Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Un-seasonal



Blue sky makes all the difference
The sky was blue today after yet another storm hit the UK. This was the 9th storm this winter which is more than the average.

Rain approaching
Storms in the UK are certainly not international news, no twisters or snowmaggedons. Just rather dull and continuous rain, accompanied by howling winds. There hasn't even been thunder and lightening to add some excitement. Some areas have experienced flooding or downed power lines, yet it is theunusual pattern of weather that makes it news-worthy for me.

Very wet and muddy dog walks
It is an El Nino year, which has spread a mixed bag of extreme weather across the world. Even so, I can't just shrug it off and expect next year to be 'normal' again. Have we had a 'normal' year in the last decade? A year when rainfall or temperature  records haven't been broken?

I wish rainbows were the only thing coming from this coal-fired power station.
The climate change predictions for the UK (that I read a good few years ago now), indicated that winters would be milder and wetter, with much less frequency of snow. Summers would also be milder and wetter, except for in the Southeast. This describes 2015 pretty well. Last summer was warm, but can anybody remember a day that was actually hot, like sunbathing-on-the-beach hot? We kept wondering when summer would start. And this winter has been exceptionally mild so far, though very wet and stormy.

Are we moving to a 'season-less' climate in the UK, with far less definition between spring and summer or autumn and winter? That is not to say that every year will be like that, just that a trend may be emerging. I mean we can't expect to ignore all the danger signs about climate change and not have to face the consequences.

Lovely traditional stone terraced housing
The good news is that buildings in the UK are built to withstand this kind of weather, at least most of the dwellings are. The majority of dwellings are built of brick or stone, and feel solid and secure whilst the wind is howling round them. The style is for low-rise, compact and often terraced dwellings. Even hurricane strength winds only result in a few chimney pots being toppled, trees falling and power lines being damaged. Watch the scenes in other areas of the world and whole streets of homes get reduced to matchsticks.
Old brick built factory still looking amazing
This is also why we have some of the oldest housing stock - brick houses are expensive and slow to build (compared to timber) and as they last well and are expensive to replace, we keep them. Even more so with stone dwellings. My friend's cottage is over 300 years old, and the thick stone walls would have taken an enormous amount of energy to demolish.

Any excuse for more nice photos
Now I know that old houses get a bad name for not being energy efficient, but that is not entirely true. They tend to be small, so have less volume to heat, and if they are terraced they reduce heat loss by having less external wall area. Houses were built with good natural light in all rooms, before we had electricity and had a cellar and a pantry instead of a fridge or freezer.
 

That is not to say that older buildings don't feel cold and draughty, but it is worth bearing in mind that a new efficient double-glazed window provides no more insulation than an old solid brick wall. Modern buildings with vast glazed areas are really not a great idea if you wish to reduce your heating bills. You will find that there is more focus on building houses airtight these days, to reduce unwanted draughts, and adding additional insulation to any building will always improve the thermal comfort and efficiency.
Survived since 1483
Other bloggers have noticed changes in their weather patterns too, sometimes major scary events like the forest fires and drought in Tasmania that Jo mentioned, or even small signs of change such as still picking raspberries in November as Mrs Thrift noted. I would love to hear of any changes that you may have noticed, wherever you are. It may be plants flowering earlier or areas flooding that have never been flooded before. It all helps to build up a picture of how the climate is changing and prepare us for what might come next.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Night walk discoveries

One of the changes with going to work each day, is that I can no longer walk the dog whenever I feel like it. Popping out at lunchtime or in between rain showers has been replaced with a walk after dinner, in the dark, whatever the weather. This seems like a bit of a disadvantage in winter, when it is mainly cold, wet and very muddy.


Where daytime walks offer the opportunity for foraging, photos, ball throwing and chatting with other dog walkers, dark evening walks are....well dark....though somehow still very lovely.

To start with I tried my normal walk through the muddy woods, but slipping and sliding through the mud and tripping over roots that I couldn't see was downright dangerous. I could have taken a torch, but it only lights a short distance and spoils my night vision. After a spectacular fall off a wet slippery stile, I headed for more open spaces, where on a cloudy night or with the moon out, visibility is fair.

And now the cold crisp evenings are wonderful, and blissfully quiet with all the people tucked up in their cosy warm houses. Even rainy evenings are really not that bad, but the best are when the stars come out.

The bright stars at Orion's belt are easy to spot
My knowledge of stars is rubbish, but I really wanted to know if what I thought was Orion's belt really was. So I got a stargazing app, and I'm loving it. Yes, if you ever see the silhouette of a woman stood out in the dark staring up at her mobile held above her head - it's me :-) Of course it is easier to just lay in bed and aim it at the ceiling and the app still shows you the stars, but I like standing alone on the hill overlooking all the twinkly lights from the town and feeling like a speck in this vast universe.

