Friday, 26 August 2011

School shoes made of fairy gold, only black

How criminally stupid am I that I didn't click to the fact that son will not only need new school shoes now his feet have grown, and Big School beckons, but also shoes to wear out of school. It had clean vanished from my head. I don't know what I was imagining he'd wear at weekends. Maybe the wellies, or Buzz Lightyear slippers. Leastways, even with my cheapskate buying techniques, the Back to School spend has been, well, expensive. I've purchased the minimum, but the minimum is a lot. Despite the school being a comprehensive, so no boater buying, the polo shirts and fleeces add up. Then there's the water bottle, the lunchbox (HOW much for a box?), the bag, the PE kit. All in all, I reckon i've spent the best part of 100 quid, putting me at about average, according to research. And that was before shoes.

The shoes that small boys (and girls) wear are not made as mortal shoes. No, they are made from the finest unicorn skin, heeled in Griffin scales and modelled so as to gift the wearer with the power to fly. As they slip on the shoes, they become magically endowed with the power to make money vanish from the moth eaten purses of parents. "Oh Mummy!" the bairns do cry, "these shoes are magnificent! Surely I will be top of the (overlarge and underfunded) class in these shiny and most drearily coloured feet coverings! Please buy them anon!" And Lo! The parent doth unclasp the purse, and wearily part with the best part of 50 quid for a pair of black Startrites. Before walking the walk of shame to the cheap shoe shop, to buy some trainers, for weekends, that are made, verily, from no natural substance, and will not repel rain. But are 10 quid.

If his feet grow before he's had a good 3 months out of them, i'll weep.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

And here's some artefacts we found earlier.....

This week I've had the pleasure of finding out a little more about the archaeology at the bottom of my garden. Thankfully, I didn't have to have that annoying Mr Robinson in, I merely exercised my rights as a nosy bolshy person and invited a consultant round for a cuppa. The consultant in question was a Mr Rob Bourne, of CGMS, a firm that works for developers, handling the pesky archaeology requirements before huge swathes of teeny tiny executive homes can be hoisted up.He conducts the evaluation reports for the County Council and reports back, to say whether there is anything there worth looking at or not. You can see the interview with him here. It was eye opening in more ways than one.

Firstly, I discovered a little about the planning process. What amazed me about it is the sheer hugely deadening grey aspect of it. It is impenetrable unless you are a) a planner and b) a councillor who is essentially, a planner or developer (and oddly, Fenland is awash with them), or c) a nosy bolshy person who won't shut up until it's explained to you. The whole system of planning is based around a "need to know" attitude which basically means that unless you ask, and ask again, and then ask again, crossly and with threats, you won't find out. If I hadn't asked and asked again about the evaluation dig at Tithe Road, i'd have been told nothing, and known nothing about it. Because I harassed people, I have now been told that i'll be mailed the evaluation report by the nice Mr Bourn. Anyone can read it apparently, but first you have to know it's there. And then there's the whole maze of applications, developers, people in peoples' pockets and so on and so on. You need a mind with the tenacity of a starving Jack Russell in a warrent o keep at it. Luckily, I don't have much to do of an evening.

Secondly, I found that the system of recording finds, and deciding whether something is worth digging or not is tenuous. I've no doubt that Mr Bourne was a nice man with the interests of everyone at heart, but the fact remians that a consultant employed by the developers is not the most partisan of people to write a report about the findings. Whilst I trusted him, I do wonder if this system is open to abuse. Of course it ruddy is. Luckily, Mr Bourne has flagged up finds and is recommending further excavation in the case of Tithe.

Thirdly, where does all this stuff go? So much is found, so much, then, vanishes again. Every build has an evaluation dig. Every dig has a report. (or at least, *should*, despite Mr Melton's protest), but where do they end up? In the realms of grey literature. Processed somewhere and stashed away in the archives, unasked for, unpublicised, unwanted by anyone, least of all the planners. There they sit, in Cambridgeshire or wherever archives, full of tasty info about the history of where YOU live, and nobody knows they are there, unless they are nosy and bolshy enough to ask. Sensing a theme here?

Fourthly: There's a huge amount out there! I recommend to you a visit to the Heritage Gateway, here, and if you are Cambridgeshire, search the Cambridge Historical  Environment database. You will be astonished by the huge amount of STUFF found on your doorstep. In  Chatteris alone, there are Roman encampments, Bronze Age canoes, shields, urns, barrows, Iron age barrows and burial grounds,  coin hoardes, medieval settlements sites, Roman farms, it goes on and on. Over 1116 reports and records that you can access. Of course, you'd need to be nosy and.... you see. You need to know this stuff. Because most of these reports come from evaluation digs, prior to toytown houses popping up.

