Buy Nothing New

five people standing against wall

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Well hello there! Yes, it’s been a while,  but I’m back. refreshed, revitalised and ready to share my offline adventures in the online world again!

After my last post, you’ll be pleased to hear that I have been writing. Sitting with a pen and real paper each morning and writing all kinds of cr*p! It’s been good to just write on any subject that takes my fancy. Observations on the garden, short fictional episodes, which may or may not become stories and lists.

Lists are what led to this post. I’ve been writing lists about what’s important to me. My friends, my family, the planet and the people my life impacts. What I want to do and what I want to be remembered for. I saw a post on Instagram about Extinction Rebllion’s Boycott Fashion campaign and that struck home. I’ve long been aware of the human and environmental impacts of fast, throw away fashion and I try to make ethical choices. I make my clothes last and I buy second hand. But I felt there was more I could do, that I could take things a step further and so a plan was hatched to Buy nothing new for 52 weeks.

Nothing new? Well of course there are exceptions. Food, for a start. We grow some of our own and we buy local. Underwear – I draw the line at second hand knickers! Replacements for broken things that can’t be repaired. Gifts for friends (although I’m going to try and make as many as possible) and essential stuff like glasses (although last month I had the lenses replaced and kept my old specs, so you could say I’m already on this path).

I’m loathe to set rules about what I can or cannot buy, but I have begun to think about strategies to mitigate the need to buy new and how we’ll work around the hurdles. It’s possible we’ll need to buy a new car soon, but we’ve already considered trading in both cars and switching back to one car we can share (something we’ve done before, so we know it’s possible).

I don’t want to just “cheat” my way through the year by  allowing myself abundant charity shop purchases, I want to think carefully about what I buy and why I’m parting with my hard earned cash. Our usual approach of “Buy what we need, use what we have”, will still apply.

I know it’s going to be a struggle and getting friends and family on board might be hard (birthdays and Christmas might be a challenge, but maybe these will be opportunities to be gifted new essentials – toiletries and book perhaps – so that every purchase is needed rather than wanted, with the proviso that gifts  have an ethical edge – cruelty free, recycled, hand made perhaps?).

I’m not asking you to join me, but perhaps keep me company on my journey? You can read the press release and background to this campaign by clicking here. Meanwhile, we’re off to France for 2 weeks and we’ll see how the challenge affects our holiday. We’re not big spenders, but we do occasionally come home with a memento or two. I am thinking that maybe I’ll get a couple of my holiday photos printed out and framed (the charity shops are full of second hand frames)? Does printing a photo count as new?

 

Write: 500 Words

coffee notebook pen writing

Photo by Negative Space on Pexels.com

I am a frustrated fiction writer. Not very unusual, most of us feel we have a book inside us. My problem is I know I can write, I just lack “oomph”  to sit down and put my ideas on paper.

Way back in the 1970’s, I won a short story competition run by the local paper. My story was published, Mum cut it out and would show anyone who stood still long enough for her to delve into her cavernous handbag (one of those “organiser” types, with multiple pockets and compartments), she could never find anything in a hurry! She was proud of me, thrilled that I had won and even more thrilled that she finally had school run “bragging rights”.

I would tell people that when I grew up, I was going to be a writer. Adults would nod encouragingly, before telling me that once I was married there wouldn’t be time for writing. Better to train for a “real” job, write as a hobby when the children were in bed. I was rebellious of course, my enthusiasm fuelled by interviews with women writers who despite their growing families would publish beautifully crafted novels and transport me to other worlds. One day, I would be a writer…

I continued to enter (and win) story competitions all through my teens. At university I wrote short sketches and monologues for the University theatre club. Then, work, family, living life got in the way and writing took a back seat to earning a living, putting food on the table, school runs and any number of other excuses. Eventually I fell into feature writing, mostly short pieces for magazines and newspapers. I contributed to several books and began to think the stories I made up in my head would stay there. Characters living their lives in my imagination as I walked or washed dishes.

