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.



A Week In Pictures/Yr Wythnos Mewn Lluniau

Blaenavon Ironworks



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.

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.


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.


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


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.

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.


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.


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.

A garden update: starting the unveiling, part 1

If you’ve been following Hidden Valley Wales for a while you’ll have seen our Big Garden Project slowly unfolding. When we moved into the house nearly two years ago (two years!) we inherited a very overgrown garden. It’s a traditional productive cottage garden with great shape and structure but large areas had been let go for a number of years. The spaces closest to the house were great with a small herb garden and mature borders, all surrounded by a flagstone terrace that wraps around the front of the house and provides a real suntrap for morning coffees, weekend lunches, evening glasses of wine…however, the further down the garden you move the wilder it got. As the garden is all to the front of the cottage it’s what we look out on every day so it was really important to us to get it sorted and make it as lovely as we knew it once was. Now I’m ready to start unveiling what we’ve been up to all this time, although you can see glimpses of it herehere and here.

I’ve tried to draw out the plan of the garden here so you can visualise it. Disclaimer: I’m no artist, as you can see, but hopefully me and my coloured pencils help you navigate your way around a bit. You can see there are a number of different areas within the garden as it all gently slopes down towards the stream at the bottom of the valley. I”m going to split this update into three I think to make it a little less wordy and difficult to get through. So, this is part 1: what I grandly call the top terrace. On the plan below it’s the section at the very bottom.

Garden plan

The space closest to the house – aka the top terrace – is more formal with flower borders and the herb patch. We had less heavy work to do here – just some patching up of the grass with grass seed where we’d removed the geraniums which colonise every patch of garden they possibly can, tidying up the borders and the herb patch and keeping the terrace free of the weeds that spring up between the flagstones every time my back is turned.

The herb patch with borders behind, January 2014
And again, June 2015
Herb patch with borders behind filling out for summer, June 2015
Border before it got too jam-packed this year, June 2015

We inherited this amazing stone trough under the window which we’ve planted up this year with verbena and some summer-flowering bulbs. It’s a riot of red and pink. Garden colour schemes are not our strong point.

Empty stone trough and old stable door which was swollen shut, January 2014
Stone trough, July 2015 – yes, I know the verbena and lilies clash

I’ve also added a cold frame which might form the basis of another post, I don’t know, it could tip me and you over the edge of gardening dullness. Anyway, let’s just say that the terrace is a lovely spot for coffee drinking, reading, contemplating and wine drinking but mainly wine drinking.

This beautiful valerian grows out of all the terrace walls

This year we bought some new garden furniture for the terrace to replace the broken old bench we’d used last year during the building project as we can now safely have nice things without the threat of them being covered in mortar, dust and general building crap. So, a really nice new set from Cox and Cox arrived this spring which we’ve been enjoying through the summer.

Terrace, January 2014, complete with our broken blue bench
Terrace, July 2015, with Cox and Cox garden furniture set. The stable door has been replaced with a glass door to make the most of the views.

We also got this little bench to go on the top area of lawn as it’s light enough to move around easily to catch the sun in the mornings.

Bench, modelled by Hodges

Actually, there is still more work yet to do here. We have a project round the side of the house which is for another day (year) – we removed an old shed here and have yet to completely decide what to do with the space. More of that another time. Also, the borders that I said were mature? They’re actually mature to the point of being jam packed – the rampant geraniums need thinning out and the crocosmia need dividing so that’s something for this autumn and winter. I also have a large empty space in the border where we’ve repaired the fallen-down wall which needs something.

Still, for this year, we’re delighted with what we’ve achieved. A great spot to sit, drink wine and look out at the rest of the garden and the mountain beyond.

View from the garden. I staged the white horse…

Next up: part 2 and the vegetable patch!

Holiday to-do list – an update

Mowing paths in the field

Holidaying in Wales in July is always going to be dicey weather-wise. All this green doesn’t happen by accident. And rained it has, not every day, but probably half the time we were here. Still, we had a great two weeks in the cottage and garden, getting on with projects and taking some time to explore more around the area than we usually have opportunity to do during the weekends.

Chimneys and blue skies from the back of the house

But, how did I get on with the to-do list I so optimistically posted at the start of the holiday?

  1. Weed large bed of ground elder doom – spectacular fail on this one. Not only did I not weed it but the weeds are now literally laughing at me every time I walk past.
  2. Try at least two new walks in the area Done! We had a number of fantastic walks including a great 6 miler around Talybont on Usk reservoir, ending up for lunch and a tremendous selection of real ales at the Star Inn. We also did an extremely wet (did I mention the rain?) walk up Table Mountain, just outside Crickhowell, where we were dry for approximately 10 minutes of a 3 hours walk. Ordinarily there would be spectacular views from the top but not that day.
  3. Try out kayaking on the river Wye Done! We hired a two man Canadian kayak from Wye Valley Canoes in Glasbury and did a 5 mile kayak down the Wye to Hay. They then pick you up so you don’t have to do the hard bit and paddle upstream, and transport you and your kayak back to base where we had a lovely lunch at their River Cafe next door. Thanks to Jane and her labrador for the lift! We’re now planning our next, longer outing on the river.
  4. Deadhead flower beds  Done! Admittedly this was a quick and easy one, but a nice meditative pastime to tidy up the flower beds.
  5. Cut back geraniums  as experiment to see whether they reflower Done! Zero signs of regrowth so far.

