Category Archives: Odds and sods

Self sufficiency and the semi-industrial sewing machine


Picture of vintage Singer sewing machinesThe picture isn’t actually relevant to this post, but it shows what’s on the table on the desk behind me as I write this – and no, that’s not a typo.  There is a table on the desk.  With 21 machines already on the floor in a room just 14ft x 10ft, the only way to squeeze in some more was to put them on a cut-down table over the stuff that’s already on that desk.  But anyhow …

As regular readers will know, Elsie and I are into the idea of self-reliance.  That’s a term we much prefer to “self-sufficiency”, which as far as we’re concerned is pie in the sky for most folks nowadays.  I could waffle on about that for ages and bore your socks off but instead, I thought it might just interest some folks to see what can easily be grown by two people working a garden and an allotment without getting too serious about it.  Elsie’s just compiled the figures for this year, showing that we harvested:-

Rhubarb 42kg

Blackcurrants 26kg

Damsons 11kg

Pears 50kg

Apples 84kg

Lettuce x 200 (approx)

Radish x 41

Broad bean x 33kg

Tomato (cherry) 21kg

Cucumber x 33

Onion 21kg

Peppers 204kg

Sweetcorn x 25 cobs (a bad year for sweetcorn!)

Garlic 1.5kg

Cabbage 66kg (three types)

Potatoes 96kg

Plus smaller quantities of Morello cherries, turnip, spinach, beetroot,peas, climbing French bean, pumpkins (for seed and for roasting), Jerusalem artichokes, Brussel sprouts, purple sprouting broccoli and leeks.

The exact cost of producing that little lot’s not easy to work out accurately, but if we include allotment rent and several big trailerloads of the finest farmyard manure, it comes to somewhere between £260 and £320.  Considering that it’s all organic and it’s all really tasty varieties (barring one or two mistakes!) we don’t think that’s too bad at all, although it must be said we have no idea what it would cost to buy in the shops.  Then of course there’s the free stuff legally harvested at the roadside, which totalled 6kg brambles, 2.5kg walnuts, 17kg apples and 16kg damsons!

Now, as Elsie was working the final figures out, I was speaking to a bloke intent upon selling a 201K23.  It seemed a good proposition at first, but asking the right questions produced a couple of wrong answers, so I opted out.  At that point, I learned that he’d paid £140 for it online only a month ago, but soon found out that it was “too small”.

“Don’t tell me” says I. “It was billed as a semi-industrial machine ideal for knocking out leatherwork, sails, tarpaulins and so forth day in, day out …”

“Horse blankets actually” says he.  “And leather”.

“For which you need an industrial machine with a walking foot”

“Exactly.  But I didn’t realise that until after I’d spent another £40 having it serviced in town”

“And you can’t get your money back?”

“Not a hope”.

There’s a moral there somewhere …

The Other Side


No, nothing to do with séances and spirits, but rather my old hat.  Back in August, I mentioned that Elsie had found my old festival hat and I posted a snap of Stoner wearing it.  In response to numerous requests since then (hi Carol), here’s a picture of the other side.

Since you ask, the one in the middle’s the badge from Led Zeppelin’s gig at Knebworth on 4th August 1979, on the left is a Morris Federation badge, and on the right it’s Morris Dancers Against The Bomb.  Which presents me with the ideal opportunity to tell you the ultimate Morris dancing joke, as told to me years ago by a very righteous Morris dancer indeed

Q  Why do Morris dancers wear bells?

A  So they can annoy the blind the as well.

Moving rapidly on, it’s been a bit busy here recently with one thing and another.  We had a major panic last week when I was told that because we have stuff for sale on here, I needed to shift the blog to another web host.  The more I looked into doing that the less I understood of what I’d be getting into, so it was a huge relief when a nice chap from WordPress eventually emailed back to say we could relax because we’re totally kosher as we are!

We’ve been busy taking advantage of the good weather to get the main allotment ready for winter.  Now the sweetcorn’s demolished, the pumpkin patch is cleared and seeded to green manure, and the dried beans are in (Elsie’s in the kitchen podding the last lot as I type this), so all we have left to do there is take the bean poles down.  They were forecasting a proper frost last night (as opposed to a grass frost, which until very recently was a ground frost), so yesterday afternoon we put cloches over the four short rows of lettuce in the garden which we hope will see us through into November.

We’ve had the woodburner in the kitchen lit in the evening for about a week now, and I guess it won’t be long before my first job of the day is to light it before Elsie descends for her breakfast.  Last year we scrounged vast quantities of timber from the building site down the lane and spent ages cutting it all up, so we’re really looking forward to sprawling on the sofa in the kitchen watching the scrummy spelt scones baking on the griddle on top of a woodburner burning free wood while the apple rings dry above it.  And in case you’re wondering, yes we do have gas central heating, but it’s expensive to run and it’s no fun.

