peregrine or short-eared owl (although before I left it was getting just dark enough for them to emerge).  Apparently, 2011 was a good year for the owls and they were often seen hunting here.

We left the island as the tide was coming in, so we just made it through the water before the sea flooded the road and made it impossible to pass.  It had been a fascinating afternoon.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Winter Cheese Tea

Homemade Cheese Scones & Butter - Selection of Cheese (Here, Welsh Tintern & Scottish Cheddar) - Homemade Parsnip Crisps.

A winter cheese tea is for eating in front of the fire on a Sunday afternoon, just as it begins to get dark outside.  It's a different twist on a cream tea of scones, cream and jam; the winter tea has warm, cheese scones, a selection of cheese and - because parsnips are now in season - a snack of homemade, salty parsnip crisps.

I wanted to make a winter cheese tea with local (Essex) cheese, but, having searched for this, I've discovered that I can't actually buy any Essex cheese anymore.  Apparently, cheese is no longer produced in the county - and I'm disappointed by this, because not only do I want to buy local produce (and support local producers) where I can, but I'd also like to know as much as possible about where my food comes from and how it's produced.  If the farm is local, I can discover a bit more about it.

But - it seems that I just can't buy local cheese.  I know that, for centuries, cheese used to be produced along the Essex coast; cattle and sheep would graze in the salt marshes (I've heard that cheese from sheep was particularly prized) and the old farmhouses used to have cheese lofts where the cheeses would be stored.  However, by the late twentieth century, farming on the coast - and in the county - had become dominated by arable farming.

So, I'll have to look outside the county for cheese and for this tea I've included Scottish cheddar and Welsh Tintern cheese (cheese with shallots and chives).  That's cheese from outside the country!

I've made the cheese scones with the cheddar - and the parsnip crisps I've made by baking flakes of parsnips with olive oil in the oven.  When the crisps are baked, I've shaken them with crunchy sea salt.  I like to serve them warm.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Photographing Ash Trees and Remembering Dutch Elm Disease

At this time of year, shortly after dawn, I often walk across the fields towards the woods. The air is sometimes a little misty, the sun is low and the trees still shadowy.  As I follow a well trodden route across the woodland, I can see and feel at once that the trees are shaking off their leaves and the woodland floor has become a carpet of copper and gold.

The woodland I walk through is mainly sweet chestnut and hornbeam, with some oak.  But out in the fields there is ash; both mature trees and some self-sown, young saplings.  Now that ash dieback has begun to spread across Britain and is already in Essex, I have an ominous feeling that these wonderful ash trees could well be destroyed.

Ash Trees
 And we've been in this situation before. I can just remember the appalling loss of the elms from Dutch Elm Disease (DED); one of my earliest memories is the sound and sight of several mature elms being felled in my local churchyard and the giant bonfires to destroy every last trace of their existence.  Ash and elm are two different species, of course, and the development of ash dieback and DED won't be the same, but the impact on the landscape could be.

I've recently seen old photographs of large elm trees about to be felled with photographs of the same location after they've gone (essentially "before" and "after" pictures).  The "after" photographs show huge gaps in the landscape where the elms should be.  I've now decided to photograph mature ash trees in the same way that the elms were photographed, even though it may be years before they disappear (if they do).  I'm not going to rush out and photograph every ash tree I come across,but it does seem a good time to really appreciate these trees and record their place in local landscape history.

DED and its control
As a wide-scale destruction of ash trees is talked about, I recently had a look at the devastation caused by DED in the 1970s (both nationally and locally) to see what happened then.

Here are my discoveries:


- The British elm population is quite diverse but all groupings of elms are susceptible to DED.  Only small pockets of mature elms still exist in Britain today.

- Modern DED was first discovered in northern Europe (Picardy) in 1918.  It was found in Britain (and Essex) in 1927.  An early theory about its origin was that it had been caused by toxic gas in the First World War, but later it was generally believed that it had been imported from Asia.  In fact, there is evidence to suggest that DED has been in Britain for centuries (from tree rings and also from references in documents to the sudden death of elms in an area).

- The strain found in 1927 was eventually considered non-serious, as by 1929 there were signs of recovery in the elm population.  T R Peace, who assessed DED, wrote in a Forestry Commission publication in 1960 that this disease could well continue as a minor nuisance, but unless its nature changed, it would never amount to any great importance.

- In less than a decade after Peace wrote the above, DED in Britain had changed.  In the late 1960s, elm imported from North America was found to contain a more virulent strain of the disease and elms across Britain were quickly infected. It wasn't long before elms were inspected, assessed and destroyed.

