Wednesday, 28 April 2010


The day started well, with a leisurely read in bed in the sunshine, and the smell of breakfast wafting up the stairs. Chocolate and peanut scones - which I will most definitely be having again, very frequently. Mmmm.

Then downstairs for some presents.

Would you like to see?

A red stripey pure wool poncho, for snuggling up under the stars on summer camping trips, a bright red enamel jug, just begging to have tulips planted in it, a gorgeously green planter with a sunflower on, an enormous old visicard book for storing postcards and birthday cards and photos and cheery things, and look at the pattern on the stockings packaging! They'll be going on the wall, by the way, I don't think my thighs are that *ample*... :)

And if you can just indulge me for a second - look at those scales! Just look! Sunshiney, daffodil yellow, proper scales. How utterly fabulous :)

And even more fabulous - they came without weights, so Peter made some. He made weights. From nuts and bolts and cast off bits of metal, sawing and sticking and weighing. So not only are my scales extremely cheery, I think I'll probably be one a very select group of people weighing cake ingredients with scrap metal :)

Yes, if you hadn't guessed by now, yesterday was my thirtieth birthday. I'm pretty excitable about birthdays in general, but this year I was almost overwhelmingly giddy. I've never felt so strongly a feeling of actually moving from one decade to another (and I know, it's only another day...). I think it's because I'm changing jobs, finishing PhD, and lots of other things are moving on, life seems full of possibilities at the minute.

I thought long and hard about how I wanted to spend this most excellent of birthdays, and decided I wanted a tea party. An all-afternoon tea party, on a Tuesday, with plenty of fairy cakes, and lots of tea. So that's exactly what I did. My birthday cake was decorated in an extremely haphazard manner, amidst lots of laughing, and I think you'll agree it's enthusiastically decorated if nothing else :)

All afternoon people drifted in and out, many of them bringing more fairy cakes, and quite a lot leaving with more cake than they arrived with. People chatted who hadn't met before, some people just popped in for an hour, others for several, and the whole day was relaxed and gorgeous.

I was utterly impressed by the variety of cheery small food items that arrived, and by the enthusiasm of all of my guests for a Nice Cup of Tea. All in all, I had the most excellent start to the next decade.

I'm still parcelling up fairy cakes, and there's a few lingering in the freezer for moments in the coming weeks when a fairy cake is the only thing that will do. The last of the birthday cake will be eaten this week (well, probably today in reality!). I'm so glad I went with what I wanted to do, despite the lingering doubts of 'maybe I should have gone out for tea...', 'maybe nobody will come since it's on a Tuesday...'. Sometimes you just have to follow your nose, and sometimes, just sometimes, it works out perfectly.

Sunday, 25 April 2010


Ooh, it's the weekend again, and what a lovely one it's been! Lazing on the sofa in the sunshine under a stripey crocheted blanket, home made bread, tea and cake and a small treat at a local market, a visit from a school friend and her fella (hello Heather!), a good long natter and some scones, and a wedding!

There's also been a bit of finishing off of some bits of work, starting of others, and the start of some preparations for Tuesday's Birthday Tea Party! I'm very excited :) Just need to convince myself that spending the whole of your 30th birthday making and eating cakes is a worthwhile use of time... I'm pretty much convinced!

It's been a weekend of turning things on and off here too. I've acquired an energy owl from our local library, and have started to monitor our electricity use. Turns out we use less than average, but still more than I'd like! I'll be posting more about this soon when we've made some changes.

And there's also been a fair bit of plotting and scheming - with only three days (!) left at my current job (spread over the next three weeks), there's plans to be made for s-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g money over to the end of June when I'll first be paid for my new job. And I'm also trying to squeeze in a small trip to the Lake District to visit some friends. Doable, but requires a fair amount of thrifty ingenuity, which fortunately I'm getting rather good at.

Right, must get out and enjoy the last hour or two of sunshine. Hope you're doing something similar :)

Thursday, 22 April 2010

planting peas

This is a little corner of our front garden, just to the right as you look out of the living room window. The road goes uphill, so the neighbour's garden is a few feet higher than ours - this wall is the retaining wall of their garden. It's one of the sunniest spots in the garden, and I wanted to make sure I grew something here this year.

This evening I planted out some peas. They've been growing nicely on the windowsill, with a good view of their eventual home :) I'm told peas like 'twiggy sticks', with a preference for hazel (the twiggiest of all sticks, apparently), but these ones are going to have to put up with freshly cut unidentifiable bush from the back garden.