Last month I published another crochet book, one that I’m rather pleased with. It looks beautiful (thanks to the talents of a wonderful book designer and thoughtful photographer. But, I still don’t consider myself a writer. I am still filled with self doubt and a feeling that one day I shall be discovered as a fraud and the shelf full of books with my name on the cover will be pulped*. When asked, I describe myself as a designer and writer, that seems to sum up what I do. I always underplay the writer part though and I’m never sure why.

This year I have promised myself I shall write more. Perhaps not with publication in mind, but just for pleasure. For the joy of seeing those people that live inside my imagination brought to life in printed words. I’ve set myself a target of 500 words every morning.

Any genre, any subject. Just words on a page…

(519 words)

*Pulping a book is stripping a book of its cover and having the torn book pulped and recycled in the plant. The severed cover is sent back to the publishing house as evidence that the book has been destroyed or discarded or recycled into paper or cardboard products.

 

The Blackbird Diaries

One of my favourite ways to spend a day off when we’re in Cumbria is wandering along Cockermouth Main St (in fact I often give myself a couple of hours off at lunch time, just to wander, enjoy a decent coffee and peruse the books in the New Bookshop). This is how I found myself sitting in the bookshop cafe on New Years Eve reading page after page of Karen Lloyd’s new book The Blackbird Diaries. I had read Karen’s first book, The Gathering Tide, but I was little out of touch last year, finishing my own book and I had missed the publication of this beautifully written nature diary, chronicling a year in the Cumbrian countryside and a project she became involved in to raise awareness of the plight of British curlews.

I only planned to read the first few pages while I drank my coffee, but an hour later I found myself ordering a second flat white and reading through January, February and half way through March before I finally put the book in my bag and headed home (Full disclosure – I excused myself from the traditional family New Year jigsaw that night and retired to bed, reading page after page). It’s not unusual for me to read a book at one sitting, and if Mr T hadn’t come to bed shortly after midnight and insisted on “Lights out”, I may well have sat until the early hours with this book!

New Years day was filled with family visits, celebrations and a brisk walk and so it wasn’t until a few days later, and back in Cheshire that I was able to sit down and finish The Blackbird Diaries. I’ve since picked it up occasionally, just to read random entries. Comparing my typical day to Karen’s and sharing her delight in the simplicity and beguiling activities of garden birds and wildlife. This entry for 6th March is typical of a scene played out in my on garden:

A feeding frenzy, late afternoon on the feeder outside my study window: chaffinches, blue tits and the by now ubiquitous goldfinches. The window was open and the timbre of irritable bickering and avian arguments filtered inside. I looked up, and there, complete with her black mask and buff-coloured chest: a female bullfinch, She took the sunflower seeds and peered all bright – eyed through the window. Then the frap of small wings and her mate arrived, black headed and grey frock – coated, his chest and round and ruddy as a late September rosehip.

 

March 6th, The Blackbird Diaries by Karen Lloyd

It’s easy to think of this as just another nature diary, but there is so much more to this book than the simplicity of stepping outside and seeing nature. There is a love of the fells, an understanding of the landscape and a real appreciation of the challenges faced by some of our native species. The book closes with the aftermath of the floods of 2015 and the devastation caused by extreme weather events across Cumbria. Reading the descriptions of closed roads, watery drives and sudden flashes of delight (the brief observation of red kites) I was transported back to those weeks of rain and loss; of damage reports from friends cut off by blocked roads and sudden glimpses of winter visitors blown off course.

This is a book I would probably never have found online. But, because the New Bookshop offers a variety of titles, a healthy mix of the eclectic and the mainstream I can always find something that would otherwise have escaped me. “Real”, independent bookshops, like yarn stores are becoming rarer every year and I treasure the ones that are local to me. I rarely come out empty handed and often not with the book I intended to buy. The fact that the New Bookshop is a ten minute walk from home, serves great coffee (and cake) is a bonus and Mr T and I take full advantage of it, no visit home is complete until we’ve visited, stocked up on books and treated ourselves to a cuppa.

So, although this meant to be a review of a book I really enjoyed and thoroughly recommend; it’s also a small way of saying thank you to the staff at the New Bookshop who sustain my need for great reads and always greet us with a smile …

…You don’t get that on Amazon!