On the sewing machine front, today I’m sorting out a good motor to put on a lovely 201K which we’ve just sold (and which will be the second machine we’ve sent down to Cornwall this month!), and once Elsie gets back from the dentist, she’ll be finishing the final clean of a beige/brown 201K2 which used to live in a horrible treadle cabinet but will very soon be a nice portable electric.  I can’t move in here for machines patiently waiting their turn, so for the time being we’re ignoring the pile of attachments on Cleo’s coffin-top that are waiting for us to tickle their tappets.

Finally for now, two things.  One is that if there’s anything you’d like to see covered in a blog post, all you have to do is leave a comment on here and we’ll see what we can do.  The other is there’s a free sewing machine in the offing before much longer.  No, honestly.  It’s not a Singer but it’s a full-size all-metal hand-crank, it’s hardly been used and if nothing else it’d be a great Christmas present for a youngster who just might appreciate it.  If there’s a catch to this, it’s only that you’ll have to collect it from the Tunbridge Wells area because we’re not going to be up for packing it for courier pickup.

More details later, but we’ll be giving it away to celebrate when we hit our target average number of visitors here per week.  Right now the number’s increasing a lot faster than we thought it would, but if you want to speed up the process, why not spread the word for us on Facebook, web forums and such?

Hooray, hooray, it’s Sauerkraut Day


picture of four Filderkraut cabbages

As well as the allotment which Elsie’s been cultivating for the best part of 20 years, we also have a small plot at the local council’s new site.  There’s well over 100 plots there, with a posh deer-proof boundary fence, lots of nice water tanks to fill your cans from, and a big communal compost heap.  It’s even got a composting loo in its own little shed.

Unfortunately the site’s on a North-facing slope which seems to have its own weather system, the chief characteristic of which is either a strong wind or a very strong wind blowing up the hill or down it on 360 or more days of the year.  Add to that clay soil with the consistency of well-cured concrete and its amazing that anything grows there.

When we took the plot over in April and discovered just how solid the ground is,  Elsie immediately prescribed a full trailer-load of good farmyard manure, so that’s what it had.  She didn’t think much of my suggestion that one stick of dynamite per square yard might just loosen things up a bit quicker, so we just planted a few things in the muck by way of a trial then pretty much left them to get on with it.

Now, the other thing from which the new allotments suffer is a number of scarily enthusiastic tenants who turn up in their BMW X3’s with all manner of stuff they’ve just bought from B&Q with which to play on their plot while young Gabriel and Willow make a confounded nuisance of themselves around everybody else’s.  It’s something I can get very grumpy about very quickly, so we never go near the place at weekends or during school holidays.

That explains why the first task yesterday morning was to put on the winter jacket and the woolly hat and head up to the new plot to harvest the first of the Filderkraut, of which we had ten.  We brought five of them home, and that’s a snap of four of them posing on the big water tank outside the back door after I’d trimmed ’em (and bust the top off one)   The biggest two are 21 inches high, and the chap second from the right weighed in at just over 14lbs, which is a fair weight for a trimmed cabbage.  Filderkraut is without doubt the cabbage for making sauerkraut.

17.5lb of it, thinly siced and mixed together thoroughly with coarse salt, is now rammed into a 10-litre sauerkraut crock which is sitting under the kitchen table.  It looks quite harmless, but you can’t trust a sauerkraut crock.   One day soon we’ll both be in the kitchen and Elsie will look at me suspiciously, I’ll look at Elsie, then we’ll realise that the crock has just farted. That’s because the lid of the crock sits in a groove containing water so as to form an air-lock, and as the cabbage ferments, every now and then the gas escapes as the pressure builds up enough to lift the lid on one side and blow off.  And oh dear, does it ever pong!

So, we’ll be eating some of the remainder of those cabbages for dinner for the next day or two, and we probably won’t be able to resist having a taste of the sauerkraut in a couple of weeks just to see how it’s going, even though it’ll be nowhere near its best.

In case you’re wondering, the ratio of coarse salt to shredded cabbage is 3 tablespoons to 5lb, and the exact method we use is down to both Steffi in the farm shop and a book called “Wild Fermentation” by the wonderfully-named Sandor Ellix Katz.

Free food


I mentioned in a previous post that we’d got just under 15kg of lovely damsons this year from a tree in town which obligingly overhangs the footway and in which nobody else seems to take any interest at all.