I could always find the saucepan shape but didn't know it was Ursa Major, the Great Bear

Another night-walk discovery is that all the trees have dog tags. On a windy night they jingle at you as you walk past. It did take me a while to realise that we were not being followed everywhere by a cat with a bell on its collar.

I have known for a while that the bigger, older trees, that maybe need protecting have numbered tags, and I am sure this must help to keep track of which tree is which, and find them when they get lost. But all the trees? Right down to the scrawny little things, that are more of a large shrub? Surely not!

If anyone knows the purpose then please do share it, as I am sure there must be some good intentions somewhere behind this madness? Is someone watching and recording all the trees being wiped out by climate change? Or maybe it is just part of the council's maintenance program? It just seems a waste to me. The time and money spent hammering tags into trees and recording them all, could surely have been better spent on planting new trees, to help our degraded landscape heal.

Next time you listen to the wind whispering through the trees, don't be surprised to find that they jingle now instead!

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Almond croissants

Yesterday I made almond croissants! Yes the kitchen smelled delicious and I do love the whole anticipation of cooking, especially when it is a bit of an unplanned adventure.


I popped out to the supermarket at 8pm, and found lots of lovely reduced items, including croissants for 40p. Croissants always remind me of holidays in France, though these would be but a pale comparison of the freshly baked croissants from the boulangerie.


This summer my cousin had told me how delicious almond croissants were - they are truly divine. To use up leftover croissants, they are filled with frangipane and baked again to make more of a sweet Danish.

I used a simple frangipane recipe shown below, but it used vanilla essence, whereas I will be using almond essence in future for a stronger almond flavour. This is my first attempt, but next time I will also spread more mixture on top to stop the croissants getting too dark. And maybe a sprinkle of sliced almonds to top them off.

100g ground almonds
100g butter
80g golden caster sugar
1 egg
1 tbsp. vanilla extract (or almond)

Mix all the ingredients together. Stuff and spread your croissants, then bake them for 18 mins at around 180 deg C. This made enough mixture to generously stuff 4 croissants and would have stretched to 6.



I also bought 3 packets of dill reduced to 10p each. I have hung them in the kitchen to dry out, so that I can chop and store them for sprinkling on salmon. It is nice to feel that I have got a bargain and saved some food from being wasted.

I should probably mention that I have started a new job and I am back working the 9 to 5 again. 2015 was so busy for my little consultancy, that I had been working days and nights to try and keep up. Now that I am starting to get my evenings back I can enjoy cooking and blogging again.

I am not sure how things will work out with my allotment. Spring is fast approaching and I have barely started the gardening jobs that were due back in the Autumn! I am not ready to give up on it yet though. I just love that I still have a supply of my home grown potatoes and squash in the garage, and raspberries and runner beans in the freezer. It is so nice to announce at each meal that I have grown the cabbage, or the tomatoes in the sauce.


What began as a journey to be more green, by eating organic, locally grown food and reducing waste, seemed like hard work from the outset. Yet it has turned out to be rather enjoyable. Food makes me happy. I enjoy growing it, shopping for it, cooking it and sharing the end result with family and friends. I love that I substituted a handful of weeds for parsley in my stuffing at Christmas and no one was the wiser. But most of all I love..... almond Croissants ;-)

What do you love about food?

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Feels like Autumn

It has been very quiet at Ration The Future for 2 months! Sorry to my regular readers. I would love to be disciplined enough to commit to a weekly blog, but that isn't how my life is right now. I have worked long hours on a large project all summer - it feels like I have skipped straight to Autumn. The mornings are cold, evenings are shorter and the bounty of courgettes, cucumbers and beans is tailing off now.

Produce from my garden, including chickpeas.

This week I went to the car boot sale with my eldest daughter, who has just returned from finishing Uni. She was delighted to find several nearly new tops, a dress and a skirt all with labels from her favorite shops. Her little sister liked the dress too and has commandeered it!


In addition we bought some unopened gift sets with body lotions and shower gels, some from the body shop, which were all small travel size bottles, so very handy.


I only bought 2 items for me, but I love them both. One was an egg run, that I had seen for £17 in the Organic Gardening Catalogue and had decided it was too expensive for me to buy when a cardboard egg box does the trick for nothing. But when I spotted it at the car boot and the lady only wanted £1....well it seemed like fate.