A Skirmish of Siskins and other Garden Visitors

January 16th

We have a new garden visitor. I spied a lone pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) under one of the bird feeders as I was eating my breakfast. We’ve heard him calling for a few days, assuming he was a runaway from a local shoot, taking refuge in a neighbour’s garden. Today he is visiting us. Easy pickings here. He’s taking full advantage of seeds dropped by the goldfinches and sparrows, which don’t seem to mind his presence. We watch him strut about, before he finally squeezes through a gap in the fence and out into the fields.

The bird feeders are busy today, it’s cold and damp. A light drizzle that hasn’t put off the birds. I’m reluctant to step outside. I am bored of wrapping up in coat, hat, gloves and pulling on wellies for every garden chore. I long for spring and warm mornings spent drinking coffee on the garden bench. A few days ago, I made a new feeding station for the robins and blackbirds. I had noticed the blackbirds had been grubbing about in one of the hanging baskets left out over winter. I found an old plate in the greenhouse and put it on top of the soil, adding a few seeds and some raisins. On a whim I hung a seed feeder from the bracket (it had been languishing near the house, most of the birds too shy to feed there regularly). Today I count three great tits feeding greedily and a male robin pecking underneath. It seems that my haphazard arrangement is a success.

We now have three distinct feeding areas, and I’ve noticed a hierarchy among our regular visitors. The goldfinches prefer the feeder that hangs from the apple tree; they flap around noisily waiting their turn, balancing on thin stalks of the Verbena Bonariensis, hoping to find the last few seeds in the dried heads. THis is where the woodpecker feeds every morning. Beside this, a fat ball tower that is the domain of the starlings and beyond that a nut feeder that is beloved by great tits. On the other side of the garden, another fat ball feeder is where the sparrows gather. Mostly house sparrows, the dunnocks prefer to dance around the base of the conifers, hoovering scraps.  Further along the fence is my new addition, close to where the wren can often be spotted, darting out of the conifer hedge to forage amongst the kale and leeks.

The robins and blackbirds will dot around the garden, pulling worms from the damp grass, gobbling up scraps dropped by the other birds and watching me as I step outside to fill the feeders. The robins will often sit in the elder tree watching me. Last winter I started dropping a few seeds on the lid of the feed bin to encourage them down, but apart from one brave fella the others remain timid.

I look up from my laptop (I’m writing this at the dining table), a skirmish has caught my attention. The siskins have arrived and clearly think the goldfinches have been too greedy, their call is high pitched and they jab at the goldfinches with their beaks. The bird feeder is empty, so even if they could get their turn, nothing is left. I take pity on them and prepare to go outside.

I’m dressed like an arctic explorer. As soon as I step beyond the green house all the birds take flight. Two wood pigeons sit in the taller branches of the silver birch waiting. The skirmish has left scraps under the apple tree and they’re biding their time, they’ll fly down soon and have another feast. The squirrel is so hungry, he carries on hoovering up the sunflower hearts from the feeder next to the woodshed. He won’t stop until I pick up the rubber trug beside him to gather logs for the fire.

I walk around the garden, taking in any changes. There are a few snowdrops about to open and daffodils. I pick up silver birch twigs from the grass and wind them into bundles to use as fire lighters. The blue tits and blackbirds begin to call to each other, I am serenaded by a bird I cannot see in the tall branches of my neighbour’s damson. I could stand here watching and listening all morning. The chaffinches have ventured down to scavenge under the feeders, a group of about ten males and females. They swoop about, oblivious to the other birds and their garden politics. A blackbird is having a drink of water from the bowl under the hazel tree, the birds tolerate me, but they will be happier once I step inside.

Back indoors, I pull off the layers, stack wood by the fire, and take another look out of the window – yes – squirrel still there. She’s on top of the wood shed now, nibbling some treasure. I am off to town for a birthday lunch with a friend today, so I kick off my wellies, checking for mud on my jeans. Too lazy to change, I think I’ll do and go in search of a birthday card to write and her present to wrap.