- Since the 1960s, the existence of DED has prevented the growth of mature, healthy elm trees.  Elm continues to grow in hedgerows, but if these hedgerows aren't managed properly i.e. they are left to grow into trees, then they will succumb to the disease.

Elm Hedge

The Nature of the Disease

- DED is caused by a fungi in the genus Ophistoma and is transmitted from dead or dying elms to healthy trees by a species of elm bark beetle.  The female beetle lays eggs under the bark; when the eggs hatch the emerging beetles rub against the sticky spores of the fungus and then, when they come to breed, they fly to the crowns of healthy trees.

- the symptoms of the disease are yellowing or browning on the foliage of trees, dying twigs (that bend over and resemble a shepherd's crook), brown streaks on the bark and an absence of healthy buds.

Control of DED

- A programme of sanitation felling was implemented and sanitation measures "on the table" in 1970s were as follows:

1. Root severance - severing the roots between a tree and its neighbour.  This could be done by mechanical measures (digging out a trench and digging out the roots) or by using a chemical to kill the roots.
2. Fungicidal Injection - this was a new treatment in the 1970s and involved injecting a fungicide into the tree.
3. Spraying Insecticide - this was to be done by "mist spraying" and helicopters could be used for this.

The idea of insecticides and chemicals makes me shudder, but in the 1970s the damage to the environment by these measures was seemingly not fully considered or appreciated.  In the end, spraying with insecticide was to be abandoned because of ineffectiveness and environmental damage while injecting with fungicide was to be abandoned because it was considered too costly.

Some of the most recent attempts at combatting DED are being made in the breeding of disease resistant trees.  A nursery promoting disease resistant trees is to be found in Essex.

The Legacy of DED

The British countryside has been changed completely by the loss of the elms.  In Essex, records made by the local council detail where the elms were felled.  In the coastal areas of Tendring, Dengie and Thurrock elms dominated the local hedgerows and so their destruction here hugely damaged the local landscape and its wildlife. 

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Essex Huffer Recipe

I recently wanted to create a lunch with an Essex huffer, which is a wedge-shaped bap eaten with a filling of choice.  Although the huffer has become a local bread in this part of Essex, I can't find any recipes for it in any old or new Essex cook books and there is little information online.  However, there is a traditional bread from Kent called a huffkin, and although huffkins are smaller rolls, it seems to me that there is a very close similarity between the two breads.  So I've looked to the huffkin for ideas for my recipe.  My huffers are slightly smaller than the huge baps on the pub lunch menu, but they'll be larger than a traditional huffkin.

Essex Huffer with Scottish Cheddar and Old English Chutney with Cider

Recipe for an Essex Huffer (This makes 8 Huffers)

1lb 10oz (750g) of strong bread flour.  I like to use Marriage's (the Chelmsford Millers) Very Strong White Canadian Flour for all my bread making.
7 fl oz (200 ml) scalded milk (milk boiled and then cooled until it is tepid)
10 fl oz (275 ml) tepid water
2 1/2 oz (75g) butter
1/2 oz (15g) fresh yeast*
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons sugar.

A little extra flour for a floury surface to knead the dough.
A little extra butter for greasing.

You will need:

Two baking trays.
A bowl to mix the dough in and a bowl to mix the fresh yeast.


1. Mix flour, salt and sugar in a bowl.

2. Rub in the butter.

3. In a separate bowl, mix the fresh yeast with a little of the tepid water to create a loose paste, then add the rest of the water.

4. Make a well in the centre of the flour mixture and pour in the tepid milk.

5. Then pour in the yeast and tepid water mixture.

6. Leave the mixture for 10-15 minutes under a piece of muslin (or tea towel).

7. Mix into a dough, adding a little more flour if the mixture feels too wet, or water if the mixture feels too dry.

8.  Turn the dough out onto a floury surface and knead for 10 minutes.

9. Wash out the floury bowl and grease with butter.

10. Put the dough into the bowl, cover with the muslin (or tea towel) and leave for an hour in a warm room.

11. Turn the dough out onto a floury surface and cut in half.

12.  Roll out each half into a circle and then cut into four pieces each 2cm thick.

13. Put four pieces on one, greased baking tray and four on the other.

14. Leave under tea towels for 30 minutes.

15. Pre-heat the oven to 220c, 200 fan or gas 7.

16. Place the baking sheets with dough in the oven and bake for 20-25 minutes.

* I always use fresh yeast in my breadmaking. This can be available in supermarkets and bakeries that bake bread on site.  If you would prefer to use dry yeast instead for this recipe, then I believe 15 g fresh yeast converts to 4 g of dry, quick yeast.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Keeping Pests out of the Greenhouse

After I lost most of my tomatoes to pests this summer, I've decided that one way I can avoid this happening again next year is to completely re-design the inside of my greenhouse.  I believe that the inside of my greenhouse has, over the years, become a little too pest-friendly and I need to make sure that the pests don't get the upper hand again.  At the same time, I'm putting together my own good practice notes for greenhouse growing to keep on hand for the future (for information - my greenhouse is unheated and rests on old railway sleepers).