I have always kept my eggs in the fridge, but as my fridge is in need of replacing and I am hoping to downsize it, to save money and energy, it is time to keep the eggs out. And don't you love my multi-coloured eggs too? I buy them from a friend each week and love that they are green and white as well as brown :-)


Then I spotted a purse. Not just any purse, but a Ness purse and it was brand new, complete with label for £24.95. Aren't the materials gorgeous? It was mine for just £2.50, so how could I pass that up?


When my husband and I visited the Isle of Skye for his birthday many years ago, I found a lovely little Ness shop and bought myself a purse. You may think that the lovely tartan material might not be as hard wearing as leather, but it lasted me 5 years! I like that the company is based in Scotland, aims to source materials from the UK where it can, and centers its designs on traditional Scottish tartan. Buying local twice over, so no consumer guilt about this purchase. I haven't decided whether to keep it, as it is a larger design than I normally go for, but it would make a lovely gift if not.

As well as all the goodies already mentioned, I bought some books and toys for my cousin's children. We spent a total of £15 and made it home with no packaging, not even a carrier bag! Ethical shopping is bliss :-)

But as Jo at All the blue day has pointed out, a 'one in, one out' policy is required, as buying is only one side of the story.

We had already had a big clearout of clothes. I gave some to friends, sold some at the car boot sale, donated some to charity and took less sale-able clothes to the '£5 a bag' shop. I felt like I had cleared out so much stuff.......but then my daughter arrived home from Uni with all her cooking utensils, clothes and furnishings and we had to have an even bigger sort out to make some space. this time it was the shoe drawers, coat rack, teddies, craft stuff and kitchen equipment that was under the spotlight.

It is a great idea to have a clear out and get rid of all the items that are not used regularly, but on the other hand there is an element of being prepared that seems to oppose this idea. For instance I have a stock of old woollen blankets. Some of them get used when we go camping, but most haven't been touched for years. Yet a few years before we moved to Loughborough there was a cold snowy winter where they had a powercut, and many homes had no alternative heating source. So in the interest of preparedness, the blankets are staying.

It is funny how many things about living lightly on the planet clash. Such as being frugal and supporting local organic producers. Or being prepared for the climate change future we face and living a minimalist lifestyle. Or even just storing all your home-grown produce and trying to reduce disposable plastic bags and containers. How else can I store my fresh lettuce or frozen blackberries? It is all a choice between what means the most to you.

Lovely homegrown veg stored for winter....in PLASTIC!!!!
Well, we have 4 bags for selling at the carboot sale and a couple of boxes of kitchen equipment to donate to refugees. I am just loving how organised and clutter free the house is starting to feel, lets see if I can keep it up :-)

Monday, 6 July 2015

Keeping cool

It has been a hot week in the UK (at least by our standards) and for most of Europe it seems. I have been out doing energy surveys every day, and despite sweltering and having aching feet from all the walking, I love to see how buildings perform under peak conditions.


The UK has a relatively mild climate. Being surrounded by sea and benefiting from the warm Gulf Stream, means that our winters and summers are not as extreme as for mainland Europe. This is reflected in the design of our buildings. For instance French buildings traditionally have shutters. These aren't purely decorative, but have a functional purpose, to prevent solar gain. When the sun shines in through the window, it heats the building up like a greenhouse. The shutters on the outside of the house are more effective than blinds, because they stop the sun's rays before they get inside.

Typical French shuttered windows
Closing the shutters at night and then waking up to throw them open to the daylight is one of the delicious moments of staying in a French house. If you have tried this you will notice that just opening the shutters a slit will still bathe the room in daylight, and often keep most of the hot sun out. The strategy is to use the shutters in the daytime to prevent the suns ray from heating up the house. In addition the shutters can often be closed at night, but with the glass windows inside left open, so that the cooler night air can cool the building down and help to slow down the process of warming during the day.

Traditionally English townhouses were close together, providing a shady walkway
British buildings don't have shutters as a feature, because we don't get a lot of hot days and love it when we do. But it is not pleasant to work or live in a hot building, so here are some strategies that may help to keep buildings cooler and more comfortable.
Aptly named 'Thrift House' with the curtains drawn
1. Shut your blinds and curtains during the day to keep out the suns rays. This is especially important for South and West facing windows. If you are worried what your neighbours may think of your curtains being closed all day, then try using net curtains, as they are effective at blocking the sun too. By standing in front of a sunny window with the sun's rays on you, you can feel the difference when the curtains are shut. It won't stop the house warming up, but at least it will be less of a greenhouse. Canopies, overhanging roofs or trees can all be used externally to shade the building in summer too.

