Elspeth Thompson

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October - November - December 2007

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06 Oct 2007 - NEEDS MUST…

Smoothing the crumpled wrapping from a present and stashing it away with the ribbon for future use, I reflect on how I’ve come full-circle from my thrifty upbringing. Like many born to parents raised on post-War austerity, I was taught to scrimp on soap, save silver foil for Blue Peter and squirrel away the smallest scraps of food on saucers in the fridge. Teenage rebellion meant turning my back on such practices for many years, but I now find myself turning into my mother – saving everything from string to rubber bands, stewing up windfall fruit– even squidging old, unsavoury slips of soap together to make them go further. And I know I’m not the only one. The difference between 1950s and Noughties thrift is that for my parents’ generation the motivation tended to be economical, rather than (mainly) environmental. Ironically, you need a fair bit of space in which to store all this stuff, especially if, like me, you keep more than you re-use. I’ve got enough old jam jars to make the WI’s eyes water, boxes of baggy, stained T-shirts (“cleaning rags”) that fill faster than they empty, and used Jiffy bags to keep the most persistent “bubble-popper” happy for a lifetime - though I’m pondering their suitability as an insulation material. My study is now home to a growing collection of recycled boxes in which to store other recycled objects. I have yet to label one “Bits of String Too Short To Use” but I’m sure it won’t be long.

Old cereal packets, bottle tops, egg boxes and anything remotely glittery go into a cardboard box marked ‘Mary’s craft stuff – sadly, my three-year-old has yet to share my enthusiasm for clothing her toys using scraps of fabric and the arms of old jumpers and has begun to demand “proper dolls’ clothes from the shops”.

Of course, all this takes time and time, ironically, is now considered the greatest luxury.

Folding the crumpled wrapping from a present and stashing it away with the ribbon for future use, I reflect on how I’ve come full-circle from my thrifty upbringing. Like many born to parents raised on post-War austerity, I was taught to scrimp on soap, save silver foil for Blue Peter and squirrel away the smallest scraps of food on saucers in the fridge. The profligate Eighties arrived on cue to coincide with rebellion against parental values and, fuelled by first wages and unencumbered by student loans, many of my generation enjoyed a decade of high-octane spending. Yet now I find myself turning into my mother – saving everything from string to rubber bands, making jam from windfalls – even squidging old, unsavoury slips of soap together to make them go further. In my study is a collection of recycled boxes in which to store other recycled objects. I have yet to label one “String Too Short To Use” but I’m sure it won’t be long. The difference between 1950s and Noughties thrift is that the motivation – among the middle classes at least – tends to be ecological rather than purely economical. And whereas Mrs Beeton in her Everyday Cookery of 1950 tried hard to glamorise the using up of leftovers (“Dainty Dishes which may be made with the Remains of Cold Meat, Fish etc”), it’s now considered smart to forage for free food, make your own cakes and wear second-hand (or “vintage”) clothes. Of course, all this takes time and time, ironically, is now considered the greatest luxury.



If I thought gardening had taught me patience, building work is something else. You’re reliant on so many different people, for a start. And this is just at the paperwork stage. Following our recent set-to with the planners, we’d got together with Nick, our architect, to modify the upper storey to quell concerns about “overdevelopment”. The gorgeous wide “gallery” connecting the upper rooms and with views out to sea is now trimmed down to a corridor for much of its length, but with a wider area outside our bedroom, just big enough for a couple of arm chairs. As Nick was putting his finishing touches to the drawings the Environment Agency, from whom we’d been waiting for weeks to hear, got in touch. From them came the cheerful advice that, in order to minimize flood damage in future years, we should include as many anti-flood measures as possible, such as deep brick footings, waist-high electrics and stone, rather than wooden floors. In the course of incorporating these changes, Nick decided to make a model. Nothing wrong with that in itself, but for the past two weeks he seems to have done little but fiddle with Hornby toy train carriages and tiny bits of Balsa. (Must be that Men and Trains thing again.) He assures us the new drawings will be with the planners by next week. But I’ve begun to notice how often the introduction to programmes like Grand Designs includes a throwaway phrase such as: |”Six years after X and Y bought their plot, they’re finally ready to begin building.”


