A Week In Pictures/Yr Wythnos Mewn Lluniau

It’s more like a month in pictures this time – I have no idea where January has gone. It’s been a whole month of not working for the first time in six years and despite the rain, snow and storms here, it’s been wonderful just to slow down, relax and breathe. I’ve had time to walk, to tidy up in the garden, bake bread and enjoy days with no pressing deadlines. Even my to-do lists have been leisurely. I’ve lost that general feeling of anxiety and guilt of not quite getting everything done at the end of day, of always feeling something left not quite complete.

In my wisdom though – in case I missed spending most of my days at a desk in front of a computer – I decided to redesign this blog. Despite posting somewhat sporadically for the past few years I enjoy it, but have recently been feeling like I want more options here on design and layout. I’ve got a fairly clear idea of what I want it to look like – cleaner, simpler without that wordpress banner on the top for example…So I took the plunge and have signed up to Squarespace and am currently working through putting together the pages. Stay tuned.

We had snow here two weeks ago – a brief flurry overnight which hung around for a few days on the mountain tops then melted. We got a walk in up to Sugar Loaf which was beautiful – we hardly saw anyone on the way up, then on the top it was like market day in Abergavenny.

We also went to Meilyr Jones. I’ve liked him since he was in Race Horses/Radio Luxembourg years ago but never got to see them live. A natural performer, after half an hour of technical delays and faffing, he stands up, announces ‘I’ve always wondered if I could change the atmosphere with a click of my fingers’, launches into full trumpets and strings, and blows the January cobwebs away.

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Blwyddyn Newydd Dda | Happy New Year

 

So that was 2015. I started the year employed, I ended it unemployed and considering career changes. The garden saw plenty of activity – clearing, landscaping and seed sowing. We enjoyed just being in the cottage, sitting in front of the fire, cooking, listening to records.

We spent a calm and quiet New Year’s Eve here, but for the first time in over twenty years I didn’t even manage to stay awake until midnight. I woke on the first day of the New Year to a rare few hours of sunshine.

A few shots of the past week – clockwise from top left:

  • Still eating the Christmas cheese – Gorwydd and Perl Las here with charcoal biscuits.
  • New Year, New calendar. This is one I made with artifact uprising for my dad who lives on Anglesey, showing local shots I’ve taken over the past few years. January shows Biwmaris pier looking over to a snowy Snowdonia
  • Despite the rain the weather has been so mild here the grass is still growing and there’s been no real need to feed the sheep ewe rolls yet (despite the fact they gather round us when we go out, ready to be fed).
  • And finally, a Grey Trees from our Christmas hampers…here’s to 2016.

Blwyddyn Newydd Dda/Happy New Year.

 

Christmas Gifts from Wales

Yesterday I mentioned I’d been making Christmas hampers. There are several people in my life who are difficult to buy for – who never ask for anything specific and for whom there’s nothing I can immediately think they need (there’s always a few…). However, since we moved here two years ago we’ve discovered some lovely local shops and producers that I was keen to share with my family. So, this year pretty much everyone is getting a hamper. Because who doesn’t always love something good to eat and read? This is how I got on – local producers called out below.

For those who love baking 

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Unbleached strong white flour from Talgarth Mill – a restored flour mill which makes the best bread and has a great cafe attached. Their flours are currently fuelling my own sourdough obsession. Nom nom ridiculously good chocolate from Pembrokeshire.

For coffee and beer lovers

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We’ve been loving Grey Trees JPR pale ale this year, but try their Caradog’s Bitter for something darker this winter. Coaltown Coffee Roasters have the best packaging and their Black Gold Signature Blend is ideal for mornings (afternoons, evenings…). Strong coffee and beer requires a good read, so here’s Richard Hell’s autobiography to accompany your drinking, and remind me of watching Television at Green Man this summer.

For those in search of something good to put on toast

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Having eaten at Y Polyn a few years ago,  I was intent upon going to Wright’s Food Emporium this year and a few months ago we headed over for a day trip to Carmarthenshire. It was 3pm on a rainy Saturday and Wright’s was heaving but we shopped for a few things and browsed Simon’s record collection whilst waiting. They sell their own range of produce – this plum and vanilla jam for example – and a careful selection of other producers like this honey from Coedcanlas. Sadly not available online, you’ll just have to visit yourselves – and try the rarebit with nduja whilst you’re there, I’m still dreaming about it.

