Results for category "Alternative Energy"

Keeping the Home Fire Burning

Our caretaking duties officially began just after 10AM on Thursday morning. Rob and Diana started off a bit later than they’d planned, but were so very happy to be on their way to a long weekend in Pembrokeshire, as were Kai and Nieve (although Kai knew why and Nieve was just thrilled with the new, happy Kai). The cats were also quite happy for the change. With the house puppy free, they were able to place themselves wherever their heart desired, including perched or napping in front of the Rayburn ūüôā .

The Rayburn was a new task for our days. We still cared for the birds morning and at dusk, but now there was also the need to keep the fire in the Rayburn going at all times, tending it regularly, but mainly at breakfast, 5 PM and just before bed. This entails cleaning out the ash and loading it up with wood and coal. A different type of coal is burned during the day than at night, Anthracite is used during the day and Molacite (a manufactured briquette made from anthracite by the company Rob and Diana purchase from, Mole Valley Farmers) at night for a smokeless and slower burn. There’s also the need to make sure the fire doesn’t grow too large for the chamber and that the air doesn’t draw too deeply.

The Rayburn provides not only warmth for the kitchen area and the animals that frequent it’s presence, it also provides heat to the fermentation jugs sitting in front of it since juicing weekend, speeding fermentation for the cider and cider vinegar that will be produced from the raw apple juice in time. It also contributes a hot surface for cooking and extra heat for drying things, like laundry, wet gloves and even harvested beans. More officially, although all of the benefits are quite important, it heats the tap water for all of the faucets in the house, kitchen and both bathrooms, the only backup for which are a few solar panels that don’t yield much return in energy in winter or in North Devon, in general!

In fact, we awoke Friday morning to the first frost of the season, which returned Saturday morning, as well. This wasn’t too much of an issue once the sun came out, but the morning care for the birds couldn’t include fresh water until the hose pipe thawed out! Poor things. The water comes from a catchment system Rob built that collects the plethora of rainfall that falls here. He even collects from his neighbor’s shed roof. Large barrels are visible outside each polytunnel, but there’s also a very large basin buried under the ground just outside the caravan. When it rains, we can hear the water drip-dripping into it.

The waste water from the washing machine also feeds down into the system, which we contributed to with our opportunity during housesitting time to catch up on our laundry. The sun and breeze of the days helped to almost completely dry our things outside, as well. It’s such a nice effect that the fresh air and the sun have on drying clothes. It can’t be recreated by a conventional dryer.

We also had time in our caretaking days for a walk to Holsworthy to pick up some essentials, including a gift for our hosts. We had decided to make them a lovely batch of homemade brownies, since they seem to love chocolate almost as much as we do. (OK, it’s really not even close…we love it way, way more). We are looking forward to their return on Sunday evening and hope that they appreciate and enjoy the gift as much as we’ve enjoyed our time here in their home and on their land, Sunday marking our last day at Ceridwen, at least for now.

Fair Weekend

We awoke fresh and clean after a lovely late evening shower and a full night’s sleep, now well on the mend after our colds. The bright sunny weather pierced our tiny temporary abode as we awoke to the sound of birds dancing their way in a rather noisy fashion across our caravan roof, no doubt also relieved to have a break from the gloomy grey skies. Noting the unmistakable chill to the air we made our way along the meandering garden path to the kitchen for breakfast.

We had offered to work over the weekend to make up for the time we’d missed with our illness, but Rob politely refused saying there would be plenty enough opportunity to make up the time later. With our weekend free, we decided to walk to Holsworthy to see the town and look in on the craft sale Diana was showcasing at. So after a relaxed morning we set off in glorious sun accompanied , as always it seems, by the lingering threat of a torrential downpour.

The path Rob pointed out took us along a country lane for about a mile before having to turn onto a cycle path when we reached a (very large) field of solar panels on either side of the path. We’d been involved in a discussion recently with our previous host at Old Orchard View about this trend one morning on our way to Bude, as we spied a large lorry full of panels destined for a local field.