Birds from the Train

Yesterday I took the train to Manchester. I chose to take the slow train from Mouldsworth, our local station. It’s a long, meandering journey through the Cheshire countryside, calling at Delamere Forest, Plumley and Knutsford before finally reaching the suburbs of Manchester. I like this route, you can always get a seat and there are plenty of opportunities for wildlife watching.

Soon after we passed Delamere, I spotted a heron flying over the mere. They have such a wide wingspan and long, long legs. I often wonder how they stay balanced in the water. During the rest of the journey I ticked off: jackdaws, a lone pheasant, the sudden blue flash of a jay as we passed through Mobberley and the usual assortment of crows, blackbirds and watched a pair of rabbits running through the allotments at Northwich.

But, it was the journey home where I really struck gold. It was just after four o’clock and we were approaching Northwich. I like this bit of the route, which passes the river Weaver and the Trent and Mersey canal. I spotted a large, inky black gathering of birds, forming and reforming in the grey black sky. Starlings. A few hundred – not a huge gathering – but the biggest I’ve seen for a while. A few other passengers had noticed too, and as the train slowed and then stopped to let a fast train pass by, we sat mesmerised as the starlings played out their formation dancing for us. A little girl asked her Mum what they were “I don’t know sweetie, blackbirds maybe”.

I couldn’t help myself, “They’re starlings”, I told her. “It’s called a Murmuration, we’re lucky to see it”. The mother replied that she’d never seen one before and reached for her phone to take a picture. The little girl sat, playing with her thumbs, repeating over and over to herself “Murmination, murmination”, enjoying the sound of the word and spellbound by the birds. I didn’t have the heart to correct her.

It may only have been a couple of minutes, maybe less before the train moved off again, but I tucked away the memory. It’s almost a year since I last saw a murmuration, I always think of them as precious gifts. Any grumbles about the wet weather, the crowds of Manchester were forgotten. Despite the fact that it rained all day, my jeans were wet and I needed of a strong mug of tea to revive me and take the edge off a busy day, the sight of the starlings, dancing and cavorting with such precision and grace was quite magical.

When I was home, I saw a couple of people had photographed the siting from near the canal and posted them on Twitter, apparently sightings are common there. I found this video on Youtube taken by a man called Ian Coventry in 2016 at Neumann’s Flash, which is close to where I spotted my starlings. Our sighting was much, much smaller.

These small glimpses of the natural world, of birds and animals oblivious to humans fill me with joy, whether it’s the chattering delight of the chaffinches in my garden or a lamb calling for its mother. They remind me there is beauty in the ordinary.

The Blackbird

blackbirdThe blackbird (Turdus Merula), is my favourite garden regular (I’m fickle, so that will change, I can easily fall for the charms of a cheeky squirrel, a bold robin or the delightful wren). In the grey half light I can see six today, five males and one bold female who has tired of fighting off their advances and has taken to sitting in my neighbour’s damson tree.

Two males sit like sentinels on the garden fence, facing each other. it’s just after 4pm and soon it will be dark. The garden is quiet, most of the birds have disappeared for the day, the other blackbirds sit in the tangled branches of the silver birch. They don’t call to each other or sing at this time of day, they seem content to sit and keep watch. Unlike other birds that seem to gather in flocks, the blackbirds sit together, but separate. They are aware of each other, but fly and feed independently. There have been skirmishes all day as they seem to be working out their territory. I wonder if any of these are the offspring of last year’s pair. The ones who  raised two clutches of eggs. I remember we watched helpless as the second clutch was attacked by magpies. The male and female doing their best to defend their nest, but the bigger birds won out, taking the bodies of the young up to the highest branches and gloating as the blackbird pair cried out and flew angrily at them, jabbing the magpies with their beaks. Nature is a cruel thing sometimes.

I have stepped out to fill the wood basket, which disturbs them a little. They soon settle though, not startled into the air like the smaller birds. The goldfinches and sparrows are skittish, these blackbirds seem calmer, happier to share the garden with us. These are the birds that will follow me as I weed and dig, happily grubbing for worms at my feet. Our neighbour has a “tame” blackbird who will feed from his hand. Ours seem content to follow us around the garden, occasionally coming close, but not too close.