Well, there’s an old apple tree on a sort of grassy no-mans-land up the lane from us, and we’ve just picked 17kg of really scrummy apples off it.  That’s way down from the 48kg it gave us last year, but we’re not complaining.  We haven’t a clue what variety they are, but they’re cookers, they’re not Bramleys, and they make very tasty apple crumbles indeed.  Best of all though, they make the finest dried apple rings ever.  Far better than using eating apples!

Picture of apples in the basket of a Workcycles FR8

In the same week as the free apples, we also harvested this year’s free walnuts from under the tree by the side of the road out of town.  Only just over 2kg this year, which sort of half-fills a supermarket plastic bag, and no, you don’t eat them straight off the tree …

Picture of walnuts as harvested

The first thing you do is scrub them in water to get the hairs off.  If you don’t do that, they rot.  Having got them wet through, you then of course need to dry them, for which the ideal equipment is an old garden chair and one of the racks out the apple store …

Picture of walnuts drying in sun

Once they’re dry, the book says you pack ’em in a mixture of salt and coconut fibre, sawdust, wood shavings or bulb fibre, then put them in your cellar and they might keep until May.  We unfortunately are cellarless, so we just put them under the stairs in an old bread crock, packed in the woodchips we use for littering the chickens.  They’re ready for eating in November, and they’re delicious!

picture of walnuts stored in woodchips

Incidentally, Elsie’s Bible of home preserving is that old Womens Institute standby “Home Preservation of Fruit and Vegetables” by the Min of Ag, Fish and Food, published by HMSO in 1971.  Because it’s getting a bit dog-eared, I got us a new copy from Amazon last week.  It’s the 1989 edition, which incidentally in my opinion is a very poor bit of book production indeed compared to the earlier versions, and it’s fascinating to see how some things have changed.  Storing your walnuts in the traditional manner is out.  Apparently nowadays one pickles ones walnuts instead.  Why one might want to do that, I can’t imagine.

Anyhow, that’s the free damsons in, and the free apples and the free walnuts.  I think that just leaves the free chestnuts still to go this year, but when Elsie rode past the tree last week it was still not ready.  Maybe next week …

Clarice’s egg


I’ve been taken to task by a couple of readers of this blog for telling you all about Clarice’s first egg but not showing you a snap of it, so here you go.  That is Clarice herself looking at her egg alongside a so-called “fresh” one from the supermarket.

What she doesn’t know is that unlike the big egg, hers will be a treat to eat.  It will have a nice yellow yolk without her having been fed feed with yolk colourant in it, the white will be a lovely bright white and it won’t be rubbery, and above all Clarice’s egg will have taste – a property sadly missing from the supermarket equivalent if you ask me.  Or Elsie.

Anyhow, there’s the missing picture as requested.  With that, I think we’ve done the chicken news, at least for the time being, so I can now start getting a post together about which way round you thread the needle.  Or maybe about how we pack a sewing machine for courier delivery.  Perhaps even why we don’t get involved with the 15 series.  And I really must do something about attachments …

Clarice has done an egg


Picture of Rhode Rock hen

I’ve been meaning to bring you up to speed on the chicken front for a while now, but with one thing and another it just didn’t happen.  Sorry about that.  I shall now make amends …

Edna and Ethel, our lovely Wellsummers, decided last month to stop laying in August rather than in October.  Elsie and I decided that in that case we didn’t fancy feeding them expensive feed until next April for no return other than the pleasure of their company and their muck for the compost heap, so they could go and play with all the other hens at the farm down the road.  Which they did.

Now, as any fule kno, Michaelmas Day is September 29th and it is the day that you kill your pig.  But did you know that it is also the day by which you have to get your hens into lay?  Well it is, although I have no idea what happens if you don’t .  But we certainly don’t want to find out, so no sooner were Edna and Ethel gone than we set to renovating and sanitising the hen house and digging over the run in readiness for our new birds, which we got three weeks ago.

Alice and Clarice are Rhode Rocks, Dyllis and Phyllis are Maran Cuivrees, and the simplest way to tell them apart is that the Rhodes have cream legs and the Marans have blue-grey legs.  We’ve gone back to hybrids after maybe ten years of keeping pure breeds simply because organic layers pellets are now over £12 a bag and hybrids don’t stop laying for half the year.  Neither do they go broody.   They’re about 21 weeks old now, and oh boy have we had fun training them to go to bed at night.  Never before have we had hens who just couldn’t grasp the concept of go up the ramp, go through the pop hole, turn left and step up onto the perch.

Until last weekend, every single night, these four went up the ramp, through the pop hole, turned round and settled down squashed together in the entrance looking out.  In the end we took it in turns to go out there, take the front off the house, and as each one sat down in the entrance, pick them up and put them on the perch.  And do it again when they jumped off.  Which they did.  Many times.  Eventually though something connected in their little chicken brains, and these last few evenings they’ve been going to bed just like proper hens.

