A Rural Life
This weekend we had a delivery of wood to fuel our wood-burning stove. As I stood on the back of the truck, in wellies and a fleece, unloading the logs I realised that we never tell what our futures hold. Four years ago we were living in a typical house on an estate and would never have been able to imagine or predict our life now.
It was an intention to move closer to work combined with a criteria for a house with ‘character’ that led us to this rather than an a search for a new lifestyle. We didn’t realise that the latter often follows the former when we packed up all our worldly possessions and headed for a rural life.
Restocking The Firewood
Building The Victorian House
- The repeal of the brick tax in 1850, improved mixing and moulding and better firing techniques resulted in the brick built terraces of the Victorian era, complete with ornamental fretwork and decoration to show off artisan skills.
- lime mortar was used at the beginning of the Century and was gradually replaced by cement towards the end of the century.
- Although many Victorian buildings are of solid wall construction, cavity walls became available in the latter part of the century.
- Damp proof courses became compulsory through the 1870s. These were often something like sackcloth soaked in bitumen
- Most houses were built with suspended timber floors, although some used stone or clay flagstones laid on a bed of ashes or directly onto compacted earth.
- Houses without basements usually had a scullery for washing at the back of the house. Most had solid floors which meant they stayed wet for long periods.
- Source: University of The West of England
Looking back we were initially far too overwhelmed with the worries and practicalities of maintaining a 150 year old house to immediately appreciate the potential of the bucolic lifestyle that presented itself.
We were so convinced we were going to be told it needed completely re-wiring that we cooked in semi-darkness for a couple of months while we summoned the courage to call in an electrician to look at the dysfunctional kitchen lighting.
Built to the local construction methods of the time, it doesn’t have today’s standard construction features such as modern foundations and cavity walls. It's also inevitable that, over the years, not all repairs and improvements will have been good ones. So one the one hand we are lucky to have two fantastic original fireplaces, but it's apparent that the trend for stripped wooden floors has been visited on the nineteenth century floorboards with more enthusiasm than skill.
Still, assuming we applied some house-TLC and took a constant vigilance approach to potential maintenance issues we realised the fact that it has already stood since 1869 probably means it’s not falling down any time soon.
The Woodburner Ready For Christmas
Lighting A Fire
- Clear the ash from the grate, it will fall through into the tray below for emptying.
- Start with balled-up or twisted newspaper.
- Lay plenty of kindling on top of the paper.
- Pick out some smaller pieces of wood and put the on top of the kindling.
- Light the newspaper. For a fire you don't have time to stand over and nurse use a firelighter.
- Once the fire is established put some larger pieces of wood on.
- Firewood needs to be seasoned before use, so foraged wood will need to be stored for several months to dry before use.
New Skills and Hobbies
After the first winter we had a wood-burning stove fitted. This made us realise that changes to our everyday habits take hold quickly and can alter our domestic skillset within a generation.
Maybe those 1970’s drama series’ about post-apocalyptic worlds caught our imaginations because we were already losing skills like lighting fires and killing chickens. Well no chickens have been killed here, although the summer our neighbours played host to a particularly loud and assertive cockerel it was discussed a few times, but we have become pretty good at lighting fires.
Old houses generate other pastimes besides refilling the log store and a grudging interest in DIY. Modern furniture doesn’t quite look at home in an old house so the opportunity to get into looking for old furniture presents itself.
One of you will love this, browsing around second-hand shops and checking out auction sites. The other one will regularly veto things with comments like ‘we don’t need any more of those’, ‘no, I think it’s hideous’ and when all else fails ‘don’t buy any more stuff without asking me first’.
Tackling The Garden
Outside the back door and making its way up the hillside behind us was a large terraced garden. Offering huge and exciting potential, the first challenge was to hack back the rampant vegetation.
Although lacking some of the more unpleasant and unsightly elements of urban living we do have bindweed, which together with its partner in crime brambles, can turn a well-tended garden into a version of the forest surrounding sleeping beauty’s castle in a matter of weeks.
I have decided that the best way to manage a large garden without paid help and maintain your sanity is to lower your standards of tidiness. Our modest suburban garden could be rendered pristine in an afternoon with enough time left over to enjoy the fruits of your labours with a certain smugness and glass of wine in hand.
Now we have to accept the fact that, at any given time, at least a third of the garden will be out of control. Of particular note is the area behind the shed which has a definite ‘portrait of Dorian Grey’ element to it. Right now its host to two large plastic bins, some planks of wood, wire mesh of some description and a healthy sapling that can’t seem to take the hint that it’s not wanted.
Runner Beans In The Vegetable Garden
Preserving and Storing Garden Produce
A 'Trial and Error' Guide To Garden Produce
Following the example of the first Neolithic farmers I took the attitude that the best way to tame the wilderness was to grow things. Two years later we had a herb garden, vegetable beds and a wildlife pond.
When the first year’s crop was harvested I realised this is only the first part of the story and a second set of skills around storing and preserving is required. My first attempts at jam and jelly making were reminiscent of a thirteen year old dying their hair for the first time – there was an indelible trail to indicate where I had been.
Jams and Preserves
- This is the obvious answer for surplus fruit but if you're a nervous preserve maker like me it's easier to keep control of smaller quantities.
- Also bear in mind if you are using larger quantities than the recipe the timings will be different.
- If you are as messy as me plan and prepare all your equipment - having plenty of easy clean receptacles such ceramic plates and bowls for jammy spoons will help with the clean-up operation.
Storing and Bottling
- Vegetables are best fresh picked from the garden and lots don't freeze well. I found that peas, beans, broccoli and peppers did best from frozen.
- Pickling in vinegar is very straightforward but the taste gets a bit hijacked.
- Carrots, cauliflower, celery and asparagus can all be bottled in salt water.
- Onions and garlic will last the winter in a cool dry place, the garden shed is ideal.
- Annuals and deciduous perennials will not keep going through the winter so work out in advance what type of plants your favourites are.
- Pick the young, healthy leaves, wash them and dry slowly in a warm place or a low oven.
- They can also be chopped and frozen and basil, rosemary and thyme are often used to make aromatic infused oils
A couple of years down the line and people say I have metamorphosed into a country wife. Well I guess I have and, like all major changes, it’s hard to think yourself back to before you made the journey. So this might sound like a note of caution or an incentive but as Bilbo Baggins said about journeys: “You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.”