For dark reading on dark nights

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Admittedly, this would be one for me. This selection of iconic photos from Kevin Cummings came out a few years ago now, but remains on my coffee table/footstool for regular flicking through. Dark pictures on dark days require cosy scarf-shawls – this one from Number 46 in Abergavenny is ideal.

For lovers of Welsh art and craft

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Every time I visit family on Anglesey I always visit Oriel Ynys Mon in Llangefni, Wales’ national collection of Kyffin Williams paintings. This beautiful book is a curation of his portraits with annotation and anecdotes on each by the artist. Fforest is a place I’ve wanted to stay at for a long time (one of their granary lofts in Cardigan please) but until then I’ll settle for one of their blankets.

So that’s my selection, I’m off to finish my wrapping.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Week In Pictures/Yr Wythnos Mewn Lluniau

imageIt’s been a busy few weeks – preparing for Christmas, finishing off at work and wading through all the rain we’ve been having. No floods here thankfully, but weekend after weekend of rain. On Instagram this week I was asked how many words there are for rain in Welsh. I didn’t know how many, but there are a lot, and all describe quite specific states of rain. All in all it has been doing everything from pigo (spotting) to piso (no translation required there) here most days. The land is sodden and walking is difficult – literally wading through mud. My favourite rain phrase though is mae hi’n bwrw hen wragedd a ffyn – it’s raining old women and sticks. Makes as much sense as raining cats and dogs, I suppose.

Processed with VSCOcam with a5 presetAn early Christmas present was a copy of Jack Thurston’s lovely Lost Lanes Wales. I spent a few pleasant hours reading through it, particularly the rides around here – beautifully described and photographed, it covers our local Iron Mountain (the Blorenge), the three peaks of the Skirrid, Blorenge and Sugar Loaf, then heads further along to the Valleys before continuing all around Wales and the Borders. When January comes I’ll need some things to keep me busy. There is even a local wild swimming spot near here that I didn’t know about – one to find next summer.

imageFinally, a night out in Cardiff seeing Euros Childs. The third time we’ve seen him in the past twelve months – second with the full Roogie Boogie Band – and he/they just get better. Cardiff was the last night of the current tour and it was good to see him on home turf.

imageI’ve also been finishing Christmas hampers of (largely) Welsh produce. Check back tomorrow for updates!

 

 

 

A Week In Pictures/Yr Wythnos Mewn Lluniau

It’s been grey, wet and ever so windy here over the past two weeks. We attempted a walk up Corn Du and Pen y Fan only to to find it so blustery on the top of Corn Du we didn’t get any further. Pen y Fan stayed tantalisingly out of reach, even though it would have only been another ten minutes’ walk on, but we decided it wasn’t the day for it. Whilst we were making that decision a fell runner passed us, leaping up among the rocks on the top with just a pair of shorts and a single long sleeved top on. He was hardier than us in our full walking gear. The Pen y Fan itch will have to be scratched on a better, calmer day.

No, it’s been the weather for staying in, baking and life decisions. I finally attempted some bara brith, after much complaining that they just don’t make it down here like they do where I grew up in North Wales. It turned out beautifully from just five ingredients: fruit soaked overnight in strong tea, allspice, flour, sugar and one egg.

Heading towards Christmas and the end of the year always makes me reflective. What have I achieved this year? How do I feel about another year passing? It’s been stormy weather at work this year too. Lots of changes, uncertainty, stress. Somewhere on those hills or in my kitchen I took a decision that has been a long time coming. It’s a decision that puts me back in control and firmly says ‘Don’t like it? Change it’. So I did. After nearly six years in my present job, I resigned. I leave at Christmas and start the New Year with a blank slate.

I haven’t talked about my job on here as it feels far removed from my life here in the valley. It’s a metropolitan career steeped in cities and politics, which I leave behind as I drive towards the hills. I soak overnight in the peace and utter quietness here ready for another day of what often just feels like fire-fighting. I’d like to find a way to better blend the two next year – I’m not sure yet what that could be, but I am sure of one thing: brighter days are ahead.

P.S. For all logophiles and nature lovers out there, Robert McFarlane’s Landmarks is a lovely read, charting the (often disappearing) words we use to describe our natural world. Ideal for broadening the vocabulary on Christmas walks. 

 

A Week In Pictures/Yr Wythnos Mewn Lluniau

Blaenavon Ironworks

Blorenge

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Just a quick update this week – seasons of mists in the garden and on walks around the valley. Blaenavon Ironworks is just over the mountain from us – it is now a musuem and part of the World Heritage Site. The road over the mountain – The Tumble – is a cyclists’ paradise and has featured in many Tours of Britain. 6km long with a steady gradient of 10% the above middle picture shows it, deceptively, as it flattens out over the top. Halloween passed us by in the valley last Saturday night – we’re too remote to have any trick or treaters and the (very few) local children are teenagers.

