Friday, 19 September 2014

No result

Oh well. Maybe we weren't ready for the earth-shattering event that a 'Yes' vote would have entailed.

No leaflet

It is still an eventful occasion. A few days ago the desperate Prime Minister of the UK, has pledged greater devolvement of power to Scotland. This is great for Scotland, but it will also have repercussions throughout our political system. For instance if Scotland can make a lot of their own decisions, should they still be able to have an influence on the rest of UK too?

What if they scrap the 'Bedroom' tax in Scotland, just as an example. Should the Scottish MPs still be able to influence the government's decision on these things in the rest of the UK? If not then it changes the balance of the current parliament, as there are a higher proportion of Labour MPs in Scotland, giving the conservatives more influence in the UK Government. This may make it more likely that England and Wales will keep the 'Bedroom' tax.

All this in the run up to the next general election......

And out of interest, how many of you had a discussion with friends, neighbours or even a stranger on the bus about the Scottish vote? It has really grabbed people's attention and everyone seems to have had an opinion. It seems there is a sense of community in talking about possible division :-)

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Scottish Referendum for Independence

It is only a matter of days now until the Scottish Referendum takes place. This is a momentous occasion when the people of Scotland get to decide democratically whether to be independent once more.
I have to admit that I have not paid much attention over the last few months, being English, and the decision clearly being one for the Scots to make. That was until I saw this headline "Scottish independence: Cameron, Clegg and Miliband make Scotland 'No' vote plea" on the BBC news website. (For those unfamiliar with British politics, these 3 are the leaders of the main political parties. But Scotland also has the Scottish National Party, which are the voice for independence.)

I haven't even read the article, but just the headline made me realise 2 things. One that the Scots Look likely to vote the way I expect them to - for independence. I always had the impression that they were dragged kicking and screaming into this 'United' Kingdom. Weren't they defeated at the Battle of Culloden and forced to accept English rule? My history is not great, but I am sure that there has been some mistreatment along the way. Even ignoring the history, they are outnumbered by the English 10:1 which means voting-wise they have a much weaker voice as part of the UK.

The second realisation is that the establishment is scared. Scared that Scotland will vote 'Aye' and become independent. The Prime Minister is in a desperate bid to influence Scottish voters, and is pulling out all the stops. Threats that food prices will go up are the latest.

Why is the PM so desperate now? This referendum has been on the cards for months, so it comes as no surprise. Maybe the PM was cocky enough to think that there was no chance of Scotland voting yes, so he has been stunned into action by the polls, which show the voting will be very close. Personally I think the PM's desperation has more to do with international pressure.

For one thing if Scotland becomes independent following this referendum, then surely the referendums held in other countries should be recognised too. Crimea thinks so. So does Catalonia. Who is to say that Texas won't be next at declaring Independence? In fact the Scottish vote for independence could trigger people to make their voices heard all over the World.

I like the idea of a referendum. It is giving people a choice about their future, when most decisions are made out of our hands. Like going to would be good to hold a referendum on that. Instead our PM can take us to war without allowing the MPs to vote on it, let alone giving the public a say.

Just as a reminder David Cameron's party received only 36% of the votes at the last election with a turnout of only 65% (10,703,000 votes out of 45,597,000 possible voters is only 23% overall). With less than a quarter of the voting population supporting him, I don't think he should have the power to decide to take us to war. Do you?

And I mention war, because it is very much on the cards right now. Even the Pope is talking about World War III. The decision seems to have already been made, but the UK government are looking for something that will persuade us to support them. Crying out 'Weapons of Mass Destruction' doesn't work any more.

If Scotland choose independence, it could complicate the UKs position in NATO and any plans for going to war in Syria or Iraq. This could delay or even prevent our involvement, or an escalation to WWIII.

So I have decided that I am a supporter of Scottish Independence. What about you?

Friday, 12 September 2014

Tomato ripening experiment

Last week at the allotment my wonderfully healthy looking tomato plants suddenly showed signs of blight. Drat and blast! I madly grabbed all the healthy but very green looking tomatoes from the plants in the hope of salvaging some of my crop.

At home with several carrier bags full I took stock. Part of my mind was swimming with thoughts of the Ebola outbreak that was on the news. By putting all the tomatoes together in one carrier bag, was I condemning the healthy tomatoes to contract blight too or was it just spread by bodily fluids through the stalks of the plant? Would there be an uprising from the healthy tomatoes once they realised they had been quarantined in bags, condemned to watching the other tomatoes slowly die or dying themselves?

Back to the tomatoes. First I sorted through all the tomatoes, removing stalks and tops and checking for the slightest speck or imperfection that may indicate blight. Even perfect tomatoes with blight on the tops got put in the contaminated pile and wrapped together in mass newspaper bundles to be binned.