The male blackbird is easily spotted, his dark plumage and yellow beak are easy to spot. The female is smaller, brown feathered and doesn’t have the yellow beak or ring around her eye. The females in our garden are more cautious. We often see more blackbirds in winter, I wonder if they are transient visitors or migrants. Or maybe our garden is just “neutral territory” because there is so much food here that they visit from other gardens and then return to roost or shelter in other gardens.

In autumn, these birds stripped the berries from the elder, then gorged themselves on the bright red jewels of the cotoneaster (the photo above was taken in autumn). Now they scavenge for worms and grubs. In spring, they are the first birds we hear in the dawn chorus, one likes to sit in our neighbours crab apple and serenade us at 5am. On those mornings, the blackbird is no longer my favourite and I wish he would stay silent until a more reasonable hour!

blackbird2

A larger birds swoops low and fast over the garden, a sparrowhawk perhaps or an owl maybe. Whatever it was, it has spooked the blackbirds. They fly away, each in a different direction. I lift a few more logs into the basket and find the dead body of a goldfinch. His body is intact, his plumage perfect, maybe he sheltered here and died of cold (last night was bitter). I pick him up and carry him to the end of the garden, tossing his light body into the fields. As I turn, I see the silhouette of a large bird in the silver birch, maybe the one that spooked the blackbirds. I think that maybe it is an owl. I carry the log basket inside, making a mental note to look up owls in the bird books and see if I can identify it. I pull off my coat, hat, gloves and scarf, kick off my wellies. I clasp my hands around the tea pot, wondering if the contents are warm enough for one last mug before I light the fire. Taking my tea into the living room, I’m drawn to the window. Yes, that’s definitely an owl in the apple tree. I reach for my camera, knowing that it’s too dark, that any photo won’t be worth keeping and as if knowing my plans, a graceful and not identified owl glides away over the fields. It’s properly dark now and another cold winter night begins.

Nature Nurtures Me

nurtured by nature.jpgWhen I was a child, my dad would often disappear for walks. occasionally he’d take us with him, point out grebes swimming on the river, name the trees and the wild flowers or explain why we shouldn’t pick the hogweed*. Mostly he walked in silence, and it’s only now I’m a grown up that I understand his need to be outdoors.

You see, nature nurtures us. In the late 1980’s, I worked in a school in the suburbs of Manchester, it had a stream running through the grounds and some of our more enlightened staff knew that making sure our “troubled children” had access to that space, to “dip” in the pond, discover pond skaters, damselflies and grubs made life easier in the classroom. Those kids were calmer, more able to sit and listen. As teachers, we noticed a difference too, we talked about “clearing away the cobwebs” or how lovely it was to breather fresh air. Truth be told, we dragged those kids outside as much for our own well being as theirs! Thirty years ago it wasn’t called “Forest School” or the “outdoor classroom”, it was just informal access to nature  and we knew the benefits without mountains of research papers to tell us why access to the outdoors mattered. Everyone looked forward to dry days when we could step outside and weave an appreciation of nature into the curriculum – and if you are sceptical of the effect of nature on mood and behaviour, visit any school playground on a windy day and take note of how it affects the children – our dinner ladies* used to  dread windy lunch times!

on the rocks

Whilst we were encouraging those kids to spend time outside, feel the sun on their backs and the wind in their faces, the recognition that being outdoors could improve well being was being accepted across the world. In Japan, the concept known as  “Shinrin – Yoku” (sometimes called “forest bathing” )was gathering momentum. The healing power of being outdoors was accepted as a legitimate course of treatment. Even the NHS implemented changes to hospital design and organisation after published research that showed patients with beds near the window healed faster and went home sooner! (Roger Ulrich‘s research was first published in 1984 and was considered ground breaking at the time).*

Of course, now the media have embraced this concept as “new” and innovative and now we all read constantly that being outdoors is good for the soul as this piece in the Guardian shows, Author and nature lover Emma Mitchell has embraced the idea of being outdoors as a strategy to ensure her mental well being . If you’re interested, then the nature Fix by Florence Williams is definitely worth a read. It’s a fascinating account and exploration of the healing possibilities of nature.