We’ve been celebrating the dank evenings and log fires by catching up with the new series of Y Gwyll/HInterland, which has started again on S4C in Welsh. Produced bilingually in Welsh then English, it’s a dark story of rural crime and long-held secrets set in the bleak but beautiful mountains around Aberystwyth. If you haven’t seen it catch up here.

Starting the Cottage reveal

So, when I redesigned the blog I promised some more posts about the cottage.  Let’s start with some background about the house before I move on the details.

We don’t know exactly how old the cottage is, but neighbours tell us it was probably built sometime in the early nineteenth century so could be up to 200 years old.

Back then this valley was radically different to the quiet, peaceful place it is today. In the nineteenth century it would have been a hive of heavy industry, with quarries and mines fuelling the industrial revolution. These days, you can still see the remains of some of the old villages, the forges and tramways that were used to transport the iron to the outside world. This is the landscape where Alexander Cordell based his novel Rape of the Fair Country, charting the hardship of life in these communities and the increasing tensions between the ironmasters and trade unionists.

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‘The Tumble’ road to Blaenavon goes over the Blorenge or Iron Mountain – one of Wales’ steepest climbs and now a popular cyclist route
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Keeper’s Pond on the very top of the Blorenge – built in the 19th century to provide water for Garnddyrys Forge
Gilwern quarries
Gilwern Hill limestone quarries

I talk about the ‘cottage’ in the singular, but actually the house started life as two small semi-detached cottages. You can just see in the picture that it looks like we have numerous front doors.

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View of the cottage from down in the garden
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One of the front doors from January 2014, by this time the door was so swollen and warped it was stuck fast and refused to open

The cottages had gardens to the front and shared a well for their water (which is still there although pretty silted up – take a look at the picture below – not sure I would have wanted to navigate those steps every day). At the back there were pig sties which still remain, although they’re in need of some restoration too. The cottages sat – and still sit – surrounded by fields, and were originally part of a larger neighbouring farm.

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Steps down to the ‘dip well’
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The back of the cottage 2014, after we’d chopped down a mass of blackthorn – the pig sties are down there somewhere…
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There they are! One of the two pig sties in a pretty bad way – but you can see the opening for the pigs and the outline of the stone walled open area

We know the cottages were occupied until the early twentieth century but then laid empty for some fifty years. In the early seventies the then owners the rescued them from near ruin and – turning them into a single cottage for the first time – renovated them with a pretty light touch. I think it would have been at this point that the cottage got its first electricity, but as there’s no gas main out here, heating came from a  solid fuel Rayburn installed into the kitchen. The same Rayburn that forty years later we’d come to battle with – unsuccessfully. Importantly though, they maintained the bones of the place – the flagstone floor in the dining room, the open beamed ceiling between the two floors, the tiny winding stone staircase that curves behind the fireplace.

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The Rayburn which we struggled with daily for six months
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The old stone staircase winds round the back of the fireplace – you can also just see the old bread oven in the side of the fire

When we bought the cottage two years ago, the time had come for a little updating. After forty years, the electricity needed rewiring and we decided to install some central heating. Both big jobs. We also wanted to install a kitchen as the previous one was freestanding and had been moved with the previous owners, leaving us with just a sink unit in the corner. The bathrooms also needed some updating.

So, now you’ve seen some of pictures from back when we moved in, let’s start on the before and afters! What would you like to see first?

A Taste of Autumn – Elderberry Vodka

1Autumn has very definitely arrived here in the valley. There is a real chill in the air and the leaves are coming down thick and fast. A few weeks ago we spotted some berries on our elder tree and as we (once again) missed the window for making elderflower cordial this year, decided to see whether we could use the berries instead.

The Internet doesn’t throw up that many suggestions for elderberry use and where it does it tends to come with a warning about tartness and bitterness. Given a long soak in some vodka and s healthy amount of sugar however, it seems you can make a very nice liqueur. The first winter we moved here evenings would consist of damson vodka in front of the fire listening to records and trying not to panic as we contemplated the very long list of ‘things to do in the house and garden’. So while fruit-based liqueurs will always have a mild taste of DIY-induced anxiety about them to me, I thought it would be good to try some home-made , home-grown elderberry vodka.

