Gardens with Benefits

July 29, 2021

If you ignore the fact that the magnificent towering pink flower spikes to the left of this picture are, in fact, willowherb and hence, technically (but who decides these things anyway?), weeds, the garden is looking almost … gardenish from certain angles.

Garden in July

Much of my gardening activity in recent weeks has been in the form of making piles, moving piles and occasionally removing things from piles and putting them in their final home. It’s hard to tell whether any of this is ultimately going to be productive or not, but it gets me outside and keeps me happy and that’s the main thing. Today was the turn of the large pile of weed roots outside the fruit cage, some of which have rotted down sufficiently to be put in the compost (or would be, if all three compost daleks weren’t full) and some of which have sprouted and had to be pulled up anew.

raspberry canes outside fruit cate

In doing so, I noted that we actually have more fruit outside the fruit cage than within it, as the top half of our garden is rampant with wild raspberries, while I’ve just excavated the wild strawberries out from under some more rampant plants in the flowerbed beside it and they have been producing a steady trickle of delicious little berries. None of these have troubled the kitchen at all, as they tend to go straight into the gardener. There have got to be some perks to the job, after all.

wild strawberries

In other news, our neighbours report that they have had rabbits in their veg plot. This is bad news for the neighbours and turned out to be quite bad news for the rabbits, once they’d been caught. It will ultimately be bad news for us once the rabbits work out that there is another garden down the hill a bit with some southern townie softies who are unlikely to be as free with the shotgun but for now it is good news as it turns out that the rabbits ate their pea plants. The neighbours have been generously leaving surplus eggs on our doorstep at regular intervals, which is extremely welcome but has created an imbalance in the rural favours calculus. However, as we have a massive surplus of both peas and mangetout, I’ve finally been able to tip the scales back a little in our favour (as well as keep on top of the picking which has been getting away from me somewhat in recent weeks).


In other news, the Hare’s Toothbrush, given up for dead for the second winter in three years, is … not.


This would be better news if I hadn’t just planted what will be a massive cardoon right next to it.

A Sight for Sore Eyes

June 27, 2021

You can keep your green list countries and your vaccination passports … if there’s anything I’m excited about as lockdown eases, it’s the return of village plant sales

Sign advertising plant sale

Nearest village has gone all out this year, after having to cancel last year, and although I was held up and couldn’t make it until it was almost over (and it turns out there’s nothing like the fear of being gazumped at the plant stall to give you wings for the climb up to Nearest Village), fortunately there were still plants (and, importantly, cakes) to be had.

Plant stall

With these events I’m limited only by the capacity of my bike basket and the ability of any purchases to withstand a few miles of bumpy roads. This is probably fortunate, given I’m still not caught up with the gardening (and the work I’d hoped was over has returned for a final hurrah).

plants and pots in bike basket

Where You Wheely Bin

April 29, 2021

OK so it’s been an exciting weekend

Sadly I didn’t get to witness the giant projections in person, but you can see them on this film:

After all that excitement, you’d think that Bin Day might have been a bit of an anticlimax, but no! Cycling down into town on Tuesday lunchtime, I spotted that our neighbour’s wheely bin had gained two pals as Bigtownshire finally joins the 20th Century and gets a doorstep recycling programme

Wheely bin with two recycling wheely bins

Indeed, all the wheely bins that had been put out on the route into town had company.

This left us (OK, me) slightly anxious that we had been left out as we don’t have a wheely bin so we hadn’t been given any pals for it. I made a mental note to phone up and check, but then forgot about it. And yesterday, having returned home after a somewhat frustrating day, for reasons that were only tangentially related to the coonsil, we discovered that we too have recycling facilities, in the form of two stout canvas sacks, a large red one for cans, plastic and packets and a slightly smaller one – as designed by someone who clearly doesn’t take a daily newspaper* – for paper and card. There’s also a handy leaflet and calendar so we can join the rest of the country in having impassioned discussions about what can and can’t go in the recycling and what is supposed to be going out when (in my experience, these leaflets tend to raise more questions than they answer in these situations).

Now all we have to do is wait for Actual Recycling Day to come around (12 more sleeps!). I know, you can hardly wait.