20 Oct 2007 - I AM A CIDER MAKER

It’s been a job to keep up with our five productive apple trees this year – the freezer’s full to bursting, I’ve made twenty jars of chutney and Frank has put a veto on further pies or crumbles. And yet the best of the crop is yet to come. Shaking my head at the cost of organic cider in the shops the other day, the solution hit me: we brew our own. My uncle has done this for decades on his farm in Kent – indeed, his hot spiced cider greeted guests arriving at our winter wedding. The great thing about cider making is that, unlike wine, there seems to be no subtle science or snobbery involved: all you need are apples. The recipe I’m following (from the new Self-Sufficiency Handbook by Alan and Gill Bridgewater (New Holland £12.99)) appeals to my laziness – they specify ripe windfall apples, with a good few bruised ones welcome, and advise against washing as it removes the natural yeast (some brewers sterilize the juice to remove bacteria and then add another yeast, which does seem a waste). The only kit involved is a press (and www.art-of-brewing.co.uk has splendid traditional beech ones from £65.99 which can also, of course, be used for juice), a liquidizer or crusher to pulp the fruit first, some fermenting buckets with lids and a barrel with an air lock. Six months is the recommended brewing time, so I’ll let you know next spring how it turned out. For Apple Day events throughout the country, including cider-making and tasting, visit commonground.org.uk.



Tonight the clocks go back, and though I always enjoy that “extra hour” beneath the covers the following morning, and try to get excited about open fires and toasted tea-cakes, my heart does sink when the sun disappears at 4pm. British Summer Time was introduced in 1916 as a wartime measure to help conserve coal, but the health and business benefits were deemed sufficient to justify keeping it ever since. So why not extend it still further? In several states in America, Daylight Saving now operates for a full eight months of the year, and I’d like to see us follow suit - perhaps going even further and only returning to ‘winter time’ for December and January. The savings in energy would surely be immense, as we’d all turn on our lighting, heating and so on one hour later, while still going to bed at the same time. Even taking into account the knock-on effect at the start of the day, the environmental benefits would more than outweigh our traditional consideration towards early-rising farmers and Scottish school kids - and they are still catered for during the very darkest months. Ironically, in much of America, DST is determined not by ecological concerns but by lobbying by the leisure and retail industries, who benefit from the increased daylight leisure hours. Even the confectionery makers are keen to get Hallowe’en included in the extra daylight hours as they sell more sweets that way. As for me, I’d be happy with just another hour in which to walk along the beach and get the garden into shape.


03 Nov 2007 - SUPER MODEL

The model over which our architect has laboured for so long turns out to be well worth the wait. For the first time ever, I can really ‘see’ what our eco-house will look like, in three dimensions instead of lines on paper. And thank goodness I like what I see. Cupping the tiny building in one hand and peering through the porch door, I can even imagine moving about inside – walking through that fantastic open living space to the garden; climbing the stairs to look out at the sea. I have to stop myself arranging the furniture. My only criticism, which I mention heart in mouth, is that I feel the upper raised train carriage, containing the bedrooms and bathroom, seems to float rather further above the lower one than I’d envisaged. To my relief, Nick is already aware of this, and is working out a way to bring them back into relationship. He also plans to “tweak” the proportions of the porch very slightly. This, he explains, is exactly what models are for: to bring the need for such adjustments more tangibly to light. They’ll take a little while to translate on to paper, of course, but Nick assures me the finished drawings will be with the planners by Friday. I take a photo of the model on my phone and show it to Frank with the solemnity and wonder of a foetal scan. We’re still a long way down the line from living there, but the project has never felt this real.


10 Nov 2007 - SECOND BITE…

Plans for the eco-house have been submitted for the second time, and a pink laminated sign has been pinned up on our gate inviting comments from neighbours and other interested parties. We’ve actually involved our immediate neighbours right from the start, to ensure our new extension and upper storey don’t encroach on their light and privacy, so we’re hoping no one else will throw a spanner in the works. Trouble is, one person’s dream house may be another’s worst nightmare. I’m taken back ten years to when a derelict warehouse behind our London house was bought up with plans for re-development. While we were delighted that it was to be turned into a private house, we were concerned that the finished height of the new roof should not diminish the already limited light in our tiny courtyard garden. When building work seemed to be progressing above the permitted levels we appealed to the planners to intervene. Passions were high at that meeting at the town hall, but the planners eventually decided in our favour. I can still remember the clatter of the architect’s heels as he pursued us down the corridor, imploring us to back down. We got our light, but our new neighbours (and guess how friendly that relationship is now?) got months of headaches and delays. Now that the boot’s on the other foot, we can only cross our fingers, arms and legs and promise to play fair. Let’s hope it will be second time lucky.