I'm expecting good things from these peas. Last year I planted them in the shade, and they all died. This year they're in the sun, they're stronger, and my fingers are all crossed. I even picked lots of stones out of the soil and everything. And I shan't be very impressed if I open the curtains tomorrow and find our slithery friends have been having a midnight feast...

Anyway, other garden news. The rhubarb is looking fabulous! I'm very much looking forward to jam and crumble in a few months time.

And the strawberries are doing well too - I'm considering putting straw round them this year, that seems to be the thing to do, and last year I had hardly any strawberries. Will straw help stop the slugs?? Worth an investigation I think. They've spread over quite a lot of the front garden anyway, so I'm expecting good things.
The fennel is nicely filling out in its little corner, next to the peas. We had the first cuttings in our stir fry tonight, and very tasty it was too. I want to experiment with fennel tea this year too.

All in all, the garden's looking pretty good at the minute (when you look at the individual elements, rather than the whole thing, that is!). Things are growing, I'm keeping track much better than I did last year, and so far (fingers crossed!) nothing has been eaten, except by us :) Let's hope I can keep on top of it!

Saturday, 17 April 2010

lazy saturday

Ooh, yet another gorgeously sunny Saturday - I could get used to these! Home made lemon cordial and lemon sponge at the Women's Institute, and much chatting about knitting and aprons and holidays and cakes. A charity shop potter, and a look round the library.

Boiled egg and soldiers in the garden for lunch, and an afternoon of lazing around reading, thinking about gardening, and making a start on a new exciting project (that resulted in the garden being coated in a thin layer of wool offcuts. Hmm). Oh, and a Most Enjoyable (and rather more strenuous than usual!) run round the fields. Plan Sparkle is working!

All in all, a beautifully busy, lazy, pottering day. Fingers crossed for another one tomorrow...

liquid soap

Yesterday I made some liquid soap. It's not something I've done before, and I wasn't really planning on doing it either, but, well, sometimes we're taken off in directions we hadn't imagined before...

It all started when I made my last batch of soap, broke the thermometer so had to guess temperatures, then got all overenthusiastic adding oatmeal to it. Er, it didn't set. I dutifully reheated it, and it set, but was a bit too crumbly to use as soap. So it's sat on the windowsill for a few months because I couldn't bear to throw it away.

The other day I was idly reading through the archives of Rhonda Jean's blog, and came across a post where she'd made some liquid soap. I know she's made some more recently, from scratch, but this way of doing it appealed because it seemed basically to involve dissolving hard soap in hot water and letting it cool. Aha, I thought, I can use up the crumbly bits of soap I have left!

So, this is what I started with...

Those big pieces don't look too bad, so I removed them, emptied out the small crumbled bits, and then grated some of the smaller big bits, and landed up with this...

Which I put in a pan of water on the stove. Rhonda recommended one bar of soap to two litres of water, but since my soap wasn't really in bars, I just used some. Once it was all dissolved, which took about half an hour just heating slowly, I left it to cool. And this morning, I filled old washing up liquid bottles and a small fancy glass bottle that used to hold sloe gin.

I've got a bottle in the kitchen to use as washing up liquid and general purpose cleaner, a bottle in the bathroom that I've added a few drops of tea tree oil to, and I'm also going to experiment with using it as shampoo. I've been trying to replace cheap and chemically shampoo for a while now, but I can't justify spending £5 a bottle on lovely organic stuff.

I did try using bicarbonate of soda and vinegar, but found that the first wash was fine, after the second and third, my hair was looking greasier and greasier. Hmm. My hair's quite long these days, so maybe that was the problem.

Anyway, this soap is just soap, just plain olive and coconut oil soap (with oatmeal in, but I tried to sieve most of that out!), so I'll experiment and let you know how it goes...

Thursday, 15 April 2010

saving up

This is a picture of a large glass vase we acquired this week, and decided to use as a change jar to use for holiday spending money. We were very excited, put all the change from around the house in it (including a change jar with no purpose that has been full for ages), and it was filled to the brim. So of course we had to empty it out and count it - £24.70!