The remaining tomatoes were washed and dried.

Then I decided to experiment. There is so much advice about the best way to ripen green tomatoes. I recently read it isn't the light or heat, but ethylene emitted by ripe tomatoes that encourages the other tomatoes to ripen. Ethylene is also emitted by bananas apparently. So I divided my tomatoes up. The first tray was left open on a sunny windowsill. The next bunch I wrapped up in newspaper with a banana skin. Wrapping meant no sunlight but would hopefully keep the ethylene from dispersing. It may also be slightly warmer than the open tray. The third batch was wrapped with a whole ripe banana (slightly more wasteful than a banana skin).

The fourth and fifth batches were just tomatoes wrapped up, but one had just green tomatoes in the photo above, whereas all the rest of the batches had some orange tomatoes included. The final experiment was to put some of the tomatoes in a glass jar, so that they would get sunlight, warmth and theory. Any guesses which method worked the best??
The photos below show the results after a week. The jar failed. None of the tomatoes ripened at all and the moisture caused a few to start rotting. The batches with the banana and the banana skin both showed very little sign of ripening either.

Even the batch of only green tomatoes that were wrapped had ripened more than the ones with the banana!

So much for the ethylene theory. But the batch that ripened the quickest were the ones that were open on the windowsill. You can see how green they were on the windowsill here....

.... and how they had ripened a week later below.

The photo doesn't do it justice though, because we ate the ripest ones through the week, so there were even more ripe ones than shown. There were also still a few blighty ones in each batch too that were removed.

I'll admit it is not entirely scientific and hasn't covered all variations of tomato ripening that are possible, but really - just leave them open on a windowsill :-)

Monday, 1 September 2014

Ashby Castle and Resilience

It has been the summer holidays and we have had our share of nice days out. Last week I visited Ashby Castle with my youngest daughter and her friends. You may be able to make them out at the top of the tower.

Ashby Castle is an English Heritage site. It is basically a ruin, but what remains is immensely fun for kids. There are the grassy slopes of a sunken garden and lake, which are great for rolling down or running around.

There are ruins with grand doorways and hidden stairways, brilliant for hide and seek or toy sword battles. The 6 storey tower with it's spiral staircase gives a grand view of the surrounding area too.

But absolutely the best feature is a secret underground passageway running from the base of the tower to the old kitchen cellars. It just gives an extra element of authenticity and fun to imaginative battle games to storm the castle.

Now some of the visitors will be wandering round with an audio guide, but we just spread out a picnic and let the kids imaginations run wild.

When my youngest daughter was about 2, we came with some friends - about 13 kids in total. The boys were all dressed up as knights and kings with swords and shields, and the younger girls as princesses. It was the most amazing day! It is such a shame that they have grown up.

This time was a much quieter affair and I sat looking at the walls of the tower. They are incredibly thick. The wall above is twice as thick as the doorway.

The tower was built in 1470 and designed to withstand attacks. The thick walls were a big investment of labour and resources, but the intention was to build something that was resilient and would last for generations. As it was, the tower was blown up in 1648, but it was so well built that the remaining half of the tower that you see above, has stood for another 360 years and could well last another 360 more.

I was sitting on a picnic blanket reading a section from Green Wizardry by John Michael Greer on 'Sustainability and Resilience'. His point was that efficiency is about getting the most from the least resources, whereas resilience is the opposite. Resilience is about having spare capacity or using extra resources to make things that are stronger, longer lasting, and can absorb shocks. In the case of Ashby Castle the time, energy and resources invested in those strong walls, was intended to protect the people inside and is the main reason that they are still standing for us to enjoy today.

Here is an example of some homes built in the last couple of years. To me they are so ugly. But they are very efficient. Look at the shape - they are almost square. This gives the biggest internal area for the smallest area of external walls. In other words it uses less bricks than a fancier shaped house. The ceilings inside are low to reduce unnecessary height and brickwork. And the roof has virtually no overhang to save on tiles, which would otherwise provide some shelter from rain to the brickwork and shade upper windows in hot weather. It is also a very shallow roof slope, again being efficient with materials, but not allowing for any deviation in the weather that could bring a heavy snowfall.

The buildings are 3 storeys high to minimise on the footprint, and in addition the garden is tiny, so being very efficient with land. Just in case you don't realise how short the garden is, I was walking along the path one day, when the occupant opened their back door and threw a burnt slice of toast over the back fence. Just a toast toss between backdoor and fence!

There was really no need to be so efficient with space in Loughborough. This is the edge of a small town, not a city centre, but then maybe it is better to squeeze all the ugly buildings in tightly so as not to spoil the view too much.