Glass greenhouses in central London ;-)
2. Keep windows closed if the air inside your home feels cooler than the air outside. It is an automatic reflex when you feel hot to open the windows, but if it is the hottest part of the day you could just be bringing in hot air from outside and making things more uncomfortable. Stand in the doorway and check first, because then you can feel whether the air outside is actually cooler or not.

3. Open your windows at night (if you can without inviting burglars) or early in the morning for an hour or two, to help flush out the warm air and allow the building fabric to cool down again. The bricks, concrete, tiles, fixtures and fittings all retain heat. so often you will find that when the air outside has cooled, the building still feels warm on the inside. You can use the cooler morning air to purge the heat, so that you start the day with a cool building. I throw open the windows at 6:30am, before everyone else is up, and once the stone tiles on my kitchen floor feel cold again, I shut my windows against the rising temperature outside. This helps the house to stay cooler for longer.

The majority of dwellings in the UK are constructed with brick, stone or concrete and these materials are all good for holding heat or coolth. Lightweight timber constructions tend to heat up a lot quicker and cool down faster too, so you may find that point 3 doesn't help much. You can try incorporating some more heavyweight materials in a lightweight house, by adding stone tiles to floors.

4. Every appliance that is switched on, from a light to a mobile phone charger, will be kicking out waste heat, into your lovely cool building, so make sure that everything possible is switched off. Fridges and freezers may be keeping the food cool, but in doing so they kick out a lot of heat from the coils at the back, which is adding to the heat in your house. The higher the air temperature the harder they have to work and the more heat is emitted, so try not to open them unnecessarily. You could also try using timers to run dishwashers or breadmakers in the early hours of the morning when it is cooler (unless you have PV panels and want to make use of the solar energy).

Landline phone that only works when it is plugged in
Incidentally, you are also kicking out waste heat energy that is created when you breath or move. Only an average 100W if you are resting but that increases to 250W if you are dancing around. Save the workout or physical housework for the mornings or late evening, when the temperature has dropped, to avoid overheating yourself and your house.

5. If you get to the point where it is too hot inside and you need to get a breeze going to help cool you down, then remember to get a crossflow of air. This means trying to open windows or rooflights on at least 2 faces of the building, with an open flow between them. Heat tends to rise, so it will gather at high points. Opening a rooflight or upstairs window will allow the hottest air to escape, whilst opening a window on a lower level will draw in cooler air to replace it. I have seen lots of hot offices this week where the office windows are open, but the office door is kept shut for privacy. This means that the air cannot flow across the building, so the occupants don't benefit from getting a breeze from their windows.

6. Putting a fan near your window can help to draw in fresh air from outside, but if the air outside is hot already then it makes more sense to aim the fan at you. A fan blows air across your body, encouraging the heat to transfer from your hot skin to the marginally cooler air. Hence it makes you feel cooler.

Trees for company
7. Have you ever noticed that the air around trees feels cooler? This is because they act like an evaporative cooler. Their roots suck moisture from the soil and when the sun shines on the leaves the water evaporates. This process uses heat energy from the surrounding air and works faster on a hotter day, leaving cooler air around the trees. Planting trees and shrubs near windows and in courtyards can help to keep the air around the building cooler (as well as providing some shading). A fountain works in a similar manner and was why they were popular in Roman courtyards.

Stone house surrounded by trees for shade and cooling
8. Insulation in lofts and walls helps to protect buildings from the heat, as they are another layer that the heat needs to pass through. Insulation helps to make the building feel more comfortable in the summer and winter, with the added benefit of leading to reduced energy bills.


9. Hot air rises, so if you are having trouble sleeping in your bedroom upstairs, then camp out on the ground floor or even in the basement if you have one. This will help you stay cool and get a good nights rest.

10. I heard on the radio today (for the first time) an advertisement for air-conditioning for homes and it made me groan. Air-conditioning is expensive and uses a lot of electricity to provide you with artificial cooling, so please try some of the cheap and easy methods to stay cool first. If you are a 'battery-farmed' office worker, in a large open plan office with only a couple of square metres of space, then the chances are that you will have cooling provided, and on a hot day it will be working flat out. If you can, take this opportunity to request to work from home. The less bodies in the office and computers in use, the less heat is being produced. This will save energy, reduce the load on the air-conditioning and help everyone to stay cooler.

Remember to always switch air-conditioning off in an empty room and to keep windows shut whilst it is in use, otherwise your expensive chilled air will be escaping. How many of you have walked past an open shop door and felt the rush of cooled air coming from within?

You may already do all of these things, but hopefully someone may find the odd tip helpful. Hope you have a lovely sunny summer where you are, with a nice cool house to retreat into when it gets too hot :-)