Even the smallest access to green space ( or just being able to see it through a window) can improve out mental and physical health. Notice how children will press their noses to the window on rainy days, anxious to connect with the outdoors. This need to be in nature is with us from the earliest age. I try to eat my breakfast, or at least gulp a mug of tea in the garden every morning. I think of it as a time to balance myself before the onslaught of social media, emails and deadlines. Even better, if I can squeeze in a walk in the forest or through the woods I know my day will be calmer and more productive.  If you’re interested in reading more about this, then I thoroughly recommend  this article in Business Insider, which lists “12 science backed reasons why spending more time outside is healthy“.

Garden Robin

Spending time outdoors has allowed me to observe nature close up, my photographs of birds, butterflies and garden wildlife are a happy accident of time spent sitting, walking or watching. I know that my mental and physical health improves when I get outside, I notice less pain and inflammation in my joints and I often discover the solution to a problem or difficulty. We need access to sunlight to manufacture vitamin D, so clearly the need to be within nature is built into our DNA?

There still needs to be more willingness to accept the existing evidence that nature heals, and to continue to research the best and most effective ways we can use what we already know. Children cooped up in classrooms, prisoners on almost 24 hour a day “lock down”, patients denied access to the outdoors because health care providers prefer to keep them in their beds “where we can see you” and office workers who lunch at their desks because stepping outside the office is no longer the norm. Everyone can benefit from a change in attitude and policy.

It’s hard to ignore the evidence. Nature nurtures, sustains, revives and inspires us. We should all spend more time outside, every day.

 

*The sap is irritating and can cause a nasty rash – leave it alone!

*During my time as a student Nurse, Ulrich’s research was causing a stir. A new hospital wing was designed around a courtyard, so patients could not only see the gardens, but walk in them through patio doors

*dinner ladies / lunch time supervisors

 

Five on Friday

elderflowers 2016I thought it was time to resurrect my weekly round up of things I’m reading, watching and listening to. As usual, this is an eclectic mix of things that have caught my attention or made me pause for thought this week. And also a reminder, there are still elderflowers out there, so it’s not too late to make cordial or even  a batch of my Elderflower champagne!

  1. Life on Gartur Stitch Farm. Kat writes a blog and posts photos of life with her family on a semi remote smallholding in Scotland. A dip into her Instagram or blog is always a treat, and this week her sourdough recipe caught my eye. A  good introduction to their everyday life is this post, written back in March. I often think of Kat when I’m gathering food from the hedgerow or folding my sourdough and mulling over the way our lives overlap. She’s also one of the creative team behind The Crochet Project, together with Joanne Scrace they design and publish an inspired and beautiful collection of patterns each season. It’s impossible to pick out a favourite.
  2. Under the Sea. While I was baking earlier this week, I caught the end of The Life Scientific on Radio 4, I was so intrigued, I searched on iplayer to listen again to this interview with Rachel Mills an oceanographer. We know so little about the world of the deep oceans and this insight into exploration, conservation and a woman’s life in science was the best of this week’s radio.
  3. What’s the Beef With Eating Meat? This article written on the Piper’s Farm blog struck a chord with me. Animal welfare, conservation and ecological issues all sit high on my “agenda”, so it was interesting to read this piece   on modern farming written from the farmer’s perspective.
  4. Belgian Beer Culture. I like to listen to Radio 4’s the Food Programme on catch up as we’re so often busy when it’s first broadcast. In this episode Dan Saladino takes us on a  tour of Belgium’s beer and brewing culture. If (like me), your only experience of Belgian beer is a few bottles knocked back on a boozy weekend in Bruges, this will be a revelation. Mr T and I have already pencilled in a weekend to go and explore, armed with this Guide to Belgian Cafe Culture, written by the lovely Regula Ysewijn (who also features in this episode).
  5. A Daily Dose of Robert McFarlane. I still dip into Twitter on a daily basis. All of Robert’s  books are worth a read and his daily posts of lost, overlooked words are always worth checking out. Regular readers might recall this post about my “undersong” which made reference to his book Landmarks.

