In order to do something different each week of the year, I have a list of challenges to undertake...

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Week 52 - Write a Poem

Now this year is nearly done
Let me tell you of my fun
A challenge for each week was set
Now have I won my weekly bet?

The New Year brought things to clean -
That's when I was really keen!
Windows, garage, oven, car 
My cleaning powers are above par!

Fun things also I undertook
Here's the list, just take a look:
Sea swimming, nail painting, drawing too
Making sweets - all nice things to do.

I took my challenges to the plot
My paths a dressing of woodchippings got
A scarecrow made to protect my crops
The annual show - it was top of the pops!

A falling leaf is hard to catch
I thought that here I'd met my match.
Despite the cold and wind and rain
New running goals I did attain

Domestic skills I have acquired
By many things I was inspired
Knitting, quilting, making bread
I can't let this go to my head!

As the year draws to a close
My final task is this piece of prose
And with a glass of home made cheer
I wish you all a Happy New Year!

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Week 51 - Attend a Church Service

Church attendance for me comes under a banner marked 'must-do' for various occasions in life, with attendance at least one service per year is something of a three line whip. It is imposed to all direct descendants by my mother, and the lovely Festival of Nine Lesson and Carols attended these days by me and my brother. My sister is exempt on distance grounds, and the grandchildren are not in the county until rather later in the festivities.

This service does rather take one from the shopping bonanza that Christmas has become, to the spiritual, via comfortable family values - Queen's speech, Roses chocs, board games (or is that just us?).

So my thoughts whilst 'second chorister' is at the lectern reading 'The people that have walked in darkness have seen a great light' from Isaiah chap 9, is of childhood Christmases. An eccentric elderly great aunt staying meaning sharing a bedroom with a campbed and a sibling, Pomagne as the great treat; a buffet in the rarely-used front room with celery sticks in a mug, dipped in salt. A box of Rover's assorted biscuits; Lonnie Donegan on the gramophone.

And tonight in church, my thoughts ran to 'what Christmas means to me now'. The answer to which - and I'm not proud to admit this - is at least in part 'to be able to muck about doing 'stuff' in the day without feeling guilty about not being at the desk working'.

Not very holy, is it? *sigh.

But I have completed my week 51 challenge.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Week 50 - Clear out the Garage

I wonder if we all have an area that we use as a sort of holding bay where we put stuff until such time as we can think what to do with it?

For me, on a small scale, it's the kitchen windowsill by the back door which ends up as a dumping ground - at the mo it includes a couple of odd hooks left over from some DIY, pair of pliers (ditto), wire ties and a few plant labels from the allotment, the gate remote, and a nice stone I picked up when I was in the park the other day.

On a larger scale, it's the little attic room which collects 'stuff' - boxes from things I've bought, miscellaneous computer equipment which doesn't appear to be vital to the running of the home office, but I don't like to throw away, company archives from the year dot.

And on a larger scale again, it's the garage.

I'm hoping to get a chest freezer in the new year, and that will involve a re-shuffle in the garage if I'm not going to back into it every time I put the car away, and so I spent a happy couple of hours getting everything out and reacquainting myself with the contents of the various boxes on the shelving.


I ended up with 4 black bags of rubbish, all the canes and wood stacked/stored correctly, a pile of roottrainers (I don't get on with them!) and pricking out trays which I'll donate to the allotments, and a miscellaneous heap for the charity shop. I swept the garage out (had a fight with the biggest spider in the world who had hold of the other end of the broom), and neatly put all the 'keeps' back on the shelves. 


I have a tidy garage, and space for a new freezer - so that's my week 50 Challenge done!

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Week 49 - Make a Christmas Wreath

I've never been one for flower arranging and the like. The issue here being that I really can't tell much of a difference in the end result of someone spending hours putting flowers into a vase, and someone taking a bunch of flowers, and putting it into a vase - if you see what I mean.

Also, although I love have flowers in the house, I don't grow them particularly at the allotment, and resent spending the money. And I don't feel good about the carbon footprint either.

But the artificial wreath that I hang on the front door year in, year does look a bit boring, and so this year - with a hedge of conifers at my disposal - I've tried to come up with something with a bit of a personal touch. 

I took some cuttings...

... looked in the decorations trunk...

... and came up with a spray of green with red ribbon and mini-baubles.

The shape looks rather like a Christmas tree, and I am undecided whether to give it a trim to make it more rounded in shape.

So apart from a bit of minor tinkering, that's my week 49 Challenge done!

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Week 48 - Make Sourdough Bread

I love bread, I really do - but what I do NOT love is the pappy cotton wool bread that you get by and large in the shops.