It seems, conditions for British farmers are very competitive at the moment due to a host of reasons including, huge supermarket domination, competitive global markets and climate change/weather. Sadly, it has become more cost effective for a farmer to stop growing crops and producing food, and instead simply fill their field with solar panels collecting money from the utility companies for supplying energy to the national grid. Apparently, one local farmer has dedicated some of his acreage to solar panel energy collection and is able to secure over £25,000 annually in exchange.

This is great for the farmer in the short-term giving a fixed annual income and keeping their business well away from vagueries such as weather conditions and changing markets. However, in the long term, farming methods , traditions, and history is all lost, while the land degenerates as the farmers sit at home with their feet on the table. Nationally, the UK becomes ever more dependent on crops flown across the world – not a particularly clever position to find oneself in as oil becomes more expensive, or as global (financial) crisis looms.

As we contemplated the demise of the traditional farm and the very methods we are trying to learn, the cycle path brought us across an old viaduct before leading us into Holsworthy. It was a lovely view in both directions, towards the town and in the other direction where a small river winds it’s way through the valley.

Upon arriving in Holsworthy, we set about finding food for our lunch at the Co-op and the local chip shop before making our way to a quiet green space where we found a bench upon which to share our meal. The air seemed to grow colder as we sat there with the warmth of our brisk walk soon fading away.

After a brief visit to a cafe for some warming takeaway coffee, it was time to stop at the craft fair. The little town hall was bustling with interested folk of all ages and the twenty or so tables inside were seeing a decent amount of traffic for a chilly day in a small town. We spotted Diana with a prime table facing the entrance and chatted briefly about her morning at the fair before making a lap of the room. There were ornaments, jewelry, felted silk clothing and wooden carvings, among other things. We paused briefly to share a piece of carrot cake. After all, the fair is held in order to raise money for a local charity, so we felt it was our duty to help out ūüėČ .

After our lap of the room, we revisited Diana’a table of herbal wholesomeness. At the very front of the display, the calendula and chamomile ointment we’d helped prepare the day prior was perched. It was so wonderful to be even the tiniest part of this process of bringing such goodness and aide to people!

Once we’d had our fill of crafts, we headed back out of town across the viaduct and towards Pyworthy and our little caravan at Ceridwen. When Diana returned home shortly after and had a bit of a rest from the bustle of the day, she set about preparing a wonderful Indian meal for tea. That evening we feasted on poppadoms, a mushroom curry dish and a squash and chickpea curry dish with rice. YUM!

Sunday was truly a day of rest at Ceridwen and a chance to catch up on chores before the week begins in earnest. As the weekend drew to a close , we settled down to the hypnotizing rhythm of the rain, happy, warm and content looking forward to a week helping and learning at Rob and Diana’s beautiful smallholding.

Making Jam While the Sun Shines

Bright sunshine greeted us as we headed out to collect the eggs. Today was going to be a day for us to show what we learned on Friday, as we were to make our own jam today. However, there would be an experiment for the apples that had yielded very little juice in Friday’s attempt. Mo referenced marrow jam, which uses a process of macerating the marrow with sugar, to pull out the juice, which she thought might also work for our apples.

So, after returning with five fine eggs, we set to work by peeling and coring approx 3kg of apples (to make 2kg of processed apples) and then adding to 2kg of sugar (remember the 1:1 ratio!). We kept the cores and peels, as these would be used later as a pectin source, needed to set the jam. Once done peeling and chopping, we left the mixture for a few hours to macerate and headed outside to work on tidying around the greenhouse and in the Water Wheel garden.

Under Mo’s supervision we pulled out the angelica along the side of the greenhouse, spreading the seeds around before discarding the plants to the burn pile, as they self-fertilize and will grow new plants in the spring. We also trimmed the cardoon and lovage plants that grow alongside the greenhouse. Lovage can actually substitute for celery, as it’s quite similar in taste. We then moved over to the Water Wheel garden where we trimmed the evening primrose and spread the seeds, trimmed down the rose bush, day lilies and bergamot and weeded for all the usual suspects: grass, thistles, nettles, dandelion and chickweed.