The council negotiated an 11 acre open park area as part of the development deal, which is great for me to walk my dog round, but it adjoins an existing park area of a similar size, and it is not widely known about. So these ugly houses have been built with virtually no space to grow their own food, dry their washing, or room for their kids play. Yet the open playing areas are too far from the houses and too empty of people to be safe from stranger danger, so it seems the kids stay at home instead.

There is no large lawn to mow for weekly exercise, or flowerbeds to attract bees and insects. No room for trees or ponds to encourage wildlife and back garden ecosystems. Yet the council, with their funds becoming tighter, now has the burden of an additional large open space with grass to cut, bins to empty and borders to maintain on a regular basis. There are no allotments in this ward either!

The really wasteful thing is that these houses probably won't be here at the turn of the next century, so it is a false sense of efficiency. It is not just because they seem flimsy compared to a large part of the UK's building stock which is built pre-1940. But because they are ugly, and who wants to maintain and care for an ugly house?

The homes below are cheap and cheerful houses from 100 years ago. Efficient terraced housing with small gardens. They were built to save space and be close to amenities, as people walked most places in those days. However the little attractive features, such as the decorative trim at the eaves, the curves around the windows and doors, and the symmetry all add to making them more appealing and helping them survive. The rooms have additional height to make them feel more spacious and the bay window makes them feel less 'square' and brings in more light. They may not have un underground tunnel, but were built with cellars.

It is funny because even the 1950's council houses were solid and built to last, and they provided a reasonable garden. During a time when the country had a large war debt to pay off we were building with some resilience. At some point since then resilience has gone out the window. There is clearly a lack of balance between 'lean manufacturing' efficiency (otherwise known as cheap and cheerful 'Noddy' homes) and a need to build in resilience so that homes are fit for the future.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Growing community

Look at these amazing plants. Do you know what they are?

Chickpeas. Having only ever seen them dried or out of a tin before I was amazed when my allotment neighbour showed me his row of chickpeas and generously gave me an armful of plants. I rushed home with them to show my kids, who were suitably impressed.

They grow a bit like peas and have soft furry pods with one or two chickpeas in them. The chickpeas are sweet like peas if eaten raw, but my neighbour told me to roast them in their pods in the oven for the best taste. Roasted they have a lovely nutty flavour and you can sit popping them as a healthy snack. We are definitely going to try growing these next year.

Now I may wish that I had a bigger garden, and I can see that travelling to the allotment is effort and can put people off. But I would never have learnt about chickpeas without being exposed to the diverse and experienced gardeners at the allotment. And there are so many other benefits too.

Look at these onions I was given by another generous neighbour.

And these delicious baby beetroot.

I have been so lucky to receive plants, vegetables and advice from so many of them. Even when I have nothing to pick of my own, I never seem to go home empty-handed.

My runner beans were a disaster this year. The first plants I set out were devoured by slugs, then only half the beans I sowed grew and the rest were devoured by slugs, and finally I planted some I had bought from a carboot sale, which looked rather pale and they really struggled to do anything. I don't understand it, as runner beans are so hardy and I had a glut of them in my garden last year. Still we haven't been without, as the other allotmenteers have kindly shared their glut of beans. There are definitely benefits to gardening in a community.

And I have also been foraging. The blackberries started ripening this year whilst it was still shorts weather. This is a bit of a problem as you end up with legs covered in scratches, but I have still managed to pick plenty for the freezer. There are still plenty out there to pick if you want to get some free.

During dog walks I have collected cobnuts or hazelnuts as they are more commonly known. You can pick them early while they are still pale, if the squirrels are likely to get them, and they will turn brown as they dry out. But best to leave them as late as you can. I am just starting to collect enough elderberries to make a large batch of cough and cold syrup in preparation for winter.

My plot has given me some delicious potatoes, including this pink heart shaped one!

The raspberries are in full swing now and need regular picking.

We have had our first sweetcorn and tomatoes. Below a jungle of leaves there are also some large pumpkins and at least 4 huge shark fin melons. I have never cooked these before so this should be interesting.... :-) I have also been given a recipe for the pumpkin leaves, which I never knew were edible.

At home we have had plenty of cucumber, including the round crystal lemon ones. There have been peas, French beans, courgettes, tomatoes and calabrese broccoli. Only one green courgette plant survived, along with a yellow one and a round one. Still they produce plenty. We went away for 6 days and came back to a fridge full of courgettes that my eldest son had picked and still more on the plants!

We have eaten lots of lovely fresh, colourful and tasty meals this summer, and I have even got my most fussiest eater to eat courgettes and green beans! But the best bit has got to be shopping! Looking at the produce in the supermarket and thinking " I don't need potatoes, or onions, or raspberries or broccoli......just carrots!