Greenhouse Pests

These include aphids, white flies, mealybugs, caterpillars, ants, spider mites, slugs, snails, mice and rats.

The old floor is dug out.

Re-designing the Greenhouse

These are my key tasks for re-designing the greenhouse:

1.  Take down the netted shading.  This was put up some time ago after my tomatoes were scorched through the glass one summer.  Since then, a hedge has grown up close to the greenhouse and I realise now that the extra shading is no longer needed.  So the netting has to go; I believe it's created shady conditions for slugs to flourish.

2.  Create a hard floor and grow tomatoes in pots.  Years ago, I started to grow the tomatoes in soil in the greenhouse, but I believe this has encouraged a range of pests to feel at home there (from mice to slugs).  I now want to create a hard floor and grow the tomatoes and cucumbers in pots and I'm fortunate that I can source some bricks for free from a family member who no longer needs them.  Putting in a hard floor is very much a trial and I'm aware that I must keep these pots well watered otherwise, in greenhouse conditions, they could dry out very quickly.

3.  Re-fix the chicken wire over the lower part of the entrance.  Because I have a problem with rabbits on the smallholding, I've put this in to keep them out just in case they're tempted to venture in and have a look.  It also keeps out rats.

4.  Repair any broken glass panels in the greenhouse. 

Good Practice Notes for Each Year

Spring Cleaning (i.e. from autumn to early spring!)

With clean water and an eco-friendly washing up liquid, I'll do the following:

1.  Scrub the greenhouse glass, inside and out.
2.  Scrub the staging.
3.  Clean out the pots for the next seedlings, tomatoes and cucumbers.
4.  Sweep/clean the new floor.

The new floor starts to go in.

On-going Care for the Growing Season

1.  Maintain daily vigilance for pests, but thoroughly check over the vegetables each week.  Keep a good book handy that has clear illustrations of pests, so that I can quickly identify exactly which pest has appeared (if it has!)

2.  Hunt those pests down! Look for slugs and snails in dark corners, under pots etc.

3.  Keep organic pest control solutions to hand.  Make sure pre-prepared pest controls don't use harsh chemicals that are harmful to beneficial insects and that will also enter the food chain.  Have mouse traps, slug beer traps and jam jars with a small hole in the top (i.e. these are wasp traps that can be effective for catching slugs) to hand.

4.  Make sure that the tomato plants don't become too overcrowded when they grow to create shade for pests and conditions where pests can spread around more easily.

5.  Keep the greenhouse well ventilated for the health of the plants and to stop pests flourishing in airless conditions.  Check the air vents and the door of the greenhouse are open in warm weather.

6.  Keep a daily eye on the pots to make sure that they don't dry out at all.  Create a drip irrigation system to keep the soil moist.

7.  Keep up companion planting i.e. other plants and flowers that can also be planted in the pots to draw insects away from the main vegetables.

8.  Store soil well and always use fresh soil for new planting.

9.  Check over any new plants, brought in from a nursery or garden centre (or other source) for pests and diseases.

10. Promptly clear away any old plants and vegetables at the end of the growing season to prevent overwintering bugs and the possibility of disease developing.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Making a Chair from our Hazel Trees

We're fortunate to have hazel trees on our smallholding and we've made the most of the timber from them.  This is straight-grained and hard; and as well as making walking sticks from it (for older family members), we burn it for firewood.  We've also used the timber to make a high-backed chair from a very simple (i.e. made up as we went along!) design.

The Hazel Tree

Hazel was one of the first trees to recolonise Britain after the last ice age, helping to form the early wildwood.  As one of our oldest trees, it's the subject of plenty of folklore.  The Celts believed hazel trees were trees of wisdom and poetry and hazels were thought to be found in places where the boundaries between the worlds were thinnest.  Wizards' staffs were thought to be of hazel, and hazel twigs were used to fend off witches, to point out thieves and to seek for buried treasure.  Today, they are still used by diviners to find water.  Until the middle ages, hazel nuts were associated with fertility and could also be used to reveal the health of a marriage!

Hazel is deciduous, shedding its leaves each year.  It likes heavy soil, although this mustn't be waterlogged - and because it comes from the ancient wildwood, it tolerates shade (our hazel is found in the shadows of large oak trees).  A hazel will live about 60 years or so before it dies back, but it lives much longer if it is coppiced (and we coppiced our trees this year).  We've also included hazel in a new hedge we've planted on the smallholding and we've had to protect this from rabbits, deer (especially muntjac) and our own sheep.  Hazel nuts are seized upon by grey squirrels.