The vase is now empty again, and the money in the bank waiting for summer days and ice creams, but I wanted to write a bit about how I'm dealing with money at the minute, since it's rather different to how I used to deal with it in the past. In the past I've had more of an income than I have now (pretty much twice at one point!), and I also had a credit card and an overdraft, which I often went over the limit of, leading to bank charges and grumpy letters. I should make it clear, I've never been a big spender type, I've never seen 'shopping' as a leisure activity, I don't have fancy shoes and clothes, or buy food from Waitrose. I spent money without thinking on tea and cake, taxis from the train station, takeaways, clothes from the charity shop...

A few months before my PhD money was due to end, I realised I'd need to get a grip. I'd need to work, but still leave time for studying, which meant a fair drop in income. I didn't want to also be saddled with spiraling debts. I made a budget, and started a spending diary in a little cash book that I took everywhere with me. I sometimes look back on those cash books and cringe. My 'entertainment' budget for the month was £80, and I'd regularly spend over £200!

I got rid of that debt, and lived just about within my means ever since, although if I ever did any extra work, the money was just frittered away on nothing in particular.

I can't really remember when I changed. I think it was a gradual thing. I've written about budgeting before, but never in enough detail to track my own thought processes. One of the keys I think was these little cheery bags I made back in August. I've stuck entirely to my budget since I've been using those. Here's how it works out (bear with me, this is waffly, but I hope it makes sense!)...

I get paid fortnightly, and I usually get around £300 a fortnight after tax, although this is sometimes a bit less. I work on a monthly budget, but base it on having two pay days each month, so occasionally I get a spare one :) Normally though, each fortnight when I'm paid, I transfer £165 to my bills account. Over the month, this makes up:

£265 contribution to household
£40 van
£25 phone bill

Each week I draw out £50 in cash, and distribute between my little bags:

£20 food
£10 unnecessary spends
£5 emergency
£5 slimming world

The extra £10 is pilfered (£5 from the food budget, £5 from the unnecessary spends) as I'm trying to wean myself onto a little less. This £10 is kept separately, and if it doesn't get spent (which it usually doesn't at the minute), it carries over, and the next week I'll only get £40 out of the bank. It works well.

Contribution to household
I should probably explain a couple of things. £265 is what I paid as rent when I lived in a shared house, including all bills except the phone. When I moved into Peter's house, we decided for the time being I'd just pay the same. Now I have a new job, this will probably change - we'll sit down and review all the household bills this month and see what we can reduce.

The van money I used to spend all on diesel, zipping about for days out all over the place, and then there'd be a panic when it came to insurance and road tax time. Now I put £10 diesel in a month (Peter uses more for musical activities, but tops this up himself), and limit how much I drive. Much better, and the extra £30 goes into the savings account to save for the insurance, road tax etc. I've nearly got enough to cover all that for this year.

Phone bill
My mobile phone contract is for £20 a month - I use it a lot, but I don't get a free phone each year. I'm fine with that. I still can't believe I used to think it was necessary to have a £70 a month contract! The extra £5 is in case I go over, if not, that goes into the van fund too.

According to my little spending diary, I used to spend anything up to £250 a month on food, and that was only half of what we ate! And that wasn't extravagant food - more unplanned shopping, popping to the shops for milk every day, buying something for that night's tea, and maybe a few extras... Now we're down to around £40 a week. That's been a slow and gradual change - I spent about 3 months last summer listing everything we bought (and being shocked - 17 pints of milk in a week between two of us??). We changed our habits slowly. We now make all our own bread - we eat a lot of bread so this is a considerable saving. We cook from scratch. I've grown some things in the garden. But I think the biggest change has been that if something, say cheese, or eggs, runs out, we don't rush out to replace it, we make do and have something else. We don't have a big stockpile, but we've always got things like lentils, rice, onions etc, and are both adept at knocking up a quick soup from seemingly unpromising ingredients.

Unnecessary spends
The unnecessary spends budget came from an idea from someone on the moneysavingexpert forum. My mindset changed when I stopped thinking of it as an 'entertainment' budget, and started thinking of it as a fund for unnecessary things. It usually gets spent - this is what pays for tea and cakes at the Women's Institute each week, if I spot something in a charity shop, if I want potting compost for the garden, or fabric for sewing or something. But only having this small amount makes me much more careful about what I spend it on. I think before I spend it, and often go home to think about it first.