This recipe is courtesy of master forager Andy Hamilton, as found on the Guardian website, but all mistakes are entirely my own. Find more foraging and brewing recipes in his Booze for Free book.

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Identify your elder tree. We have one elder growing in front of the house; it’s half rotten from the base  (on the other side of this wall above) but still produces a glorious crop of frothy white elderflower each year. If you manage to refrain from picking the flowers – or like us, forget to – then in autumn you’ll be rewarded with hundreds of small purple berries hanging down in batches.

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Pick your berries. You’ll need 800ml elderberries which was just a small proportion of what was available on our one tree.

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Once picked, you need to strip the berries off their stalks. This is the messy part and your hands will turn a pretty purple colour, and you will still be finding runaway berries over your floor days later. We weren’t super fussy about whether some tiny bits of stalk got in with the berries as it all gets strained anyway.
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Once you have your 800ml elder berries it’s time to choose your vodka. You’ll need a standard 750ml bottle for this purpose. We had a bottle of Chase English Potato Vodka in the cupboard which I bought last year after I attended a hedgerow cocktail tutorial they ran at the Abergavenny Food Festival. Potatoes might seem an unusual choice to make vodka, but read their story and try some – I’m by no means vodka connoisseur but this is smooth and creamy.

Spoon your berries into a sealable jar. I used a 2 litre Kilner jar with a clippable lid. Pour 730ml vodka on top of the berries. Take the peel of half a lemon with as little pith as possible and put this in the jar. Seal. Drink your remaining 20ml vodka in a form that pleases you as reward for your foraging skills.

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Store your jar in a cool dark cupboard, shaking every week, for around 3 months. After this time you’ll need to strain the berries. I haven’t got to this part yet, but I’d suggest using a muslin cloth in a funnel over a bowl. Again, it sounds messy. Your aim here is to extract as much flavour from the berries whilst leaving behind the skins, stalks, lemon peel etc.

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Now you need to add your sugar. Here’s where Andy Hamilton suggests quantities are down to personal preference regarding how tart/sweet you like your drinks. The old adage of ‘you can always add, but you can’t take away’ applies. Start with 50g, but he suggests you can go up to a ‘shameful’ 200g. I’ll let you know what we go with when we get to this stage in January.

8At this point, you’ll want to ‘bottle’ your vodka. You can always keep and reuse the same bottle you’ve just emptied, or for aesthetic purposes you can decant your liqueur into a fancy flip-top bottle. Spoon (you might need to use the funnel again here) your sugar into the bottle and pour the vodka over the top. Shake.

Store your newly strained, sugared vodka for a further 2 months, remembering to shake every week. After this time your elderberry vodka is ready to drink, but can be kept in your sealed bottle maturing nicely with age. Get the fire going, put a record on and enjoy!

Find more foraging and brewing tips from Andy Hamilton on his website The Other Andy Hamilton.

New Melin Tregwynt catalogue

Whilst others hang out for the latest Toast collection, it’s the new Melin Tregwynt catalogue landing in the post that gets me excited. Beautifully designed Welsh tapestry fabric made into blankets, throws, cushions or available by the metre. There’s a new collection for autumn 2015, ‘Patrwm Patagonia’, inspired by the story of the pioneers from Wales who settled in South America 150 years ago and set up new Welsh-speaking communities which exist to this day.

However, it’s the St David’s Cross design that I really love. This reversible design is an historic pattern, based on eighteenth century Shaker design. You might remember the curtains I was planning, ooh, almost one year to the day ago now? Well, being nothing if not indecisive, I’m still planning. With winter coming however, I’m feeling a bit of pressure to now get these sorted.

So, I have two windows that need covering, both full-length French windows. For the first one in our living room, I’m planning something quite neutral in greys as we have a few big splashes of colour from a footstool and cushions already, so the St David’s Cross in Silver would be ideal in there:

For the second French door though I’m looking for something a bit more colourful. This is in our dining room and has replaced an old solid stable door that was so warped with damp that it didn’t open. We put in a glass door and the light now floods in. It does get a bit cold though in winter when you sit at the table with your back to it, so it needs a curtain to keep the heat in. The rest of the room is pretty neutral, so it can take some colour. I’m thinking of the St David’s Cross in this red colourway:

Just look how good it looks in ‘real life’ i.e. if I had a beautiful old oak settle:

Now all I have to do is get the fabric ordered and made. Stay tuned (don’t hold your breath).

All pictures: Melin Tregwynt