Hazel in a new hedge

Making the Chair

We cut a few whips of hazel back to the tree stump and used the wood at once i.e. it wasn't given time to season.  We then sawed the wood into the lengths we wanted and pre-drilled holes into the wood before screwing (to avoid splitting).  The lengths/height are detailed below. 

Finally, the wood was varnished, not so much to give it extra protection, but for appearance.

The chair is robust, and, with cushions, comfortable. We've placed it in the kitchen/rest area of our new barn, where we're making most of the furniture ourselves from local wood (with more, DIY designs!)

Saturday, 6 October 2012

The South Essex Plotlands - Smallholdings for Londoners?

I'm fascinated by landscape history and in particular, by lost places e.g. lost and forgotten villages, woodlands, boundaries, lands etc.  Usually, these are from centuries ago, but I was recently reminded of the Essex plotlands - lost settlements from the early to mid 20th century, which were in (what is now) Basildon.  I grew up several miles away from there, but I know some people with connections to this area and I've listened to their anecdotes and memories.  So - having been reminded of the plotlands existence - I wanted to find out more, particularly as they were established by Londoners looking for their own "good life".

The plotland movement was essentially Londoners buying pieces of land to put on huts and cottages for either weekend use or permanent living. The impetus was to escape from the slums of the city for a quiet life in the country where residents could grow a few vegetables, keep animals, forage for food and live a simple life.  Most of their houses, though, were of a very basic construction and didn't have services, such as running water, roads or power.  

Arable land on the edge of the former plotlands area.
This land was known as "three horse land" because it was so difficult to work.
The land for the new plotlands movement had started to become available following the late 19th century agricultural depression, when many farmers had been forced to sell up because of an increase in cheap imports of wheat.  The Essex farmers in this area grew wheat because it was suited to the heavy clay soil (this area became known as "three horse land" because it was so difficult to work).  When the land was sold off cheaply, the speculators moved in and formed companies to buy and sell the land in plots at auctions.

The move into the countryside was also made possible by the development of the railway in this area and the land companies teamed up with the railway operators to set up "champagne auctions" where they seemingly lured in potential buyers by offering special train tickets with alcohol.  The height of the plotlands movement was the 1920s to 1940s (and I don't suppose it's a coincidence that this followed the horrors of the First World War, in which many of the men would have fought.  Nor was it too long after the migration of their fathers and grandfathers from the country to the city looking for work during the agricultural depression).   Buildings were supposed to meet housing and planning bye-laws, but they were often constructed regardless and the local councils would come to regard them as shacks springing up in a rural slum.

The Second World War changed the nature of the plotlands development.  Agricultural land that would have been sold off for more plots was now returned to farming.  At the same time, many people moved to the plotlands to escape the bombing in London.  Once the war was over the "rural slum" nature of the plotlands began to occupy the minds of the local councils and they joined forces with the London councils (which were dealing with a post-war housing crisis) to lobby for a new town in the area.  In 1949 the Basildon Development Corporation was formed and the plotlands were earmarked for development.

The Haven: Once a Plotlands Home - now a Museum.
Many plotlanders were ready to move on from the problems of such basic living to a place in the new town.  As more and more properties became empty, crime (especially vandalism) began to increase in the plotlands area and many no longer felt safe living there.  But many more plotlanders didn't want to leave their rural life; the homes they'd often built themselves and the pieces of land where they'd kept animals and grown vegetables - to move to the high density development of a new town. These people formed residents associations to oppose the building of Basildon New Town and I know from anecdotal evidence that they were devastated by the compulsory purchase of their homes and land and the destruction of their rural dream: "Basildon was built on heartbreak" was a familiar expression.

Today, much of the former plotlands area is under Basildon New Town; some of it has been made into a nature reserve and the rest is now a mixture of housing and arable land.  A small, plotlands museum, a few cottages and a plotlands trail around grassy tracks with the old "road" names are all that's left of this modern, back-to-the-land movement.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Geese For Beginners

We have five lovely, snow white Embden geese; two males and three females.  We started with a goose and a gander, bought in January, 2010, and then three goslings hatched naturally the following June. 

The three young goslings.  The male is in the centre.