Emergency fund
The emergency fund, ahh... I've never really had one of these before, and it's very exciting! I've only been doing this properly this year, and at the minute it's got £55 in it. I had to dip into it when my phone bill was more than I expected due to too much excitable chatting about my new job... Not really an emergency you might say? But it was an unexpected expense that would otherwise have knocked out my budget, and I was pleased that I had the money there to use.

Slimming World
And now we come to the really unnecessary bit - Slimming World. Hmm. Now, I'm not hugely overweight, but I'd rather be a bit less, and more importantly, I've learned over the years that right now, without a bit of moral support, I can easily fall into unhealthy, and expensive, eating habits. Having this £5 a week spent on this saves a considerable amount more that used to be spent on cake. It's not quite £5 a week, so there's a small excess building up in there. I struggle to justify this to myself, but for the time being it works, so it's staying.

There'll be some changes soon. My new job starts in 6 weeks, and is paid monthly. It also pays more, so we'll be having a review of household bills, seeing what we can reduce, and maybe changing my contribution. Soon I'll have saved enough for this year's van expenses and I'll be able to spread out the savings over the coming year.

Overall though, I'm pleased with how it's working out. It's empowering to save up for something. It's empowering to be able to decide to work part time, and it's also empowering (although sometimes difficult) to make sacrifices to do it. I've learned how to make all sorts of things myself that I used to buy - yogurt, soap, washing powder, shampoo, face scrub, clothes, jam, bread, presents, dish cloths... I like the challenge, the activity, the feeling of self reliance and resilience it gives me. There's lots more I could say about it, and about the decisions I've made around it all. I'll be writing about this again I think...

Sunday, 11 April 2010


I've noticed recently that my weekend posts are starting to fall into a bit of a familiar pattern. Look, there's the new bunch of (reduced) flowers in the kitchen, the baked goodies (a very nice lemon sponge in this case), a view from out and about (some 'meringue shapes' from the window of the bakery - meringue snowmen at Christmas that have beaks added for easter, and icing sheets draped over to become ghosts at Halloween), some sewing (looking remarkably pink and flowery, don't know what came over me, in my defence it's made from two 50p cotton pillow cases, and there's plenty left over - not much of a defence I know), and a nice bit of sitting and reading - in the garden for the first time this year!

There's also been some mending (of the hoover in this case), some cleaning (er, hoovering), some sorting (of the drawer full of essential oils - or rather empty bottles), some socialising (at the Women's Institute, of course, and in the pub), and a fair bit of loafing around. I'm really rather coming to enjoy weekends like these, especially when the weeks in between are so busy.

Friday, 9 April 2010

a nice cup of tea cheers you up

Not that I need much cheering up right now, mind you, but this has been a rather tea-related week. I finished the stripey knitted tea cosy I'd been making for a friend, and I have to say it really is quite adorable, I almost couldn't give it away. Another one needed soon I think, I enjoyed making it, it was easy, fun, simple to do in front of a film, stripey, squishy, and the end product is fun and cheery - all good ingredients for a knitting project in my book! The pattern was a really simple old pattern for 'Three Tea Cosies made from Copley's "Speedinit" Wool' (price 2d if that gives you a clue to how old it is!), and the pom pom? Well, that page of the pattern had fallen off, so we had to do some good, old fashioned googling to figure out the finer details. All good stuff.

Anyway, all the thinking about tea, and the fact that I didn't get round to making hot cross buns, inspired a kind of spicy-cinnamony-bread-roll thing last Monday, and very nice it was too. Just a plain white bread recipe which I've been making a lot of lately, then I heated a bit of water, sugar and spices in a pan, rolled out the dough, spread over the mixture and a handful of sultanas, rolled up, and spread the rest of the mix on the top. Wasn't too sweet, and went very nicely indeed with a cuppa.

That last picture has nothing to do with anything really, it just was a Very Nice Cup of Tea in a cafe in Hebden Bridge last weekend. The kind of cafe where all the mugs are different, tea is 70p, no fancy pastries or tablecloths. Perfect.

I'm looking forward to an extremely leisurely, pottering couple of days this weekend, this week I seem to have been jumping from one thing to another, so I'm planning on a bit of gardening, sewing, finishing off work on my voluntary project, catching up on emails, a bit of cleaning and tidying (but not much), and a fair bit of general loafing around. I might even get chance to do a bit of a gardening update too.

