A Castle in the Sky

In March 2013, after years of talking about it we eventually sell up and move out of the city with our 2 year old, Gracie. We both grew up in the countryside and this is what we want for our daughter. So we swap a 2 bed flat in London for a small country pile on the west coast of Scotland that needs a lot of work. I've done a bit of interior design and my partner, Ed has a good knowledge of the outdoors – but we're on a tight budget and we've both got a lot to learn. It's a life time's project and this is a record of our adventure…


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Harvesting honey (Aug 18)

The end of the summer means the end of the honey flow.   So last week we took the first honeycomb from the hives.   When I say ‘we’ I do mean we, as this time I borrowed Ed’s spare bee-suit jacket and hat.  Intrigue took over.   I was charged with stacking the frames which meant I could keep some distance but in the event I felt quite protected.   I did suffer a psychosomatic attack of itchiness though – just enough to keep me on red alert…

We removed all the honeycomb from the stacks at the top – 10 frames in all – and reduced down the size of each hive. Only a third of the cells on our frames are ‘capped’ or sealed over with bees wax.  Each capped cell it’s own miniature, hexagonal pot of perfect honey with it’s own lid.   Ed’s a bit disappointed about the capped to non-capped ratio – and as our  ‘bee-catcher’ sadly didn’t attract another swarm (see our First Hive – May 11) this is all our honey for this year.

To get the honey out the caps are sliced off and the comb goes into a spinning machine.  At this time of year Neil the bee-man has a honey extractor in his (apparently very sticky) kitchen.   Today is extraction day – and Ed’s returned with a bucketful of honey that we’ve just transferred into small jars…

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There are 33 jars in all which is much more than we expected so we’re delighted.  It has a very delicate, floral flavour which could be partly lime flowers, as the huge lime trees on our drive were buzzing this summer…

The bees will now hunker down for the winter and the colony will become much smaller.  They stop doing all the normal bee-type things so they live longer and the queen stops laying eggs. We’ve left enough honey inside the hive to feed them through till spring.

Ed thinks that we should be able to produce around three times as much honey next year, as the bees have now made all the honeycomb.  God knows what we’ll do with it all?   He’s already talking about farmer’s markets but I think we’ve got quite enough on our hands for now…

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This year’s veg; successes and failures… (Aug 16)

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After last year’s club root disaster (see Club foot! Aug 24, 2013 ) Ed bought resistant strains and this year brilliantly all the brassicas have come through.

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The onions were kept in pots too long before they were planted out so ours didn’t do well at all.  Luckily we are sharing everything and Mr C planted his out at the right time…

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We’ve had a glut of courgettes (we have 3 kinds) and tomatoes – they just keep on coming.   So I’ve been making batches of soup to freeze and tried my hand at ketchup as it uses up nearly a kilo of tomatoes per bottle (it turned out a bit runny for ketchup – I blame the sieve – so I’m calling it relish).

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We’ve discovered that runner beans and peas need to be picked at just the right time – otherwise the beans are stringy and the peas go powdery.

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We have curly kale and cavalo nero – the curly kale tastes a bit earthy but the cavalo nero is delicious.

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We also have house stores.  We pulled up all the beetroot which are now buried in a bucket of sand –  and all the carrots which are now buried in a box of compost.   All the potatoes – we have 2 kinds  – are sorted and in sacks for the winter.

We have more lettuces and parsley than we know what to do with.  The spinach is now coming through, as are the leeks – and the parsnips will be next.     It’s been a bumper year and now we know what grows really well the next skill to master is ‘succession’ – so we have year-round veg.

 

 


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Uncovering the secrets of the walled garden (Jul 16)

When we first moved here just thinking about the amount of work that needed doing to the walled garden was overwhelming.  See – The Walled Garden (Easter Weekend – Mar 30, 2013).     The old vegetable patches hadn’t been tended for years, the green house was filthy and many of the glass planes broken, the orchard looked like it had never been pruned and that winter, before we arrived, the north wall had been seriously damaged in a storm.

Below – the back of the north wall. The repairs were meant to have been carried out by the previous owners…

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 Nearly all the garden was rough grass

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April – and Ed gets started on one of the 2 overgrown vegetable patches…

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The unloved orchard surrounded by mole hills

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Despite the daunting task ahead, we were smitten – and one step at a time, our secret garden is starting to bloom.   Ed has worked a year of magic on it and walking up the winding path to the garden door is now more exciting than ever as there’s such a treat in store…

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We now have 4 impressive plots of burgeoning green; fruit as well as vegetable patches.   This is our main veggie patch

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The green house has had a total make-over and is currently the happy home to 5 tomato vines

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At long last the north wall has been properly fixed with stone and lime mortar; a massive job that the previous owners eventually paid for…

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The moles hills have also gone, the apple trees have been fed and pruned, and the meadow patches are underway – and there’s so much more to come; hedges and paths, flower borders and a DIY summer house, restored railings and replacing a section of ancient tumble-down wall with old barn doors as gates (the search is on…).   It’s a vision of loveliness.   We are one year in and it’s already taking shape.


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Wild flower meadow patch (May 31 weekend)

We dream of a wild flower meadow in the paddock (see last year’s The Paddock  – May 20) but as this is going to take some time, I’m getting started on a beginner’s patch in the walled garden instead.