I knew nothing about geese before we acquired them, so I made several trips to the library to read up on them beforehand.  But I soon learned that the books don't tell you what you really need to know; so here are the facts I read about - and then what I actually found out to be true:

Large breeds don't fly - Well, yes, they do.  We don't fatten up our geese, so they may well be sleeker than other Embdens, but they do like to fly, usually all together.  The fear is that they will over-shoot the boundary of the smallholding and or get caught up somewhere and be unable to escape.  One of the young females did get caught in the brambles by the pond, and luckily I was there to see it and the fox wasn't.  So now we clip one of each goose's wings - very carefully - and this imbalances them.  I was worried at first that they wouldn't escape a passing fox with clipped wings, but when I did witness an encounter with a fox, the geese were charging it, not escaping it.  (NB be warned when clipping a large goose wing.  If you don't duck at the right time a loose, flapping wing can give you a black eye for days!)

The original pair

Geese are easy to put in at night - Yes they are; but not at first, if they've never been housed at night before.  We found this with our first pair.  They had come from a large, waterfowl centre and had run around all day and night outside, so they didn't want to go into our goose house.  For three weeks we had to chase them around the smallholding, sometimes going into the pond, wearing waders to drive them out.  Then it became icy, and I had to wade in like an ice breaker to coax them towards the bank.  But after three weeks, they began to go in more times than not (to be honest, the gander was good about going in from the beginning; it was the goose who was the problem).  By the spring it was all change and now they wander in themselves quite happily.  The younger geese, who have not known any other routine, have never been a problem.

Geese don't usually hatch their eggs in their first year - This is wrong!  Our goose and gander were both under a year old, but they mated soon after we got them and in May the goose became broody on a clutch of eggs in the goose house.  She hatched three and so we now have five geese!

Geese and sheep lazing about together
Ganders reared together get on - Yes and no to this one.  When our young gander was about nine months old he began to fight with his father.  For a couple of months, the father was dominant, but then after another fight he lost out to his son.  Since then, the dominance has switched backwards and forwards, with the son dominant most of the time.  After each bout, they settle down for a bit and observe a pecking order and they'll all hang around together until the ganders get too close.  Then there is usually a bit of posturing.  Fortunately on a two acre site they can put plenty of space between them, so the only difficulty comes at night, when they do have to be separated and they are housed in different places. 

The young gander
I've tried to find another home for the son, but haven't found one suitable.  He's a lovely creature and deserves a long, good life.  I love all my geese; they know me as their owner and are real characters around me.  But I couldn't keep them without the space and although they're wonderful now, I don't miss the hard work of those early days (it's much better looking at the pond than being in it).

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Building Livestock Housing Out of Scrap

We wanted livestock on our smallholding, but, where possible, we didn't want to spend out on expensive livestock housing, so we decided to build this ourselves out of scrap.  As a result, both the geese and the sheep have housing/shelters of a similar and (very basic) design. 

The goose house needed to be secure, so that foxes couldn't attack the geese at night.  It also needed to provide plenty of ventilation and protect the geese's straw from wet weather (the geese themselves are hardy enough and could be out in all weathers - if it was safe enough - but the straw mustn't get damp, because mouldy straw can cause illness in geese).  The goose house is also a favourite nesting place for the geese, so in late spring at least one broody goose can be in there twenty four hours a day.  Because of this, the door has to be able to stay open from the morning until we drive them all in at night.

The Goose House

At the time we built the house, we were fortunate to have access to plenty of wooden pallets (in fact, we were being paid to take them away), so we've used these for the core structure of the house.  The house easily shelters 4-5 large geese (plus any large nest) and is 7ft 10 inches (2.41 metres) in length, 4 ft 9 inches (1.47 metres) in depth and 5ft 5inches (1.67 metres) in height (which is 10 pallets).  We then used corrugated iron over the pallets which we had kept from our old (demolished) barn, with the last few inches under the roof uncovered for ventilation. The struts under the roof are pieces of an old pergola David had taken down for someone.  For the floor inside, raised from the ground to avoid damp, we have a sheet of OSB board, which we cover with a thick layer of straw (and which can be scrubbed with animal-friendly disinfectant when the house is cleaned out).  The door is a modified fence panel that shuts securely.  The house is painted in black barn paint.

The sheep shelter is just the same, but larger and longer with an open front.  The sheep wander in there when it rains or snows or they sometimes disappear in there for shade in hot weather.  As we only have three wethers and don't get involved in lambing, we don't need a lambing shed - and our sheep are outside all year round.  The shelter has a small pen in front, so we steer them in there when we want to shear them or give them health checks and treatment.

The chicken house, though, is the exception to this, as here we did spend out to have one made by a village carpentry business.  We submitted a design to them for a raised house, including lay boxes, with a ramp leading down to into a large pen. After this summer's attack by a fox, the chickens are now kept in the pen when we're not able to keep on eye on them.  Otherwise they're let outside.  The pen has a roof, which the chickens have certainly appreciated in this summer's wet weather and we regularly mulch the ground.  The raised house, and the roof, also provide shade in the pen.  We use sawdust (also from the carpentry business!) for the floor in the house and for the lay boxes.