* Annoyingly, it’s got just slightly too small a footprint to fit an unfolded tabloid (as the Guardian now is). Who designs these things?


March 23, 2021

Well, a day of excitement for us today – not only was it Bin Day (one of the few remaining Binday Classics as we count down to the new recycling system) but it was also V-Day as we had our appointment to get our first shot of the vaccine (Astra Zeneca, thanks for asking).

I was kind of hoping for a badge, sticker, or even just the little card you get saying which vaccine you got so I could do my requisite ‘vaccination selfie’ across all my many social media platforms, but sadly they’re above such things here in Bigtownshire so we just got a leaflet about side effects, which isn’t really the same. So far I haven’t had any side effects either, apart from the commonest one of being unable to shut up about having had the vaccine. That’s probably why they don’t bother giving out a sticker, come to think of it.

In lieu of a vaccine selfie, you’ll have to make do with this incredibly accurate recreation of the attack of ASBO buzzard, courtesy of my talented friend Vicki (although if I’m honest, I’m actually much less insouciant when under attack than I appear in the picture).

Cartoon image of me on a bike being attacked by a buzzard

And now I’ll go back to what has become normality – living in our rural fastness on the top of the hill, making the occasional foray into town for the paper, and riding my bike. The only difference will be if some unwary stranger should stumble into within hailing distance, when I can waylay them and (socially distanced of course) inform them that I’ve had my vaccine…

… did I mention that we’d had our vaccines, at all?


February 21, 2021

As I mentioned before, we were entrusted with our neighbours’ smallholding last summer, for which we were handsomely rewarded in the form of (vegans look away now) one lamb – not as a pet but as a neatly packaged set of joints suitable for going into the freezer. In fact, payment came in two parts – half a lamb last year and another half which duly arrived a couple of days ago.

lambs getting fed
Not the actual lamb in question, although it did arrive at our house in a bucket

The only downside of the first half was having to look the other sheep in the eye when we passed them on our occasional walks past their field, but the second half came with a bonus package: the liver (as well as a bucket of slightly whiskery surplus carrots and onions and almost a dozen eggs). Now, I have become a much less picky eater than I used to be over the years – having added many vegetables, and even the odd invertebrate to the list of things I eat, but so far I have drawn the line at offal except in the form of pate. The other half, who knows me well, realised that if the liver went into the freezer along with everything else it would likely stay there until the end of time or we defrosted it, whichever was sooner. So it has been in our fridge waiting for me to get the courage to give it a go.

Yesterday the day arrived. A quick google revealed that there is precisely one liver recipe in the entire English-speaking world, which is to flash fry it with bacon and onions (the other recipe, favoured by our school kitchen back in the day, of boiling it until it resembled shoe leather but with a faintly greenish sheen, seems to have fallen by the wayside). Twitter more or less confirmed this but divided decisively between the ‘slice-first-then-fry’ and ‘fry-first-then-slice’ camps – as it turned out the liver was pre-sliced so I didn’t have to choose a side.

So anyway, to cut a long story short, I cooked it as instructed and it was … fine. It did not taste of shoe leather. It did, quite definitely, taste of liver. Covering it in onion gravy and bacon helped a bit, but I now know that I’m not massively keen on the taste of liver. However I can say that I have moved lamb’s liver from the ‘do not like despite not ever having tried it’ box to the slightly more grown up ‘do not really like and yes I have tried flash frying it with onion and bacon’ box. Hey, it’s 2021. We take our achievements where we can these days.

In slightly more grown-up news, I have been putting the surplus carrots to more delicious use: not just carrot cake but, in the ultimate in pre-preparedness, ready-chopped batches of soffritto mix for the freezer.

All I have to do is find a space for it among all the lamb…

Move Over, Sourdough

January 19, 2021

There’s a new fermentation kid on the block

Not that I’ve given up on the sourdough – if anything, now that we’re both at home all day, I’m baking more of it than ever, it’s just that it’s become somewhat routine. I was excited during the first lockdown to be godmother to a number of baby sourdough starters as various friends and Twitter contacts started asking my advice, for some reason (I hope they also consulted a few people who actually know what they’re doing), but I did slightly envy them the excitement of starting a new project seeing how much pleasure I’ve got out of my own sourdough adventures.