Last year we let a lot of the grass grow unchecked – partly to cut down mowing duties and partly to see what would happen.  Unlike the paddock the walled garden has no brambles, docks or nettles to deal with – so we left 3 sections of grass to grow wild this year.   It’s a daily treat to open the garden door and see the pretty long stems swaying in the wind.

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Now all we need is flowers…

So I’ve taken on one patch as my first real garden project.  I’ve been keen to take ownership of something outside, but so far the house has taken priority.  I’m also not naturally green-fingered but I’m keen to improve so I’m hoping this will kick-start me into action.

This weekend was my last chance to get going as we are away for most of June and then it will be too late to plant seeds.

I picked out blue cornflowers and red poppies (both grow wild here) from the packets Ed bought me for my birthday last year.  He also found a strange implement in the gardening shed which looks like it might have been used for cutting holes in a golf course – it has a tall handle that sits on a hollow cylinder about 5 inches wide and 3 inches deep and as you twist the handle bar it cuts out round sections of earth.   Armed with this and a bucket of soil and compost – I planted 18 random holes in amongst the grass – it seemed like a fitting number.

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It’s a bit of an experiment.  A more fool proof method might have been to plough up the earth and spread seeds mixed with sand (the gardening programmes I’m watching with Ed are starting to have the desired effect) – but the golf course version requires much less effort.   Soon after we get home we should see if it’s paid off .  If it has, then this could also be the answer to turning our 2 acre paddock into a meadow – as well as the beginning of my gardening career…

 


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A couple of ‘pretend’ pigs (May 3)

Friends are here so we go up to the farm to feed the lambs.   While we’re there we meet the pigs  (see Oink Oink – Apr 9).  Mr C has never kept pigs before so it appears they have our name on them…or I should say Ed’s name on them.  I’m abrogating all responsibility at this stage.

If they are going to make their way down to us then we’ll need to fence them in and like all animals they’ll take some daily looking after, so we can reconvene on this subject once Ed is back from his trip.

Ed and I have vaguely talked about the possibility; they could clear our brambles, eat our annual surplus of apples from the orchard, and help us get started on turning the paddock into a meadow.  All sounds very idyllic but then comes the difficult bit; as once this is all done, at the end of the year they would then provide both us and Mr C with a freezer full of meat…

The prospect of slaughtering animals is something I’ve thought about over the years – I’ve wondered how I would react if I had to do any killing myself or get nearer to it.   I’ve watched lambs in the fields here skipping about this spring and for some reason I’m more aware than ever of where they are headed.    I suppose the practicalities of country living are more apparent once you’ re living it instead of just day-dreaming about it.

I’m not suggesting that I should do the actual deed  (there are clearly those better qualified) but rearing and eating our own at least feels like a step in a more responsible direction.  Having said that chickens might have been an easier way to start…

Gracie meanwhile has independently come to the conclusion that the meat we eat is ‘pretend’.  So faced with a chicken dinner she’s liable to say “It’s not real chicken though is it mummy, just pretend chicken?”   We are going along with this for now as she’s only 3 and I figure this particular horror can wait.  However, I’ve been told that when it comes to it young children are very matter of fact about the slaughtering of animals that are home-reared…as long as we don’t give them pet names.  So ‘the pigs’ it is.

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The drip drip effect (Feb 13)

We knew it was wet here on the wet west coast but even Mr C says he’s never known anything like it and he’s lived here all his life.  It must have rained for at least 100 days and every day more rain is forecast.

It’s creating a few issues – firstly the drive.   We can’t fill in the potholes as the road planings get washed away as soon as we lay them in.    Ed did the drive just before Christmas but a couple of weeks later it was like it had never been done.    We’ve been waiting ever since for a dry-spell but it’s never arrived…

Secondly the gardens – it’s almost impossible to do anything outside.   We were listening to Gardener’s Question Time on the radio recently (this is what happens when you move to the country) and they were discussing how “soothing” gardening is.   Ed laughed – clearly they’ve never had to garden in Scotland.   And the impact on our almost moss-free lawn doesn’t bear thinking about after all that hard work last summer….

The third problem is inside.    Water is dripping into some of the bedrooms from above the windows.   We’ve put this down to holes in the pointing above the lintels outside.     We had someone give us a rough assessment of all the pointing from ground level when we first moved in and they estimated around 60% was in tact.  It appears we’ve located the other 40.    Resolving this is a big job as most of the windows are very high up so the builders will need a lot of scaffolding and scaff’ is expensive…

We weren’t so naive when we bought the house to think that maintenance wouldn’t be a big issue here; the roof, the drive, the walls, the land – it all needs looking after and we expected there’d be some big expenses.   The extended rain’s just given us a crash course in what our priorities should be.    So our plan is to try and set aside a pot of cash every year to do 1 big maintenance job – and it looks like this coming year it will have to be the pointing.

It actually feels quite satisfying uncovering these problems and putting plans in place to resolve them despite all the effort and expense (apart from the lawn, which I fear may be a losing battle  – although Ed is ever optimistic).  It feels good to be investing in the house, that we are learning how to live here and that everything is slowly being repaired.    And given that our initial aim was to be warm and water-tight, we’re already half way there.


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Snowdrop splitting (Jan 20)

  

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My nephew Jake and his mate Tom are here for a few days so Ed’s got them to work in the gardens.   They’re snow drop splitting; taking established clumps, splitting them in 2 and replanting to make more.     They split around a hundred today to cover the bank under the sycamore tree in the paddock.   One of the many banks of snow-drops we hope to create.