17 Nov 2007 - SUFFICIENT

A spate of self-sufficiency books has been published in recent months — aimed, one suspects, at the ‘Green Christmas’ market. First came a re-issue of John Seymour’s classic, Self Sufficiency (Dorling Kindersley, £12.99) with its detailed diagrams of bee-keeping and brewing your own beer. It was the original, way back in 1976, that set me fantasising about The Good Life. Next came the Self-Sufficiency Handbook by latter-day Seymour disciples Alan and Gill Bridgewater (New Holland, £12.99) and Sheherazade Goldsmith’s A Slice of Organic Life (Dorling Kindersely, £16.99) — the latter a lavish yet simplistic Yummy Mummies’ Guide to going Green-ish, and rather heavier on natural beauty products and pureeing your own organic baby food than pig-breeding and solar power. Best of the new bunch is Sufficient by Tom Petherick, just published (on paper from sustainable sources) by Pavilion at £25 — packed with advice on growing and raising your own food and animals, along with heartfelt yet non-hectoring advice as to why a low-energy life-style has to be more than a passing trend. Rather than focussing on self-sufficiency in the old sense, which he admits is feasible only for the few, Petherick asks instead that we find ways to feel content or “sufficient” with a less “convenient” and consumer-driven way of living. He’s keen to point out that this doesn’t necessarily entail a drop in living standards. Our eco-house in the country will be smaller and simpler than the one in London we will be leaving behind. But when I think of how we plan to live there – using the sun and local wood-chip to provide our hot water and heating, growing more of our own food and so on – it is hard to imagine how life will be anything other than richer.


24 Nov 2007 - WAITING AGAIN

“Imagine us happily installed in the place exactly a year from now,” I trill at my husband, trying desperately to recall the techniques from a book on Positive Visualisation I threw out years ago. Waiting for our planning application to go through is a nerve-wracking experience. A hell of a lot hangs on it – hopes, dreams, and not least a roof over our heads when our small daughter starts school next September. The consultation period, during which neighbours and other interested parties can submit comments and objections, is now over, so we’ve taken down the pink notice from the gate. But there are still three long weeks to go before we hear whether the scheme has been approved. And in the meantime, we’re living in limbo-land. Anxious not to jinx the proceedings, I’ve put all my own research for the project on hold – no more phone calls sourcing local sustainable timber; not even so much as a glimpse at a fabric swatch. Frank, meanwhile, is rattled that a neighbour has spotted one of the planning officers snooping about our property in our absence, but Nick, the architect, says this is absolutely routine. Last weekend we threw a party in the garden, and as the last of the autumn sun went down I found myself staring back at the house and trying to conjure up a gleaming new extension and upper storey superimposed, spectre-like, on top of the pair of dilapidated train carriages. But for some reason, the vision of us cramped up in a caravan on a muddy building site kept crowding into my mind.


01 Dec 2007 - BOTTLED UP

When did our addiction to bottled water begin? I can’t recall a plastic bottle of water being my constant companion as a student, but we probably spent our spare cash on beer. These days, not only does bottled water drink up £1.5 billion in the UK every year; it’s also a guzzler of natural resources. The water itself must be extracted, bottled and transported to the shops, while the bottles, too, have to be manufactured (usually from petroleum-derivatives) and disposed of. To cap it all, research shows European standards for factory-bottled water to be lower than for ordinary UK tap water, and that harmful toxins (pthalates) can leach from plastic into water if stored for too long or at warm temperatures. There’s a move in eco-aware circles to ask for tap water in smart restaurants instead of the fancy blue or frosted glass bottles we’ve learned to love, but this may take a while to trickle down. Restaurateurs will be loath to lose that hefty profit margin– so all power to the likes of Carla Carlisle at the excellent ‘Leaping Hare’ in Suffolk who is pulling the plug on bottled water in her restaurant and spending many thousands on a bore hole and purification system. If you worry about the quality of water in your home, a domestic tap filtration system can cost as little as £128, plus £50 a year on cartridges. I got ours (from www.freshwaterfilter.com) four years ago when I was pregnant and my main motive was not wanting to lug those two-litre torpedos back from the shops, and wouldn’t want to be without it now.