After miraculously managing to lose weight during the first lockdown, despite cycling drastically fewer miles, we’ve been somewhat pushing our luck in this latest incarnation by upping our culinary game. Not only did we try once of those fancy ‘restaurant in a box’ meals for our wedding anniversary, but I’ve also been trying to spend a bit more time away from the computer by attempting a few more elaborate dishes that take my fancy that I wouldn’t normally have time, which for me tends to mean sweet things.

pecan pie

Given that I also gave the other half an ice cream maker for his birthday last year (the best present ever, certainly from my point of view), it was clear that if I was to continue to fit into my jeans, I was going to have to develop some slightly more healthy ambitions than ‘perfect my shortcrust pastry technique’, hence sauerkraut which has all the potential rabbithole ahoy interest of sourdough for those who want to take it further, plus plenty of reputed gut flora benefits, without going completely down the path of kimchi, kombucha or (the one I’d really try if I had the courage, because who doesn’t want to be nursing what is effectively an improvised explosive device in their pantry?) home-brewed ginger beer.

So anyway, a couple of weeks ago, following the instructions helpfully supplied in the Weekend Guardian I sliced up a cabbage our neighbour had given us, massaged in the salt as instructed, added a few flavourings (if the last few 8-year-old juniper berries from the bottom of the spice jar count as ‘flavouring’) and left it in a ‘cool well-ventilated place’ to await its miraculous transformation.

After the suggested few days I tasted it to discover I had basically made some very salty raw shredded cabbage. So, I tried diluting the brine a bit, left it a bit longer (faintly tangy and ever-so-slightly less salty cabbage), left it a bit longer (possible faint echoes of sauerkraut) and then decided that perhaps keeping it in the effectively unheated utility room might be part of the problem (I should remember that London-based cookery writers’ interpretation of ‘a cool place’ may be different than for those of us living in Scotland). So it’s now found its niche in our kitchen where – a fortnight after I started – the other half has pronounced it as tasting ‘almost like sauerkraut’.

sauerkraut in jar

I’m reminding myself that this is probably better than the internet dubbing my second attempt at sourdough ‘dwarf bread’, and will persevere, hoping this isn’t something that ends in tears. Or, indeed, botulism…

What’s your latest lockdown project?

Ice, Ice Baby

January 3, 2021

Those of you hoping that 2021 might be a little less … upside down than 2020 might want to look away now. For I bring you news of our latest excitement: The Great Grit Bin Heist of 2021.

Icy 'glacier' on road

Previously on Town Mouse, you might remember, it snowed, and I had hoped that putting the ice tyres on my bike might lead to a thaw, but instead it’s just been dry and sunny every day since then but oh so cold, which is better than almost all the winter alternatives, I suppose. We have two grit bins for our road, which we use to clear the worst bits when it snows or freezes and mostly the road is now fine, apart from a small glacier on the way to the road end, which is currently still negotiable on foot, car and appropriately shod bike.

We walk this way almost every day, as we have done since March, and because we don’t get out much anywhere else these days we’ve been keeping an eye on the grit bin at the road end. It has a loose lid, which is usually weighted down with a couple of the thermal bricks you find inside storage heaters, which appear to be one of those universal things everyone has hanging around in a little pile somewhere from when they took out their storage heaters in case they come in handy.* Sometimes the grit bin lid is closed and weighted down, and sometimes the lid is not, and these things come to be of interest when that’s about all that changes from day to day.