Thursday, 8 April 2010


I took these pictures a week or two ago, so things are even further along now than they were then. I remember thinking last year I had to get as many things in as possible, I wanted everything to be growing now, I didn't want to plant for the next year... But now things are just appearing all by themselves without me having to do anything at all, I'm kind of liking the idea of planting for the year ahead.

So from the top we have bell peppers, then peas, then rhubarb. The pepper plant I bought from the Women's Institute country market last year for 50p. It lives on the living room windowsill, as it's really not warm enough outside here and I don't have a greenhouse. Last year we had one pepper from it. This year, I've counted about 20 flowers, and two are already growing into peppers. I'm thinking I might need to repot it soon into a bigger pot, but I have no idea whether this will kill it or not. Maybe I'll just tie it to a stake this year, and repot when it's finished growing. Any clues?

I don't think I planted peas last year - I planted broad beans but I don't think think they got enough sun, and I only got a few small pods. I also planted sweet peas, which I love, and which all died. So this year we're trying peas, and so far they're doing well - although they're still on the living room windowsill too. I'm still trying to decide where to put them - the otherwise ideal place only gets early morning sun, so they might need to go out in the front garden, which will mean they'll need canes, or stakes, or twigs or something. Hmm.

The rhubarb was donated by a friend from a huge clump on his allotment. It was one leaf and some roots stuck in a bucket of water - I cut the stem, put it with some other rhubarb we'd been given, and made some jam, which was extremely nice. The roots I shoved in the ground, and hoped for the best. And here they are, growing, all by themselves! Magic.

I'm feeling a little behind with the garden this year, looking back at old blog posts from this time last year we were already eating spinach and chard - I've got neither even in the ground yet this year, and it might already be too late. I think all that snow put me off a bit! But I had a bit of seed planting session last weekend, and we're now eagerly awaiting the first shoots of lettuce, rocket, pumpkins, cabbage, green courgettes, yellow knobbly courgettes, walking stick kale, spinach, rainbow chard, lavender, sweet peas and poppies. Can't wait!

Sunday, 4 April 2010

sparkling in april

I don't know whether I've shared here recently that I've been feeling a little grumpy and stuck lately. I'm long past fed up that I'm still living in phd-land, and I was starting to feel stuck and worn down by my job. Now I've got a new job to look forward to (only 8 days of work left in the old one!), and hopefully only about 3 months left on the phd, so things really are moving forwards.

But it's not all been about work. I posted earlier this week about my goals, and how I've been doing, and I think having a good think about what I want to do over the next few months really works for me as a motivator to get things done. With that in mind, and with full knowledge that I'm just adding to my list of things to do, I'm going to be joining in with plan sparkle because, well, sparkling is fun, and sometimes it's easy to forget to do small cheery things for yourself when you're busy fretting about finances and gardening (even though those things are for myself to). I think I just confused myself there...

Anyway, sparkling is good, and April is a good month for sparkling, particularly this April, since I'm going to be 30 at the end of it! So to make sure I'm fully sparkling when I get there, I'll be...

* running 3 times a week, even if it is only for 20 minutes, I feel so much better when I do this!
* walking outside for 45 minutes every day (I actually do this most days anyway, just for journeys)
* drinking less tea
* cooking food at least five nights a week (hmm, slipped back into the bread-and-jam-for-tea habit again lately...)

So there we are, nothing dramatic at all, just a few small cheery things that will make me feel better and sparkle a little bit more! I'll keep updating on progress, and if you want to join in, pop over to Frugal Trenches and let her know!

Friday, 2 April 2010


OK, so this is a little late, but I've just about got it in before this weekend...

Last weekend I went on a little train journey to my sister's house, for my eldest nephew's fourth birthday. Four! Goodness me. I haven't travelled by train much in the last couple of years, and if I'm not in a rush, it really does feel like a treat. My train was actually cancelled, but I had my knitting, and my notebook, and spent a quiet hour bundled up in the sunshine, watching the trains and the people coming and going, and doing a little bit of plotting and planning. And isn't knitting on the train just the most marvellous thing? Ooh, I do enjoy it.

We had ever such a lovely messy time running about in the garden, eating, making a chocolate easter egg (more chocolate than you'd imagine goes into those things!), and generally hanging around. And can you see in that last picture? That's the latest one of my hand made creations - a magnetic fishing game, not at all sophisticated, and definitely more 'home made' than 'hand made', but still jolly good fun. Although I can't help thinking it would have benefited from an octopus or two...