Fifthly (is fifthly even a word? It just sounds wrong, doesn't it?) This week I have learnt so much. I'm treading on history. Much more than I ever suspected. Why don't we know about it? Why don't we have fabbier, fatter local museums that know about this? If I can spend 2 hours reading through this stuff and build up a rich picture of where I live in history, why can't you? Because you have to be.....
You have to be in the know. You have to be a pain in the bum. So go, go to your local planners. Ask about developments. Keep an eye out for those yellow signs on lamposts conviniently located above normal eyelevel that tell you a major development is coming. Read the boring notices in the back of the local paper. Go to council meetings. Harass people for reports.
I now know that the site for major development at the back of my house has 3 settlements, Bronze, Iron, and Roman, alongside a glacial feature that was in all likelihood water filled for the majority of the year. There are bones, postholes and eveidence of longterm settlement.  All over the fields there's ridge and furrow, possibly one barrow. The settlements lay where the road will go, and for this reason the consultant has intimated to me that his evaluation report will ask for mitigation to pursue an extensive excavation. Now it's in the hands of the developers as to when. If they choose, they can do it all at once, and then be able to "sell on" a "clean" site that has it all done. Or, they can choose to develop up to the sites, sell the houses, and do the dig at the last minute. So we could get a dig this year, or in ten years, when presumably they will be hoping i've moved by then. Either way, those who are interested will have to be nosy...etc etc to keep an eye on it.

Here's the political bit. Leaving aside the HUGE ALAN MELTON BOO BOO that he has been using a private email address to conduct Fenland business, and most especially, that this Freedom of Information Act request has stated that, because of this, info about Melton and development cannot be released (, oh yes, more of that next post, and you can see the application for the FOI here), politically archaeology and development are both in this together with the localism bill. The localism bill plays fast and loose with planning, making it easier than ever for developers and nasty fat little councillors to make their bucks and ruin communities, and whilst it *says* it gives locals a voice, it really does not. You can comment on websites, surely, but there's not much you can do.And we do need to do something. The East of England Development plan, and the Fenland section in particular, sanctions MASSIVE development of the Fens.(17,000 houses in ten years) The report, which can be accsessed here, details the major housing expansion in the area, and asks to comment. If you are local, please do. But do more than that. Ring and ask them about how they are addressing the "locals" section of all this. If there is anything you read that concerns you, contact them. In other words, be nosy, annoyed and persistant. Email is easy to ignore.

 And in terms of the archaeology? Southport group report recommended a number of moves that would enable archaeology and the developers to, in trendy report speak, "enable" each other. (You see what I did there? Do you feel warm and cuddly now?). It's a good report with some good ideas, and the main thrust of it seems to me to be goodhearted, and sensible, placing the onus on public participation and publication, getting the info out there. It's worth a  read. And anyone local who is interested in putting some of those ideas into place in the Fens, particularly around major new developments that are coming, is welcome to mail me and we'll sort something out.

Council brief summary of Chatteris history. Pretty basic.
Heritage gateway: ruddy fab

Saturday, 6 August 2011

I begin the long kiss goodbye to my view

At the end of my garden, there are fields. Lots of them. A flat eye view all the way to Ely. I love them. This week they have given me 10lbs of blackberries and the same again of wild plums. In the Autumn they give me sloes, hips and crabapples.  The view encompasses an old Medieval Tithe Barn, a working farm, and as much as any human eye can take in, it being the Fens. Sometimes the landscape is more Kansas than Cambridge. I watch flocks of crows, seagulls, and the odd Red Kite circle round the fields. There's a pair of Barn Owls in the barn, as there should be. I've seen hares, rabbits, lots of voles and mice, and an abundance of wild flowers that love the drainage ditches, lillies, marsh plants and marginals. We use the field edges to walk to the park, so much nicer than going roadways, and to ramble, daily, insect spotting. Son makes believe he is "off roading" on a Honda, daughter is in a jungle. Horses thunder by the end of the garden, people stop off the footpath to pick blackberries and chuck weeds at my hens. It is one of a few footpaths in farming country, in a town seriously deproved of green space. (Crazy: so rural, yet so hard up for it: it's the farmers). And it is going, all going, to build the supposedly essential 1,000 new homes. I am incensed, upset, angry, tearful, and worst of all, utterly, utterly hidebound. There is nothing, nothing, I can do. It's done. It's in the Fenland Development plan. The "consultation" on it was a derisory 2 hours of a display board in a community centre, unadvertised, for 2 hours one weekday. The letters to residents were sent out over Christmas, when we were mostly away. I will attend all the meetings I can, and shout as much as I can, but councillor after councillor has told me, "This will happen".