08 Dec 2007 - BAG LADY

I've long been a shopping trolley fan, weathering the old-lady jokes to trundle my ancient wicker model from supermarket to farmers' market. So it's been intriguing in recent months to see the trolley dragged from design doldrums to style city.
Top of the range is Orla Kiely's laminated cotton fold-up (020-7720 1117, orlakiely.com), although £200 seems a bit much for basically substituting her trademark leaf print for the tartan and leatherette of yesteryear. There's plenty of choice at around £50; Verko's designs (020-8201 9444, verko.co.uk), in everything from cowskin to Pucci-esque swirls, are especially attractive. Habitat (0844 499 1111, habitat.co.uk) has a minimalist version in charcoal nylon for £13, while Sarah Raven (0870 191 3430, sarahraven.com) sells an orange number for £17.50 that folds into its own front pocket when not in use, thus solving the storage problem, too.

If a reusable bag has the potential to eliminate 1,000 plastic bags, a trolley must be worth at least two or three times that, so it's worth getting over the embarrassment - most modern versions look just like wheel-on luggage, anyway. As an old hand, I still favour the traditional wicker trolley, of course - englishwillowbaskets.co.uk (01823 490249) has a classic with walking stick handle for £60.40.

One word of warning, though - there ought to be a driving test. These days, you can't move at Borough Market without being bashed in the ankles by a learner.


15 Dec 2007 - IT’S A WRAP

The UK uses 8,000 tonnes of wrapping paper every year just on Christmas presents - the equivalent of 50,000 trees. On the premise that the more overtly 'manufactured' the product, the more environmental damage it causes, it's best to keep things simple.

Brown paper may sound spartan, but it can be jollied up by stamping or painting a design or the recipient's name in bright colours - children will enjoy doing this. Or, if you've squirreled away some paper from Christmases past, cut just a broad band to wrap around the centre as a colourful contrast. Tissue paper always looks good and biodegrades fast - I add it straight to the compost heap without shredding. One year I even used newspaper to wrap presents, just the black-and-white pages, jazzed up with stars hand-drawn with a chunky silver pen, and for smaller gifts, pages from glossy magazines. Trust me, it looked quite smart.

The key when scrimping on paper is to use lots of pretty, reusable ribbon. I buy spools of silver and dark red ribbon, lightly wired to keep its shape, from florist's supplies, but standard haberdasher's stuff does just as well and will cost no more than you'd spend on paper. Another option is to make the wrapping part of the present, and pop your gifts into pack-away shopping bags. Those from Carry-a-bag (cotton, from £15, carry-a-bag.com) and Onya (parachute fabric in bright colours folding into keyring-sized pouches, from £6.50, onyabags.co.uk) are particularly attractive and could be secured with a big silver bow.


22 Dec 2007 - AT LAST!

I've just received the best Christmas present ever. It did not come fancily wrapped; nor did it rustle, rattle or smell enticing. It's only a piece of paper in a plain brown envelope, but it means the world to me.

Yes, finally, after nearly two years of difficulties, delays and reapplications, we have planning permission for our eco-house. As Frank cracked open the fizz (English, from our local vineyard, before you ask), Nick the architect explained that the next step would be to send out detailed drawings to our shortlist of builders for costing, so that work can get under way as soon as the early spring weather allows.

When I began writing this column last autumn, I had imagined we would be living in our converted railway carriages by now, not still waiting for work to start. Our first application had to be withdrawn - the planners deemed it too bulky. Then our former architect went all modernist on us. Then, when we seemed just on the verge of getting revised plans in, he had to quit because he was closing down his practice. I now know such hitches are par for the course, and that it would be a miracle were we not to encounter more before our project is complete.
Even so, I can't help imagining that in the same amount of time, many others would not only have built their own eco-houses with their bare hands, but grown their own trees for the timber and raised their own sheep for natural wool insulation. Here's to a constructive new year.



Green House

Introducing Elspeth Thompson’s diary of the transformation of two dilapidated former railway carriages into a state-of-the-art eco-home/ the eco-home of her dreams.
Jan - Feb - Mar

Oct - Nov - Dec
Jul - Aug - Sep
Apr - May - Jun
Jan - Feb - Mar

Oct - Nov - Dec

¤ more to come soon!

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