And then, on today’s walk we were confronted by this:

open grit bin

(this is in fact a reconstruction of the scene that confronted us as I didn’t have my phone with me and I had to then walk all the way back to the house to get it and come back to take the photo and as it was bloody Baltic, I hope you appreciate my dedication to the blog)

emptied grit bin

Our grit bin has been emptied out by person or persons unknown. Honestly, is nothing sacred? Anyway, I have taken decisive action to track down the culprits, by posting the photos on New Nearest Village’s Facebook group, which was set up to coordinate help during the start of the pandemic, but has recently mostly been about tracking down the identity of the dog owner who isn’t picking up their dog’s poo (is there a dog poo equivalent of Godwin’s Law? I sense that, in the end, all local groups end up being about dog poo unless they were set up to discuss dog poo, in which case they’re probably happily delving into the intricacies of plainsong, or nuclear physics, or other off-topic discussions much to the distress of the group administrators). There has been some amateur sleuthing going on concerning CCTV footage, so I have no doubt that when the finest minds of Nearest Village CSI switch their attention to our grit bin woes, we’ll soon get an answer, although I now realise I should probably have taken some better photographs of the footprints in front of the bin, just in case anyone recognises them.

More on this story, as it develops.

Frosted vegetable beds

In cheerier news, despite the fact that even the kale isn’t very happy about the weather we’ve been having recently, the broccoli seems to be living its best life and is still sprouting as it has been happily since September even though it’s supposed to wait until spring. Obviously its idea of ‘spring’ and mine are very different but I guess I’ll take my small victories where I can find them.

broccoli sprouting in the snow

* I know this because we have just such a pile and when a friend visited the first thing she said on inspecting the garden was ‘Did you just take out storage heaters? We had a pile like that for about 10 years…’

Can Do

December 31, 2020

Well, if ever there was a year when you might be forgiven for not keeping your New Year’s Resolutions, I imagine 2020 would be that year. Certainly my plan of eating more seasonally did not survive the first bout of panic buying in March, although switching some of my dairy consumption to oat milk has been a boon for limiting additional trips to the shops, so it’s swings and roundabouts.

cans on back of bike

Something that wasn’t a resolution as such, but a project I started at the beginning of the year is going strong though – my one-woman bike-mounted carbon offset programme in the form of rescuing and recycling the aluminium cans I find on the road during my travels. Initially I confined myself to two cans per trip but after a hiatus during lockdown when I was barely going out on the bike I upped my ‘quota’ to four and since lockdown ended this has become more like a minimum – depending on where I’m going and how many litterbugs have preceded me on my regular routes, I often come back with half a dozen or more. I haven’t actually been counting, but since lockdown eased enough in June that I could start my regular rides for the paper again I calculate that I’ve picked up at least 500 cans, the total I was aiming for for the whole year, which means about 60kg of CO2 emissions avoided. And this at the cost of little more a minute or so per day, and the sense that I’ve added yet further weight to my local reputation for eccentricity (I’m not sure which is worse: being known as ‘the woman who picks up rubbish’ or ‘the woman who drinks Monster Punch’, or Dragon Soup or whatever other disgusting concoction of tinned beverages may end up adorning my back rack – although if I come across a Tennants can, I discreetly squash it so it’s hidden in the pocket of my bag; there are limits).

I suppose I should feel some sense of satisfaction about this but in truth I feel a bit eyeorish about it all. I’m quite enjoying the hunt aspect of it, especially now that most of the historic cans have been gathered in – but it’s quite depressing to realise that on any given day I can quite easily find two or three freshly littered cans on a road that I picked clean the day before. The numbers might have gone down a bit since it got cold enough that opening a window to chuck out your rubbish is less comfortable, but I have no doubt they will pick up again in Spring. And if I don’t ride for the paper for a couple of days – or even better, head somewhere new – I can easily pick up 8 or 10 before I run out of room in the outer pocket of my bike bag or the top rack. It’s also a little worrying as a ‘vulnerable road user’ to see how many alcohol cans are scattered along roads far enough away from most habitations that they’ve almost certainly been thrown from cars.

Bike with side basket

I’m also feeling increasingly guilty about all the non-can rubbish I’m leaving behind, even though it’s not as if I threw it there myself. Most of the regular litter picks in the area stopped when the pandemic started and have only partially resumed so once litter is thrown it tends to stick around and because I’m on the hunt for roadside cans I notice it and can see it mounting up. On that front, however, I’ve got a plan. I’ve got a fancy new basket for the back of my bike and today I took it out with a litter picking bag in it and cleaned up a couple of the worst spots (while also fulfilling my can quota, of course). This cheered me up a little until I passed a brand new load of fly-tipped rubbish right by the river. That’s now the third lot I have to pass on my way into town…

I suppose I’ll continue with both the can collecting (I’m not sure I’ll be able to stop now) and the occasional litter picks into 2021. But I might need a more cheerful hobby if any love for my fellow humans is to survive. What quixotic and possibly doomed to failure project are you planning for 2021?