The alternative to spending an outrageous sum for a 'proper' loaf of bread is, of course, to make your own. Having had a bash on a couple of occasions in the past, though, any bread I have made has been pretty brick-like - I suspect I haven't got the knack of kneading.

So I have a bread maker. This is a pretty good move, as you can chuck into the pan any permutation of bread flour, honey, malt, oil, butter, salt, seeds, bran etc etc and get a pretty respectable loaf.

But earlier this year, my godmother sent me some instructions on getting a sourdough starter going, and to make bread from it pretty much in perpetuity, all without commercial yeast. Intriguing!

I gave it a whirl last week, and spent a week with a jar full of flour and water paste which despite my skepticism, eventually when frothy and I had my starter ready to make bread.

Well, not quite - the starter has to be primed with more flour and water, and left for another 24 hours. And then you can make your bread. Brilliant!

My first go was categorically not a success. I used rye flour, which - if you think of how solid rye bread is - was always likely to be heavy going. A total failure, this went in the bin before it was even dough. My second go was more like it - I did half quantities and ended up with a perfectly edible loaf. Ha!

And this weekend, I've gone for the full thing. The starter was taken out of the fridge, part measured out and primed for 24 hours. Today I added flour and salt, kneaded the dough, let it rise (hours more), and tonight I have knocked the dough into shape and left it to rise AGAIN, and then into the oven.

I must say that it is utterly gorgeous, and I can see that the initial faff factor will soon become routine. But you do have to think ahead!

A success - eventually - and my week 48 Challenge is completed!

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Week 47 - Grow a New Vegetable

Having had a half plot at the Hill for 7 years, I try to grow all sort of tasty fruit and veg. I do tend to grow pretty much that same thing year after year, though - partly as I know what I like, partly as I know what I can grow well.

But precisely because I have settled into growing mostly the same things year on year, it is a good challenge for me to have a go at something a bit different.

Following a discussion on the Grapevine at the beginning of the year, I decided to have a go at celeriac - I don't think I've eaten in more than a couple of times - but enjoyed it - and I certainly haven't grown it before.

The seeds are like dust, but they came up in their little pot.

I pricked the seedlings out into modules, then planted out in June.

They did well, as I kept them well watered, and kept the weeds down, and stripped a few leaves off the top of the growing bulbs each week or so over the summer.

And today, I dug my first one up. It might look like an ood, but peeled, boiled and mashed with potato and butter for tea tonight, it was delicious!
It might be the first time I have grown celeriac, but it will not be the last - and that's my week 47 Challenge completed!

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Week 46 - Visit a New Town

The annual Christmas shopping trip with Mum tends to be a tootle over to Solihull - it's about the right size, with enough shops that we don't have locally, and the right distance away.

We've experimented with other towns over the years - Sheffield Meadowhall (too far away), Worcester (too open air in the cold weather), Telford (too soulless), Merryhill (surprisingly difficult to get to, given the proximity to home), and tend to gravitate back to Solihull.

But this year, we went to Derby. I've not been there before, although it used to be a popular trip out for Mum and Dad, and Mum was keen to go back and have a look round.

It's just a straightforward 45 minutes from home, and having a look online beforehand would appear to consist of a new shopping centre (Westfield), an enormous indoor market and an old shopping quarter by the Cathedral.

We parked at the shopping centre, wandered round the market, then had coffee, looked at the chain stores (most much larger than their counterparts in our town), and found an independent kitchen shop.

Then to the Cathedral, which we had a look round before going to the shop for Christmas cards, and having a look round the independent shops there - the prize being the wonderful Bennetts department store.

We were out of time - we should not have lingered in the shopping centre at the expense of the independent shops. Derby is certainly worth a return visit.

The camera conked out, so the only pic I have is of the Cathedral, but that is my week 46 Challenge completed!

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Week 45 - Do Some Knitting

The execution of this Challenge is - I confess - a slight cop out. The original Challenge read 'Finish knitting that beautiful sage green cable jumper that you've had hanging round for years and stopped just because you've got to the tricky armhole bit, you lazy mare'.

But obviously, that was far too much of a mouthful, and so I went for knitting a little scarf instead.

I recently bought a lovely new (to me), green corduroy coat, and it really needs a matching scarf.

So a couple of ounces of wool later, and here's the result.

So that's my (modified) wk 45 Challenge done!

