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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A stately surprise! (Jun 16)

In the middle of making dinner, Gracie and Ed come and get me.  They’ve something to show me outside and it’s a surprise.  Gracie guides me by the hand across the paddock and tells me to keep my eyes closed.

Yesterday, I’d seen Ed clearing out the small wooden shed at the back of the house and when he said he was moving it into the paddock, I assumed he was going to use it to store bee-hives. I was wrong…

When I open my eyes, the door of the shed is wide open – and there’s something inside peeking out from a cardboard box.  At first I think he’s got chickens – we’ve talked about chickens but as they need daily care and we’ve got quite a lot going on (with work, the gardens, the veg’ patch, the bees, the house and a 5 year old) I’ve been a bit resistant.  But they – there’s 2 – don’t look much like chickens…

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Then it dawns on me – peacocks.  Ed’s mentioned in passing that he’d like to get peacocks but as with the hens, I thought I’d put him off.  Seems not this time.  We / he is now the proud owner of 2 peacocks, or 2 peafowl to be precise – one peacock and one peahen –  which presumably means he’s planning on more…

And they’ve come with instructions; at first we’ve to keep them in the shed and give them water and pellets and then we have to help them get used to living here.  Induction takes 6 weeks and involves building a pen so we can start to let them out during the day and put them back at night.  They’ve had their flight feathers removed so they can’t fly away. These will grow back quite quickly – but not until they’ve become ‘resident’, when we can let them roam free.

Ed has of course done his research.  They are a year old and almost full size which is the right age to buy; any younger they’ll get diseases, any older they won’t settle.  They will forage in the wild for seeds, insects, mice and frogs (!), they can jump very high and they will sleep in our trees (yes really).  I’ve been told they can be quite noisy – but Ed’s insistent this only happens in the spring as it’s a mating call.  Of the latter, I’m not convinced but on the whole a more impressive surprise than chickens  – and apparently less effort.

The other bonus is that they’re white (they’re not albinos they have blue eyes). They’re also rather stately – and the cock will have grown a beautiful span of tail feathers by next summer which will be perfect timing for our wedding.

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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…