I told you it was eclectic….

Kitchen Chemistry

kitchen chemistry.jpgHave you ever wondered about all the science that happens in a busy kitchen? Raising agents added to cakes, the fermentation of wine or bread, the amazement on a child’s face when you add baking powder to hot syrup to make honeycomb. I’ve always loved making potions, I was that child who would stuff rose petals into jam jars in the hope of making perfume my mother would want to wear and I never tired of pouring vinegar onto bicarbonate of soda to make volcanoes.

I studied chemistry (failed the A level – like I failed most of my A levels – thank goodness for night school and second chances!) and I’m still fascinated by the alchemy that happens in my kitchen. We don’t often think of it as chemistry, but so much science can be learnt at the kitchen table. More recently, I’ve begun to feel like I need a degree in chemistry just to decipher those ingredients lists – even the ones on the back of my “eco friendly” cleaning products. I have a growing unease about just how “friendly” those products are – and the difficulty in disposing of the packaging irritates me. So, I’ve begun to rediscover some of the old cleaning methods I used when we were to poor to buy the supermarket goodies and Mr T complained the bathroom cleaner made his asthma worse.  I’ve pulled a few old favourites out of my kitchen cupboard, white vinegar, bicarbonate of soda, citric acid, essential oils are all store cupboard essentials here, so why am I not putting them to better use?. My Nanna used to say that you could clean anything if you had enough elbow grease, and she’s right. All these modern cleaning aids, the air fresheners, the silicone polishes, the no rinse shower sprays etc. are meant to make the task of cleaning and maintaining a home easier and speedier. Do they?

A quick survey of the top shelf in my kitchen revealed a scary collection of sprays, creams, cleaners and scourers that I’ve accumulated over the years (does any home really need four  different kinds of leather cleaner / conditioner?)  we even have a bottle of carpet cleaner – even though we have no carpets – just wooden floors! Some of them haven’t been used for years and some of them don’t even contain their original products (the very expensive eco friendly widow spray I bought because it promised to smell of lavender, but didn’t) was soon refilled with my old favourite white vinegar and lavender essential oil, which does a better job). I’m ashamed to say I have a bookshelf full of books on natural home making, recipes for window cleaners, beeswax polish and advice on creating a natural home. They need to start making themselves useful and I’m determined to start mixing up a few chemistry experiments once we’re back from our summer holiday. I already make my own hand salves and lotions, and I will pour a spoonful of bicarbonate of soda onto a burnt pan to make it easier to clean (especially since we banned the plastic sponge scourers). So it shouldn’t be that hard to start whipping up a few cleaning and washing potions?

I want to rediscover the joy of stirring potions and making liquids turn to solids. Yesterday, I dusted off those books and began to make a list of all the things I need to buy (turns out not much) to make my own furniture polish, shower spray, floor cleaner and air fresheners. I’ll share the recipes and results here so you can join in too if you like.

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If you’re interested, some of the books on my shelf are: 1001 Country Househld Hints, Sloe Gin and Beeswax (definitely worth seeking out for the jam, cordial and cheese recipes and Pia Tryde’s lovely photography)  and Rachelle Blondell’s  collection of traditional recipes and remedies Forgotten Ways for Modern Days. You might also want to start hoarding your jam jars, glass bottles and empty spray bottles…

Photo credit: Brooke Lark

5 Plastic Free Shop Swaps

plastic free ocado shopBack in January I wrote a post complaining that shopping online was thwarting my attempts to reduce the amount of plastic coming into my home. Several people challenged me to “try harder” and so I’m pretty proud to say that our general household waste bin has only been emptied once since January and the plastics recycling bin has only been emptied twice. In fact, the straight to landfill  “black bin”, the one that just seems to be full of crisp packets, plastic bags from supermarket veg and non recyclable plastic trays was emptied by mistake – only half full, our local refuse collectors thought they were “doing me a favour” by coming down the drive and collecting it on Tuesday. They though we’d forgotten about it and acted out of kindness. So, now the black bin sits empty and I’m darn sure I’m going to do my best to keep it that way.