With the sun’s rays shining bright, the opportunity to do a load of washing came to us, as most of the smallholding’s energy comes from their many solar panels. ¬†There are a couple in front of the Water Wheel garden and many more in the back field behind the chicken pen. ¬†In addition to the solar energy produced, the smallholding also has the opportunity for hydroelectricity from the water mill. ¬†However, it takes a large excess of water from rainfall to produce enough water to really get the wheel going enough to register on the energy meter. ¬†The house can monitor the energy levels using a meter they have in the kitchen. ¬†It shows the amount of energy being produced by the water wheel and the solar panels, as well as, the energy the house is currently using. ¬†This allows the family to adjust, as needed, to avoid kicking over to use Mains electricity, such as, waiting to run the dishwasher, or the laundry, as we experienced today. ¬†These energy sources and their diligence in monitoring and adjusting allowed for an energy bill last year of only 55 pounds – for the entire year! ¬†In addition, they have been acknowledged as a “Super Home” for having established a carbon savings level of 95%!

After a late lunch we resumed our jam making starting by putting the mixture, now quite juicy, into a pot. We also prepared a pip bag with about a third of the cores and peels from the apples of the morning along with about 4 Tablespoons of cinnamon, tying tightly, as it will be boiled along with the apple mixture. Next steps follow what we observed on Friday: make sure all the sugar dissolves, on medium heat and then increase the heat and bring to a rolling boil until the plate test proves it will set. This took quite a bit longer than Friday, since we were pulling pectin from the pip bag. After almost an hour of boiling and, of course, ensuring our lids were boiled in hot water and jars heated in an oven at 150 degrees Celsius, we were finally ready to jar them. Mo left for basketball practice and left us to it. This was a little trickier than Friday because we weren’t just dealing with pure liquid jelly this time, but a chunky jam. Yet, the handy funnel still worked very well and in the end we had 11 lovely jars of apple cinnamon jam. A successful experiment, for sure!

The sun of the day left us with warmth for a lovely evening walk down to the sea cliffs. We enjoyed a simple pasta dinner, but were rewarded with an extra yummy blackberry and apple crumble for afters, which Mo had made earlier and left for us. After our picturesque walk and a delicious dinner, we settled in for some down time.

Nuts and Bolts, and Veggie Oil

With mist rolling off of Exmoor today it was time to explore the “nuts and bolts” side of Guy and Mo’s smallholding. Up to now we’ve spent most of our time nurturing the vegetable garden under Mo’s expert guidance. Today it was time to hear a little more from Guy, a design engineer by trade, who seems able to turn his hand to anything mechanical and who’s skill and ingenuity, amongst other things, was responsible for restoring ¬†the Mill’s water wheel ¬†to it’s former glory.

The day began with our now familiar hen duties. Eggs tucked away safely, it was not long before we got back to clearing and weeding the far vegetable bed from the previous day, leaving just the rhubarb and fruit trees. After only an hour or so of hard work the bed was finished leaving us with a quiet moment or two to appreciate how ¬†Mo’s beautiful garden is taking shape.

Next it was time to call on our what seem to be becoming legendary fence skills, but this time with another twist. Instead of ripping it down, repairing, or indeed adding a gate, it was time to ensure the electric fence around the chickens was functioning correctly. Guy was concerned the grass was getting too long in places, meaning the electricity was being grounded. So with a pair of shears and a sharp set of eyes we trimmed the perimeter grass and checked for any other obstructions, before checking the fence was again up to the correct voltage with the tester, encouraging  the foxes to look elsewhere for their dinner.

After a cuppa ¬†it was time for the first of two lessons of the day kindly given by Guy. First was an ¬†introduction to tractors. We were introduced to the two tractors at the farm, a Massey Ferguson, from the early 1960’s and a more recent Hymari from 1980’s, which, despite the difference in years, are surprising similar in design. We heard about ¬†the 3-point hitch system of ¬†Ferguson and how it revolutionized the farm industry, greatly increasing safety and were then shown the implements for the the back , before being given a basic tour of the engine and a few handy hints on maintenance.¬†By the end of the morning it was clear, although a tractor can be a significant investment, it can also save an extraordinary number of man-hours.