This naturally left us wondering what we were going to be in for when they started laying.  I think we’d become resigned to the prospect of teaching them where the nestbox is, and still finding eggs of all shapes and sizes all over the place for a few weeks until they got the hang of the process.

It therefore came as quite a shock when Elsie came in from the garden this morning and said “Clarice is in the nest box”.  I went for a look myself and sure enough, there she was, sitting tight on the straw just like a proper hen.  An hour or so later I went out to see how she was getting on, and there she was in the run with the other three.  “False alarm” thinks I, but I wanted to see if she’d at least managed to make herself a nest.

So I took a look, and to my surprise Clarice had made herself a nest of which any hen could rightly feel proud.  And to my greater surprise, there at the bottom of it was an egg.  A small egg, certainly, but a proper egg, with a nice brown shell, hard all over, with a proper egg shape to it, laid all by herself without any fuss or bother at all.  In a nest.  In the nest box.

That’s Clarice on the left in that picture.  Clarice is awesome.

The Piece of String


Picture of key on bentwood case for vintage Singer sewing machineOne of things about vintage Singer sewing machines which fascinates Elsie and me is The Piece of String.

You can pretty much guarantee that if the owner of an old machine which I’m thinking of buying says yes, there is a key for the case, then that key will be tied on a bit of string just like in the picture.  It might be thin string or it might be thick string, but it’s always string.   And the ends of it have always been neatly cut off after it was knotted.

And what, you might quite reasonably ask, is so remarkable about that?  Well, nothing really – except could you lay your hands on a bit of string right now if you had an urgent need of it?

If I look out my window, I can see part of a “select gated development” of a dozen new houses 200 yards or so away.  We call it The Ghetto.  Every one of those houses seems to be occupied by frighteningly normal families who each run at least two new cars, one of which is a Chelsea tractor, and it’s a fair bet that in a few weeks’ time, all the Daddies will be out on Sunday morning playing with their new leaf blowers.   I reckon they’re the sort of people who use the word “lifestyle” in everyday conversation.

If you look through their kitchen windows past the bijou pots of half-dead herbs, you’re bound to see machinery and gadgetry and things for every conceivable task.  Likewise their garages are doubtless full of power tools for everything.  But do they have string about the house?

I doubt it.  Naturally Elsie and I have string, but we’re like that.  We have natural string, unnatural string, garden twine, binder twine in a choice of colours – heck, we have parachute cord and we even have hi-viz fluorescent yellow terylene string.  I’ve no idea why we have that hi-viz stuff or where it came from, but my point is simply that we do have string about the premises.  Like every household once had, because at one time people saved useful-looking bits of string.

When did people stop saving bits of string?



I said yesterday that we’ve been a bit busy on the home front recently, and here’s one reason why.  This is The Store Cupboard, which is now full.

We have bottled pears, damsons, strawberries, blackcurrants, rhubarb, Morello cherries and tomatoes from the garden and the allotment, and bottled plums from the local biodynamic PYO farm.  And we have rhubarb jam, rhubarb and elderflower jam, damson jam, blackcurrant jam and bramble jelly.

I made some of the jam but nearly all of this is Elsie’s handiwork.  It would have been nice if one of us had remembered to do an inventory of how many jars of what are in there, but we forgot. Like we do every year.  What I can tell you though is that we got 20lb of damsons off our own tree and 32lb off one in town which overhangs the path and nobody else takes any interest in whatsoever.  Oh, and the pear trees in the garden yielded 72lb this year, not all of which has ripened enough for bottling yet.  Where we’re going to put the rest of those, I have no idea.

Yes, it’s a great deal of work, but it’s very satisfying work.  And it’s even more satisfying getting up off the sofa in front of the logburner in the middle of winter, opening that cupboard and deciding what to have for pudding.

In case you’re wondering, the demijohns contain what Elsie calls country wines and I call drain cleaner …

The aliens stole our email


Well somebody did, so I blame them.

Elsie and I have been up past our ears in picking apples and bottling pears and digging up spuds and so on this last few days, so it wasn’t until last night that I realised our email was wonky.

We don’t have a hormonal teenager who’s an authority on Outlook around the place to consult about the problem, so I have no idea how long it was off, but we did get an email from Cecilia last night which she sent on Thursday and I’ve just managed to send myself a test message which worked, so it does look like we’re back to normal now (or as normal as it ever gets here).

If you sent us an email recently and you didn’t get a reply, I’m sorry about that.

If you’re not still miffed with us, would you like to try again?