So, not bad really and the ground elder bed was always going to be a long term project. The Mexican Marigolds I sowed back in spring are now coming on well, after being really slow to germinate I have around 5 decent plants to go in and hopefully zap the ground elder with their noxious smelling roots. That’s the theory anyway, I’ll keep you posted.

Now it’s back to work and just being here at weekends, trying to get things done. We have a few nice milestones in the diary coming up though – Green Man in just three weeks time. Anyone else got ways to get through the post-holiday blues?

Pinks and purples

Holiday to-do list

View from Ysgyryd Fawr/The Skirrid towards Sugar Loaf

So, we’re now on holiday here in Wales for two glorious long weeks. Lots to do – working, relaxing and exploring. I started as I hope to continue with an early morning walk up the Skirrid. Here’s just a sample of the to-do list:

  • Weed large bed of ground elder doom
  • Try at least two new walks in the area
  • Try out kayaking on the river Wye
  • Deadhead flower beds
  • Cut back geraniums  as experiment to see whether they reflower

What I’m reading….

…on the internet rather than the book variety. You don’t need to know how my Kindle hides my guilty historical fiction habit on the regular train commute. No, I love how reading blogs can teach you so much, particularly as an enthusiastic but decidedly amateur gardener and house decorator. LIke going for a walk in the winter dusk and peering through windows where curtains haven’t yet been drawn, getting a glimpse into other people’s lives is always fascinating. What other way would I get to see what individuals as diverse as a German gardener, a Brooklyn/upstate New Yorker, and a rural English homesteader are up to with their houses and plots?

So, if you’re not already following these three I would heartily recommend the following.

Photo: Taking Notes

Taking Notes – tales of ‘a 30-something living in a tiny village near Berlin, Germany’ with her incredibly adorable dog Ludwig (Ludwig!) and cats. Her walled garden is a thing of beauty and her interior photographs are stunning, earning her a recent spot on Design Sponge. She also knows all the names of the flowers in her garden, a feat which never ceases to amaze me (I did say I was an amateur gardener). Happily, Ludwig makes regular appearances modelling aspects of the house and garden.

Photo: Door Sixteen

Door Sixteen – Anna writes about renovating her Victorian house in Newburgh, New York state and her midweek life in Brooklyn. Her DIY renovations are impressively professional (this kitchen project!) and what I would call her ‘pared back black and white Scandi style with accents of Morrissey’ house is a gem. If just reading about the house isn’t enough, you can now buy Door Sixteen! Anna’s house is up for sale for a price that would make London dwellers cry. Sadly, her insanely cute dogs aren’t included.

Photo: An English Homestead

An English Homestead – Kev’s chronicles of living as sustainably and self sufficiently as possible. His veg garden puts mine to shame, particularly as he looks after his two little girls whilst doing it. There’s also a greenhouse, new hedging, apple trees, and now some sheep to add to the homestead, seemingly he can turn his hand to most things.

What are you reading?

Three fine days and a thunderstorm


So far, June has been a mixed bag of weather. We had a glorious weekend of sunshine last week, followed by some chilly days this week, then close humidity and twelve hours of rain over the past day. This time last year we were barbecuing outdoors every weekend evening (not always by choice – we were living in one room in the cottage as the renovation work began and had no kitchen), drinking pink wine in coats. To date this year, we’ve eaten outside just once.

The garden has shot up, almost overnight. The herb garden is now around my knees and the mint and thyme that looked so straggly and parched a few weeks ago have revived incredibly. The sage is better than I’ve ever seen it before.

The peas and broad beans are about eight inches tall now, and I’ve staked the peas with some twiggy branches to wind themselves up. There is a garden down in the village which I pass every time I leave here and look enviably at their beautiful veg garden. Their peas are about two foot high and the beans about three foot. I can’t tell whether it’s because they’ve started them in a greenhouse (to have a greenhouse!) or whether the more sheltered conditions and a hundred feet lower than up here has that much of an impact.


The turf that went down nearly a month ago is looking great and has grown several inches. The rain overnight will have done it good. There is still seeding to be done around the pond, hence all the bare soil still present in the picture. It will eventually be a mixture of grass with wildflowers around the banks of the pond. The stone wall has raced along and is now nearly complete. In the way of things round here though, one job completed and looking good only highlights many others yet to be done. The rest of the stone wall that wraps round the garden now looks in an even worse state than before in contrast to the new. You can just about see it in the far right of the picture, looking like a tall heap of stone. The stone mason is recommending a ‘take down and start afresh’ approach but I’m loath to knock down something that has stood for a hundred, a hundred and fifty years just to make it look neater. I don’t know…I’m unsure what to do on that one.