Bin Day Come Early

December 16, 2020

I’ve been known to joke on Twitter that bin day is the highlight of our week, but to be honest, it’s one of those jokes that conceal a half truth

Our rubbish goes out to our road end, which meant that during the first lockdown – when we were initially restricted to one state-sanctioned hour of exercise per day – Bin Day gave us the exciting prospect of an extra walk in the morning to drop off the rubbish (with the exciting prospect of a second walk at lunchtime to see if the bin men had been). It also means that we have colour-coded official council bags; they change the colour every year, for reasons which aren’t entirely clear but possibly to prevent a black market in surplus bin bags from developing. One of our neighbours excitingly got the colour wrong in deep lockdown and had to endure the sight of their bags of shame sitting at the road end uncollected for a week until they had a bright idea of adding a rainbow and ‘thank you keyworkers’ message on the bags which seemed to do the trick (it turned out they’d not been bothering to put their rubbish out up to now, just taken it down to the dump when they were going, so had fallen behind with complexities of the system).

Since then, we’re allowed out a little more but our daily state-sanctioned walk remains, and so does the slight frisson of Bin Day at a time when the days have a way of otherwise merging into one. So we were extra discombobulated last week when the other half reported that he’d gone down to drop the bags off and the bags that had been there earlier were already gone. Now it was our turn to endure the Bags of Shame (typically, it was a week when we had a few, having finally got rid of the Manky Pink Carpet). Clearly Bin Day – or rather, Bin Moment – had shifted a few hours earlier and we had been caught on the hop (the council do say you have to have the rubbish out by 7am but the binmen have never come before 10 before so we’ve tackled this task at our leisure).

This week, unwilling to be caught out again, we celebrated Bin Day Eve by strolling down to add our new bag to the Bags of Shame and then headed up at our normal time (what can I say, habits die hard) to see if the bin men had come early again, but they hadn’t. So now we’re thrown into uncertainty – do we put the bags out the night before, in the dark? Revert to our morning stroll and hope? Get up and get the rubbish out for 7am? Even if the bin men never come early again, we’re left with the lingering doubt that this week is the week that they might.

It is I suppose typical of 2020 that nothing, not even Bin Day can be counted on…

However, in exciting news, next year the Coonsil, after a gap of ten years, will finally join the rest of the country and resume doorstep recycling (or, in our case, road end recycling) which means a whole new system of coloured bags. I bet you can hardly wait. I know I can’t.

Fleeting Meetings

October 17, 2020

Me: Only being able to meet up outside is fine! We’ll go for a walk! We’ll sit outside under blankets! The Danes do it all the time! There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing!

Weather Gods: Yeah, about that …

We’ve been trying to work out how we can meet up with my parents under the new regime without breaking any rules or exposing them to their death of cold and/or coronavirus. The Woodside Garden Centre near Jedburgh seemed like our best bet (thanks to Twitter for the tip) – a sheltered walled garden, a walk in the woods near by, somewhere between our two households.

And in the end, despite it being a four-hour round trip for a 30 minute walk and lunch and the dreich weather threatening for the whole way there and back, it absolutely was fine. The walk was perfect with all the autumn leaves beginning to turn, the rain decided to stay off at least while we were out, and the cafe was set up very nicely with gazebos for shelter and plenty of well-spaced picnic benches.

walking in the woods

Of course it was mainly about being able to catch up and see each other while we still can – I know many of my friends have not seen their parents since this crisis started, while others have suddenly found themselves on the wrong side of a health board boundary that they probably didn’t know existed until this cursed year. It was never about the walk, the weather, or the quality of the lunch…

… Although, that said, I can report that the cake portions at the cafe were pretty epic (this photo is misleading because that was not a small cup) and highly recommended especially to any passing cyclists in need of fuel.