The Chicken House

Monday, 17 September 2012

Sloe Gin

One of our favourite hedgerow drinks is sloe gin, and now I've noticed that the sloes are ripe, I'm going to start picking them so that we have a bottle ready for Christmas.

The amount of sugar that can be added to the sloes and gin varies according to personal taste.  I'm quite generous with the sugar in this recipe (and have added even more in the past), but if you prefer a drier drink, then reduce the amount.  I also don't buy expensive gin, because I find the sloes overwhelm the taste of the gin anyway. 

Sloe Gin

You'll need:

1lb sloes
1 pint gin
8oz sugar (or 4-6oz sugar if you think you'd prefer a drier drink)


1.  Wash the sloes and prick them to split the skins (I use a clean needle).
2.   Put the sloes into a large, sterilised bottle or jar with a top that can be sealed.
3.   Add the sugar.
4.   Pour in the gin.
5.   Keep the bottle/jar in a dark cupboard and shake well once a week to help dissolve the sugar.

The sloe gin will be ready after three months.  Strain through muslin into sterilised bottles/jars and drink.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

The Petrified Forest

David and I had heard of, but had never got round to visiting, the Petrified Oak Forest in Mundon, near Maldon, Essex, which is not so very far away from where we live.  As we're both fascinated by anything to do with trees, forests and woodland, we had to see for ourselves this unusual sight.  And now we've made our visit to the forest, I kind of think that we should have seen it in a storm, or on a darkening, winter afternoon, when the gnarled branches, like old men's fingers, cast long shadows over the ground...

But, instead, we visited on a bright, sunny morning in August.

The oaks are apparently centuries old - and they certainly look, now, as though they no longer belong in the landscape; as though the surrounding countryside is continuing a cycle of life without them.  But they haven't been abandoned altogether, because I've read that local wildlife, such as owls, can still be seen in and around the forest (I can just imagine visiting this place one late afternoon in winter, with owls hooting from the branches  - now that really would be a haunting experience).

The Domesday Book mentions an old settlement called Wringehala, which was once located around here.  But this has long since been lost.  Also lost is the old name for the hundred in this area: Wibrihtesherne.  The parishes in this area of the county are now part of the Dengie Hundred.

The Petrified Oak Forest looks out over the flat, open land that stretches down to the coast.  On its other side, stands the small, fourteenth century church of St Mary's.  This has been disused for decades, but has recently been restored and is now looked after by the Friends of Friendless Churches.  The church is open to visitors.

St Mary's Church, Mundon
The Petrified Forest and church are situated at the end of a country lane, but they can also be reached by walkers on St Peter's Way, a long distance footpath that runs across Essex, from Chipping Ongar to the remote, Saxon chapel of St Peter-on-the-Wall, at Bradwell-on-Sea.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Which Firewood is Best for Burning?

It probably seems a bit mad to think about winter firewood when the weather is still warm (and it's August) - but now is the time when we assess the wood we have for our winter fuel.  As David loves nearly all things wood and has worked with it for most of his life; we've made having a log fire a priority.  We have access to wood and we rely on it to save money on central heating, so we want to make sure that if the cold weather comes early, we've got our logs ready.

Our favourite woods for burning are hornbeam and sweet chestnut - they burn well and give out good heat.  Sweet chestnut can spit, although we do have a log burner, so that's not such a problem.  (Conifer, which is one of the woods easily available to us, also tends to spit - and it can soot up the chimney).

The following woods we use take a year to season (dry out) properly before they burn well:

Sweet Chestnut
Ash (This wood can actually be burned almost from felling, but it's better seasoned)

We also burn oak, but this takes a lot longer to season (up to two years).  We don't, by choice, use eucalyptus - because the grain is very twisted, it's difficult to split into logs. 

We store our logs under cover in a small barn (where we also store our straw and hay).  We divide the log piles into two; the first (and oldest) pile is for this winter, and the second is for next winter (2013/14).  The logs are raised off the ground (on pallets) and stacked so air can circulate freely around them.  Mouldy logs will not burn well!

Our wood store

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Trying out an Honesty Box

For the first time this year we've tried an honesty box outside the house to sell the produce from our smallholding and beehives.  I've heard from others that generally an honesty box works really well, and that only occasionally do people help themselves to the produce without paying.  So we decided to give it go, and see how we got on.

We built the honesty box ourselves.  It's designed to be permanent, not moveable, but it does open and close.  We also bought a little money box which is fixed down inside and is only revealed when the honesty box is open.  This has a key, so we unlock it when we want to get the money out at the end of the day.