Monday, 4 November 2013

Week 44 - Make Sweets

I don't think that I've ever made sweets before (except some rich chocolate truffle/fudge thingies as part of my International Cookery course, which turned out just a bit solid, and just a bit big - a whole one made you feel sick), but with the festive season (almost) upon us, I thought I'd better have a go to see if they will make good presents.

You can't have an easier recipe than peppermint creams, so I gave them a go.

Whisked egg white and icing sugar went in the bowl and was kneaded to the consistency of plasticine, then I split it and added green colouring and peppermint to half the mix;and red and yellow food colouring and orange essence to the other.

I punched out tiny rounds with a cutter, chilled them then melted chocolate to brush on top.

Verdict - peppermint, excellent if a bit overly green; orange, bit of a funny taste but ok.

Overall - yep, as 'homemades' go, these are better than the bath bombs (wk9), and on a par with the tree decorations (wk43). My week44 Challenge is done.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Week 43 - Make Christmas Decorations

There's a Christmas Fair at mum's church at the end of November each year, and they are always looking for donations for the various stalls (books, china, cakes etc), and as ever, she asked if I had anything that might fit the bill that I could contribute.

Well, I'd recently chatted with my colleague about Christmas crafts, and we'd been thinking about making Christmas decorations - I am a member of a monthly on-line sewing circle - and we're looking at all sorts of Christmas projects at the mo.

I figured that if I could donate some hand-made Christmas decorations from a design that we thought up between us for the sew-in; then they could be sold on the 'handicrafts' stall.

So this weekend I have been gathering fabric, ribbon, beads and bells; and cutting, sewing and embellishing.

This is what the finished tree decorations look like hanging from a makeshift tree - a couple of dozen more to finish, but in essence, that's my week 43 Challenge done!

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Week 42 - Catch a Falling Leaf

Back from holiday, and all of a sudden, it's Autumn! Although I love the crisp mornings, the sunshine, the beautiful colours of the trees, what I DO NOT love is the nights drawing in the cold, and the rain. Pah!

Let's focus on the positives, though - I'm really fortunate to live a five minute jog away from Sutton Park, and it is very beautiful at this time of year, with its ancient woodlands, heaths and lakes. Well, it's lovely at any time of the year, but Autumn is particularly good. 

As I know from the forty odd Autumns that I have walked through the woodlands in the park, catching falling leaves is deceptively difficult - those lazy, drifting, golden flakes have a life of their own and skitter away from your outstretched hand and tumble to the floor leaving you snatching at thin air.

I was determined not to be beaten this year, though, and headed this morning in the glorious sunshine to one of my favourite woodlands.

Half an hour later, I moved to a less favourite, but more secluded woodland, as I was starting to look like the local loony and was getting some funny looks from the good folk of Sutton who were out in force enjoying the day.

My tenacity paid off - no action shot of me actually catching it, of course, as I had enough trouble with the damn leaf as it was, but here is the leaf, and it's tree. 

And my week 42 Challenge is done!

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Week 41 - Eat Something New

I like to think I have a cosmopolitan view of the world's foodstuffs, and have a varied diet, and am competent - if basic - cook. Having said that, I find that I do cook the same dozen or so meals (with some variations) pretty much all the time.

So one of the joys of being away is to eat things you aren't used to eating at home, and I'm back from my holidays with lots of inspiration of dishes which I would like to try.

But more than eating something cooked a bit differently, or with a different sauce, or accompaniment, being in that different environment also gives you the opportunity of eating something completely new.

I'm up for that - the worst that can happen is that you don't like it, and you might discover an absolute gem. So sitting under the olive tree one lunchtime at a restaurant overlooking the harbour at Los Abrigos, I spotted 'chopitos fritos' on the menu - lightly battered and fried baby squid.

Never had that before, but in for a penny and all that. And I'm so glad I went for it - they are delicious! Although the faint of heart might not want to look too closely at all those squiggly legs.

Yum, yum, yum - my week 41 Challenge, done!

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Week 40 - Go Rockpooling

When I was little, I was always puzzled after the summer holidays back at school when my friends would say what a great time they had on holiday; on the beach, in the sea, suncream, sandcastles, ice creams, the lot. 

Now we also had a great time on holiday, and went to the seaside, but our experiences in the north of Scotland on the Moray Firth were more in the way of stony beaches, cutting north wind, terrific waves from the angry stormy sea, and - of course - rockpools.

These days, I prefer my beaches sandy, and my seas warm, and if you can conjure up a palm tree or two, so much the better.

But I am still fascinated by rockpools - those micro worlds with their miniature creatures, and here on holiday, the the rocky headland by a favourite beach provided just the thing.