So, what are these simple steps I’ve discovered to maintain my addiction to a weekly online supermarket shop, but still cut my plastic? Here are my top five, in  no particular order.

  1. Choose cardboard over plastic food containers. Barilla pasta comes in cardboard packets, with no plastic liner. There’s a small cello window which can’t be recycled. But it’s easily removed before recycling or composting. I’ve also found several companies sell boxes of risotto rice, our favourite is Riso Gallo carnarolli, which is stocked by Ocado. Just by making these two simple swaps we’ve cut our plastic significantly.  (Gluten free foodies might be interested to know that the Barilla GF pasta is a pretty good substitute, especially for pasta bakes).
  2. Choose jars and tins over packets and pouches. Just about every pulse and vegetable is available in a can or a glass jar. We use lots of “ready to eat” chick peas, kidney beans and veg. Metal, like glass,  is easy to recycle. Look for olive oil in glass bottles instead of plastic and ditch that squeezy ketchup for a good old fashioned bottle ( a long handled spoon or a knife is great for scooping out the last dregs if you forget to store them upside down).
  3. Cardboard cotton buds. I know “that photo” of the seahorse wrapped around a cotton bud is hard to unsee, but it might surprise you that most of the big brands switched to cardboard cores for their cotton buds some time ago and they’re easy to find in most supermarkets. Remember to bin them (or chuck in the compost) – don’t flush them!
  4. Fruit and veg in plastic trays and poly bags are pretty hard to avoid if you shop online. But at least these organic tomatoes came in a cardboard tray that can be thrown in my compost bin or recycled – I know, the wrapper  is non recyclable in my area, but it’s one less black plastic food tray – so I’m calling that a win. In addition, the bunch of garlic came with a biodegradable label and tie.
  5. Not pictured here, but one of the easiest switches is possibly to ditch those plastic washing pods that laundry detergent manufacturers are so desperate for us all to buy. Like most of us, I was suckered into buying a box of “pods” when they were on special offer. They are very convenient, but I’ve switched back to a bulk box of non bio powder. The cardboard box is easy to compost or recycle. I don’t use fabric conditioner, so there’s been no need to look for an alternative to those plastic bottle or pouches.

These simple swaps have made a huge difference to our plastic waste and to be honest, we’ve not noticed a difference in our spending. We’ve also stopped buying liquid soap for guests. We use bars of “hard soap” and for visitors who don’t like the thought of sharing soap I’ve been refilling the old hand wash dispenser with a home  made version (I’ll share the recipe soon).

I’ve started making a note of the things we were already doing, and which have become second nature. I’m going to start sharing these more regularly.  It’s almost 10 years since the Guardian featured our “Green Lifestyle” . The simple steps we were taking then to reduce our energy consumption, use environmentally friendly cleaning products and cut our waste should have become the norm for all households. It’s a sad  fact that they haven’t. I want to write more posts about the changes we’ve made over the past 20 years, partly to celebrate our achievements, but also to show how easy it can be to shop and live more thoughtfully, yet with little effort. I’m pretty sure we’ve also saved money, but that’s hard to evaluate because I’ve always been parsimonious (posh speak for mean with my money!)

Manufacturers continue to bombard us with adverts for stuff we don’t need to solve problems we never really had in the first place. They play on our feelings of guilt and self esteem (smelly laundry? buy deodorising capsules. Embarassed by bad smells in the bathroom? Squirt your toilet bowl with special potions before you poop and emerge without a red face. And worried about nasty germs? Coat every surface in your house with antibacterial sprays). Just by refusing to buy into their marketing, you’ll save money and reduce your environmental impact.

It’s not easy, I know. But every step  is a step a step in the right direction.  My simple swaps are just the start. We’ve a long road ahead, but at least we’ve begun.