After lunch we were given the opportunity to test drive the Hymari and to negotiate a small tractor test Guy devised with the help of a pallet and storage racks. Test successfully completed and farm, field, tractor and persons still fully intact we were then introduced to the idea of running your (diesel) car on vegetable oil.

This is not a new idea, although it was the first we had heard of it.  Apparently, thousands of people, especially in Germany and the rest of Continental Europe are already running their converted vehicles on veg oil.  Indeed, only four years after Dr. Rudolf Diesel produced his first functional prototype, diesel engines were being successfully run on straight veg oil. Nowadays, though, I am told in the UK you would need a pre-2000 car to not require an engine conversion.

So why use veg oil? It is a cheaper fuel than either diesel or petrol and it may even increase your cars power and performance. I’m told it is legal to use as a vehicle fuel without paying any duty provided it is for small scale use . However, there are more important reasons than economics and performance for using veg oil as a fuel.¬†For those of us who worry about pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every time they drive, using veg oil as a fuel could be a solution. We still seem to have a long wait until the motor industry gets its act together and produces a hydrogen or an electric car that really works and is cost effective. So, running a diesel car on veg oil is an easily achievable reality for those wanting carbon neutral motoring now.

Guy currently gets enough (used) veg oil to run two cars for free from a local restaurant! He then refines the veg oil removing all the waste with a simple filter system which can purify about 300 litres in 4 to 5 days. ¬†He could buy veg oil from the supermarket and put that straight into the car but it would work out much more expensive and since nearly all Guy and Mo’s electricity comes from renewable sources, they aren’t spending money or fossil fuels powering the refining process. *

Our work day concluded, we ventured up into the neighbouring hills for another wonderful walk, returning to the house a little before sunset for a gentle evening of rest.


* Sources on Vegetable Oil Motoring:

Further Background and Information

Recent Newspaper Article in Daily Telegraph


The Great Water Shortage of Strawberry Hill …day 2

After a hot days work yesterday we were able to shower and rest peacefully in our cosy caravan, today however was quite a different story. Greeted by a grey muggy conditions we began our day.

One of the most important aspects for any small-holding is it’s water supply, as water is obviously integral to life.¬†In more isolated areas relying on mains water is unrealistic,anyhow, and if we want¬† to fulfill our dream of being self sufficient then we will also need to make other arrangements too. I don’t necessarily think mains water is a bad thing. It is wonderful to have flowing water whenever one wants it! However it also seems dangerous that we are so far removed from the system and have no understanding or control at what arrives through our tap.

During our stay at Strawberry Hill we’ve had the opportunity to see one alternative to the the regular water supply that we have all become so dependent on. There are a number of ways to collecting water including: Making intelligent use of rain water, using a water source that flows through your property, digging a well, or making a bore hole. It is the latter which has been employed here, and at the top of the property a 60 foot hole has been dug into the ground to tap the groundwater.

A solar panel supplies power to a pump which then draws the water out of the ground and into a huge storage tank. Pipes were then inserted under the ground to the main house and caravan allowing water, free from chlorine, fluoride and many of the other chemicals that seem to find their way into our drinking water, to flow from the taps. This water is filtered before being drunk using a ceramic filter.

This system does rely on someone being aware of how much water is left in the tank so as to switch on the solar panel, which in turn relies on there being sunlight to pump the water out of the ground, and of course reliant on the mechanism of the pump working. Unfortunately on this occasion, the pump had been off on previous days and now we need water the sunlight wasn’t strong enough to work the pump.¬† So bottled water was brought in and we spent a night less comfortably than the previous ones, dreaming mostly of mountain springs and hot baths.

Perhaps if we were to implement such a system we would allow some way of bringing the water to the ground manually, such as a well, as being so reliant on the sun, solar panel or pump mechanism does seem to bring with it it’s own set of issues.

Loving Simplicity