When we first opened the box this spring, we sold daffodils, because we have dozens growing on the smallholding.  Since then, we've sold veggies and I'm now starting to put out this year's honey (although there isn't much of it yet).  The plan was also to put eggs out, but as we still only have three chickens and haven't re-stocked yet, we only have enough eggs for ourselves at the moment.  The produce we have put out has nearly always sold, and people mostly have lots of goodwill and leave money.  Occasionally, people have paid just a bit less, but at the same time, some people have been so generous that they pay more than the asking price (when they seem to have emptied out their pockets and put all their loose change into the box!)

The box is right next to where people walk, but cars can also pull up easily to it, which helps.  So far, I'm really encouraged by the response, so, at the moment, we'll definitely keep going with it.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Buzzards in Essex

The fields around the smallholding have all been cut now.  This year, the local landowner grew oil seed rape and wheat, and I know the contractors struggled at bit to gather it in because the ground was so wet.  A few days ago, when I walked across the footpath, I suddenly came across the combine harvester crouching in the corner of the field like some silent monster - and close to it were deep trenches where the wheels of the agricultural vehicles had got stuck in the mud.  Now the harvest is finished, there are still a few stubbon patches where the crop can't be gathered, but on the whole the fields are bare with just the stubble poking up from the soil.  The land is very open, and exposed.

This is not good news for the small creatures that've been using the crops as cover.  Suddenly, rabbits are dashing around everywhere.  And circling low overhead, are our new neighbourhood predators - the buzzards.  Only five or so years ago, it was very unusual to see a buzzard in this part of Essex, but now it's quite common to see them.  They sometimes fly low over the smallholding, and the geese and chickens, which are still getting used to them, know instinctively that they mean danger. The geese start cackling, and the chickens just freeze.   So I'm alerted to them as soon as they appear.

I find it impossible to get close enough for a good photo, though - their eyes are far too sharp!

So I wonder, now, if other predators will follow the buzzards return (such as red kites, for example.  There has already been the odd sighting of these birds locally). Sadly it's a different story altogether for the farmland birds such yellowhammers and skylarks. These are definitely in decline - and no wonder - because the hedgerows are still being pulled up in the local fields, and so their cover, and food, is being lost.  I can only imagine what it was like until a few decades ago, when the birdsong and sightings of these birds must have been amazing around here.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Planting an Apple Orchard and Making a Cider Press.

Everything loves apples on our smallholding.  We eat them ourselves and the sheep, geese and chickens devour them.  We also throw some out for the blackbirds in winter - and at night different creatures come in to finish up the leftovers.  So it seemed obvious that we should plant some apple trees - both cookers and eaters - somewhere on the smallholding and it wasn't long before we got involved in planting an apple orchard. 

We didn't plant the orchard all at once; instead, we've planted trees over a number of years  (sometimes maybe two or three a winter).  We also decided early on that we wanted to have a go at producing cider, so we bought a variety of trees for a cider blend.  These included some traditional cider apple trees called Sweet Alford (I believe this variety originates from Devon in the 18th century).  To be honest, these trees aren't doing as well as some of the other trees; so our real blend will come not from cider apples, but from general cookers and eaters.

We searched for a cider press, but decided to save money by making one instead out of scrap. The press we made is in the photo below, and we've used it for two years now.  The main section of the press has been made from old oak fence posts, cut and planed into battens and two bands have been cut and bent from scrap metal.

Home made cider press (centre) and home made shaving horse (left)

The frame was built from some seasoned beech which was cut and planed.  The three large threaded rods and large nuts (which were left over from building the barn) apply pressure on the apples - and so squeeze out the juice.

We started to drink last year's cider this summer, and it's good, but we've decided we'd like it sweeter this year (David and I prefer sweeter drinks).  So I'm going to make it differently this autumn.  I also hope to make more apple juice (which was perfect last year - but there just wasn't enough of it).  Unfortunately, it doesn't look like it will be a good apple year, but hopefully, in addition to our own crop, we can beg and barter enough apples from neighbours (in return for bottles of drink) to have a decent harvest.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Running our Land Rover on Waste Vegetable Oil

Six years ago David set up the Land Rover to run on used, waste vegetable oil.  It's greener and saves money.  Travelling behind the Land Rover is a bit like following a mobile chip shop, but that's a great improvement on the suffocating stench of diesel fumes. 

The Land Rover is a 1988 130 double cab tipper.  It now has two tanks to hold oil and diesel, because although it is running on oil it always starts on diesel until the engine reaches temperature.  When it does so (after about two miles), it switches to vegetable oil which it takes from the second tank.  It is then a simple case of switching back to diesel about two miles before getting home in the evening to make sure that the Land Rover starts after a cold night.  To date, the Land Rover has done over 90,000 miles on vegetable oil with no major problems.  The 300 TDI engine has done 251,000 miles.