With the light reflecting in the water, it was nearly impossible to take photos of this rocky 6' by 4' world - there was a shoal of fish in the 2' depths, mini clams on the shallow slope, a sea slug which looked like a piece of seaweed marching along the sandy section, and a catfish keeping to the miniature vertical side, darting through the inch high sea grass waving in the ripples.

I was so preoccupied with this microcosm that I nearly missed this chap - 8" toe to toe, but fortunately for me, heading away to the waves.

I love it - my week 40 Challenge, done!

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Week 39 - Look out from a Vantage Point

I love being high up looking down on the landscape - like a king surveying his kingdom saying 'all this is mine!', and I'm still fascinated by Google Maps and it's bird's eye views.

There's nothing like the real thing, though, so whilst on holiday, I went to investigate a vantage point. Overlooking the town of San Juan, in the south west of Tenerife is a big hill with a sculpture on the top. I've often looked up at the sculpture and wondered what it was, and decided this time to get myself to the top of the hill and have a look.

After a strenuous climb, I reached the sculpture at the top of the hill. Disappointingly there was nothing to tell me what it is - it looks like a snake's head to me, but that does seem unlikely.

However the views back down to the harbour and beach were fabulous, and I spent ages with the binoculars seeing Sunday morning passing by below me. 

Excellent fun - and my week 38 Challenge completed!

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Week 38 - Clean the Oven

Here is a true Challenge - who can ever say that this is a job to be relished? Nope - didn't think so.

Funnily enough, I always thought that cleaning the oven came into the general category of 'unpleasant but infrequent household jobs about which you have to grit your teeth and get on with', but when I mentioned oven cleaning to various friends and relatives, I was astonished at how many get the OvenStar man in to do the job. 'It's £40 well spent,' they say, 'and they do SUCH a good job - better than you could do yourself!' 

Hmm. Well forty quid is forty quid, and provided that you haven't let your oven get to the health-hazard stage, this is something you don't have to get a chap in to do, and I would resent spending my hard-earned on. A much better plan is for me to clean the oven and spend forty quid on beer or something.

I'm starting from a good position here - I've banged on before about how in love I am with my delightful kitchen and range oven; it's all only a couple of years old, but it's been 12 months since the oven last had a good going over, I'm sure.

Brillo is your friend here, on the shelves and burners, and on stubborn burnt on bits on the windows and inner door/top/bottom - the enamel, chrome, glass top gets a good going over with flash and a cloth. And elbow grease.

I even changed the extractor filter, washed the cover and all the tiles at the back and units above. I got the steps out and cleaned all the (rather revolting) greasy sticky stuff off the top of the wall units, trim and extractor ducting.

And to surpass all expectations I took the grill off the front and got a cloth-on-a-stick to clean all the floor underneath. The only frustration is that I would have liked to pull the whole thing forward to clean the sides too, but if I had have done that then I would have been looking at 'week 39 - recover from hernia', so that's for another occasion when I've eaten 3 shredded wheat, or something.

And here's how it's turned out.

A very satisfying completion to my week 38 Challenge!

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Week 37 - Grow a Plant for Seed

Normally, when I grow beans and peas, I save a few pods for drying, and they can be used in stews over winter, and for sowing next year. Easy peasy.

What is rather more unknown territory is seed saving from other types of veg. So this season, I have let one of my radishes sprout a big old flower stem in order to let it go to seed and collect the seeds.

It's been quite a surprise, and I've learnt a lot:

  • firstly, given that radish goes from a seed sown to eating a radish in about 6 weeks, the whole going to seed business has taken AGES - over 4 months from flowering plant to seed pod gathering. 
  • Also, a radish grows into quite a sizable bush - certainly 2'-3' in diameter. 
  • I found that the bees and all manner of insect love the little white flowers, and have been all over it all during the summer. 
  • The flowers lead to pods, which I think are edible - although I missed a trick there and didn't think to try them. 
  • And finally, you don't get many radish seeds to a pod, and they are really fiddly to extract from the papery membrane inside. 

Given that radish seeds are about 29p for a packet of 1,000, I don't think that I'll be doing this particular plant experiment again, but I've learnt plenty, and that's my Challenge done!

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Week 36 - Get Serious About Running

I am a reluctant runner. When I am out plodding the streets with my wet weekend face on, mothers hide their small children on my approach; old people hurry across the road; builders hold their wolf-whistles, and stare in silence at my passing.

I hear of a 'runner's high', but I have no idea what it is - the nearest I get is 'thank goodness THAT'S out the way', when I stop. It is true, the hardest step is the one out of the front door - I am the queen of prevarication, and the number of times that my 'lunchtime run' has morphed into 'afternoon teatime' is without measure.