Looking at the photo there is a heat exchanger to heat the vegetable oil which is connected into the heater pipes.  There is a three way solenoid valve wired to a switch on the dash.  The system is very simple and reliable and has been a success, saving money (about £200 a month). 

The heat exchanger can be seen at the top of the photo
and the solenoid valve is bottom left.

David gets the oil from two local cafes, and he has to produce a waste licence to collect it.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

The Dunmow Flitch Trials

As the distant thump of the V Festival reaches the house (and it's very hot, so the windows are open), I'm beginning to think that this event has probably now become a sort of local tradition. And we don't really have many of those in this part of the country, except there is one local tradition which has been around for centuries - the Dunmow Flitch Trials.  I went to the last trials held a few weeks ago on 14th July.

The jury of six maidens and six bachelors take the oath

The Flitch Trials are held every four years in Great Dunmow and I guess their real purpose is to celebrate marriage.  A flitch of bacon is awarded to married couples if they can satisfy a judge and jury (of six maidens and six bachelors) that in a twelvemonth and a day they have not wisht themselves unmarried again.  The trials appear to date back to the early medieval period and have always been well known (it is referred to in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, written in the late 1300s, by the Wife of Bath, a champion of marriage who dragged five men to the church door and is now looking around for the sixth).

First couple take the oath
Although David and I couldn't stay all day at this year's trials, we enjoyed what we saw very much.  The trials were held in a marquee; participants competed a bit against the heavy rain drumming down outside and the noise from the Stansted flight path.  The rain also impacted on anything taking place outside, including the processions.  But it didn't really detract from the event, which was all good fun, light-hearted and well performed by judge, barristers and other "court officials".  Couples have to admit a certain amount of personal information to prove they're happily married and they then get gently teased about it.  In the historical records, the names of previous successful couples date back to the 1700s, but before then, tellingly, only the husbands' names are recorded.

The next trials will be in 2016.  The next V Festival will probably be this time next year!

Friday, 17 August 2012

A Wizard Wood Carving

In the centre of the new barn, we placed a large, yew trunk that we'd come across years ago.  At first, it stood like a central pillar, but now it has been set into a dividing wall with windows.

We always wanted the yew carved, and so when we met Simon, a woodcarver from Wales, at a local country show, we asked him to come and use his imagination on this piece of wood.  A few months later Simon arrived and assessed the shape of the trunk and began to carve using a chain saw.  And very quickly, a wizard's face began to emerge from the rich, red-brown of the yew's wood.

The wizard is stern-faced and fierce; his is linked to a folk tale about turning a princess (who disobeyed him) into an owl.  So the wizard just balances an owl on his fingers and they are both surrounded by flowers.  The wizard kind of acts, now, as the barn's watching spirit.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Building a Cruck Frame Essex Barn

When we bought the smallholding, we inherited a decades-old, corrugated iron barn.  This was almost falling down - and couldn't be secured in any way - and so we decided to replace it with a timber-frame Essex barn; something that would be carefully crafted and would feel very much part of the traditional landscape.

Removing the bark from the sweet chestnut poles
We wanted to build as much as we could ourselves - along with a carpentry business from the village - and to source as many materials we could locally.  So, to begin with, after we'd demolished the old barn and put down a concrete base, we hunted out and cut down some sweet chestnut trunks for the barn's timber fames (including the large "A" frames) from a local farm.  After a hairy journey transporting these through the village by tractor and trailer we had an even hairier afternoon lifting the trunks, as poles, into place with a few friends and a hoist.  The frames were 6 metres in height.

Raising the frames

Once the frames were in place, the carpenters arrived to put together the weather-board exterior (weather-boarding is a traditional feature of old barns and buildings in the Essex countryside) and we painted this black, with barn paint.

The barn doors go in
Inside we have a large area, open from floor to ceiling, and a galleried area.  We insulated the barn with straw and sheep's wool, because we wanted natural materials (although space is lost because of the bulk of straw bale insulation).

We had a debate about the floor under the galleried area and settled on red brick tiles.  It's tempting to have attractive looking materials that naturally belong to other parts of the country (like stone or slate) but red brick has been used historically in the south east (brick making used to take place just a short distance away in the village) and red brick tiles blend well with wood.  In the end, we went further afield - to the Weald in Sussex - to buy hand-made brick tiles.  They were reasonably priced and cost even less when we agreed to pick them up ourselves.  They're uneven (each brick is slightly different) and they're already weathering in to give the barn a traditional look.

The barn is painted

The barn is still far from completed, but the windows and doors are in, including the large, solid barn doors at the front.  The next task is finishing the floor in the galleried area.