So why have a started an 8wk virtual 10k training course at Up & Running?

For one thing, I am doing it for the 'running = cake' reason - I love my grub, and I love a glass or two of red or white, or beer; I'm in my mid-forties, and want to avoid becoming the size of a barn.

I am hoping that the this course will change my attitude to some degree - I know it can't possibly brainwash me into wearing an 'I LUUURVE RUNNING!!' vest any time soon, but I am looking forward to seeing how I feel at the end of the course.

My big brother is another factor. He fascinates me, as he is a natural athlete, he loves running, he goes a bit funny if he can't get out and run. I do wonder how come we are related sometimes, I really do. But he has encouraged me every scowly-faced, ploddy-step of the way. He is my biggest cheerleader, and I'm touched that he SO wants me to get as much out of running as he does, and I guess that I am flattered that he is Taking An Interest in what his little sis is up to - I feel included in his and his friends' hobby, and that's a good thing.

What I am looking forward to is learning the technique of running - I know that at the end of the day that it's just putting one foot in front of the other; but I want to be like my bro when he is running - head up, confident, in charge of his body, powering through!

The alternative look is what I saw when I ran the Great Midlands Fun Run in June - I observed the group of (mostly) women who I was more or less with through the whole route, and sneered at their red-faced, big-bummed waddles and shuffling gait - how uncomfortable they look! How inelegant! When the penny dropped that I BET THAT''S WHAT I LOOK LIKE, I very nearly stopped dead in my tracks there and then.

I do not want to be a waddler or a shuffler, I want to be A RUNNER.

And that's why I've taken it to the next level - and my week 36 Challenge is underway!

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Week 35 - Re-chipping the Allotment Paths

When I made the raised beds at the Hill about five years ago, I laid weed suppressant between the beds, which (is supposed) to stop the weeds growing, and then as many piles on as many woodchippings as I could get on, which means that even in the depths of Winter, you don't get your feet muddy on the plot. 


The woodchippings rot down in time, and every two or three years they need replacing or topping up. It involves a strenuous session with a flat shovel scooping the remainder off the paths and chucking it on the beds at each side.

If this is done in January, then the next step is to collect replacement chippings, in the form of chipped Christmas trees which can be collected from the park a couple of miles away where you fill up any containers you can find, load them into the back of the car and take them back to the Hill. It takes many such trips, and is a tedious chore.

Occasionally, we do have woodchipping delivered to the Hill, though - and a great pile will appear and be pounced upon by all, as this is by far the softer option to carting chippings from the park.

These week was one such occasion! Once I'd cut back all the plant growth impeding the paths (squash and courgettes in the main), and pulled any weeds on the paths, I got busy with a big bucket, a shovel, and the chippings heap.

It took two sessions and I lost count of the bucketloads, but here is a thoroughly spruced up plot - and my week 35 Challenge - completed!

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Week 34 - Get a Full Week's Sleep

I am a 'night owl'. I am more than happy to be up carousing late into the night, or catching up on work items at midnight and after. Many's the film I have seen the latter three quarters of, having come in from the pub and put on the TV.

On the other side of the coin, this means that I am not a morning person. I'm not given to strong sentiments, being an easy going kind of gal - but I do HATE THE ALARM CLOCK. Even though I am very fortunate to work from home and don't have to be 'in the office' before 9am, and the alarm is set for a modest wake-up of 8am, I STILL have trouble dragging my sorry self out the pit.

I'd love to be more of a morning person - to spring out of bed and get things done first thing would be fantastic! If I could get out for my run at 8am for half an hour or so, then how well would that set me up for the day!

But there is nothing on earth which would tempt me to do so, as things stand - but is this because I don't get enough sleep? If I stopped being such an owl and got to bed at a sensible hour, would I jump out of bed with the sun, shaking the sleep from my eyes to welcome the brand new day with joy!?

To test this one out, my challenge is to get an average of 8hrs sleep per night for a week, which is going to involve some earlier nights.

I've logged the times, and with a concerted effort at GOING TO BED, I have clocked up just 15 mins short of an average of a full 8hrs per night over the week. Hardly worth hanging the flags out for, but I reckon that compared to the estimated 7 1/2 hrs I get on average normally, this is an improvement.

Have I jumped out of bed with a spring in my step? Well, no, not really - but I do think that this is a work in progress and I should pursue the matter - try for 8 1/4 hours per night, perhaps?

My Challenge is completed - and although not life-changing, it has given me the impetus to take this further.