So, it's a case of how it will happen. The plan shows the usual uniform array of toytown houses, crushed into a space which would be reasonable for half the amount of houses, and with the usual exec homes and about 2 housing associations ones chucked in the margins. The green credentials appear to rest on "green corridors" (for which read :pathways that the development corp will soon shuck off responsibility for, and will soon descend to teen fumbling areas). The supposed play area is where the fields flood every year, for 3 months. There are no regulations to stop paving over gardens, the green space is risible, and the risk of run off, in a below sea level area, to my mind, high. Although not according to the planners. This amount of extra houses (and people) gives us, in return, a few shopping units, a redirected bus route, a primary school (no increase in intake to an already overcrowded secondary though), and a vague promise from the developers to donate some money to the town. Added to this, the policing levels are being cut, the Fire service is being cut, the bus service has already been halved, and the GP and school systems are already overloaded. But hey, there will be a ruddy big Tesco out of town.

I have seriously never lived in an area with a worse, more shortsighted, self gratifying council in my life, and this is REALLY saying something, considering I used to live in Hackney. The Councils response so far has mostly been about the increase in council tax money they'll be getting. Which just about says it all. And considering our esteemed leader, Mr Alan Melton, is only just above the level of an amoeba when it comes to doing anything except line his pockets, I was naturally concerned when I saw diggers this week. A lot of diggers. Digging trenches. My first thought was "ARGGGH! Surely the permissions hasn't been granted yet?" and the second was "Where's the archaeology?" This was very important as a second thought, as Mr Melton was widely acclaimed/ laughed at/ spat on last month for his name calling of archaeologists ("Bunny Huggers") and declamation that he would, as leader, do away with all of those silly rules about preserving the rights of archaeologists to dig prior to development.  (I blogged it here) So, I took up my keyboard and phone and did some digging of my own.

And lo, it is a real dig. They are doing the Bunny Hugging digging in my back garden. And whilst I will regret, deeply, the loss of my view and wild places, (although it's not over yet, Melton) I am pleased that it's going ahead properly and we'll get a chance to dig deep on a large plot of , I hope, serious worth. Bronze Age, Iron age, Roman, a 10th Century manor house, and more. I am hoping to interview one of the archaeologists soon about it all. Watch this space for that. And take a look at the pictures of a part of England that is going.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Glut here, lack there.

We are now officially struggling. I'm over my comfort debt threshold (which, truthfully, is 1p in debt, but practically, it means we are 1,500 overdrawn and I fret, I fret). I'm down to the knuckle in terms of what I can spend every week on food, and having to budget in advance for uniform buys and even bus fares. I hate it. A year ago we were flush, I didn't have to think, now I do, every day. I pick away every day at the thought that perhaps I should work too. But I don't want to. Not because I don't *want* to, but because this is son's first year of school, and daughters year of playgroup. I want so much to spend it helping him through it by having tea done for him when gets in, knackered, and shuffling him to bed, happy,through that first year. I know from experience how he chats on the way home from anywhere, and what a kid downlaod time that is. I wouldn't miss it for the world: everything rises up on that long walk home. Who said what, what's bothering him, the lifecycle of earwigs. That's for me, not a childminder, if I can at all help it. And daughter: she never had that one on one time that son had before her noisy arrival. I want this year of time with my daughter before she goes to school, to focus solely on her during the day, to know her a bit more, away from her brother. (This is easier said than done. Being so close, together, they have no need of me and have developed a hive mind). I will cut, cut, cut again to the bone to be at home this year. Not that there are any jobs that suit, anyway.
And to that end, I am foraging and scrimping. The fields at the end of my garden, (soon to be home to 1,000 homes instead of the wheat, Roman remains, Iron age settlements,and wildlife it currently supports) are blessed with loads of blackberries and wild plums,one crabapple, one wild pear, and lots of damson and sloe along the hedgerows. Nobody else seems to pick them, the berries lay heavy on the branch. Just me and kids. It's a true blessing for us, it will furnish us with jam, chutney and soft fruit through the winter, if I get can my vinegar knowledge hat on. This week (and last!) I have collected 10lbs of blackberries, 14 lbs of plums, and 8 dustbin liners of straw leftover after the balers had been and gone. The straw will bed the chickens, the soft fruit has already made 8 pots of plum chutney and 6 bottles of plum ketchup, one blackberry and plum slump, and lots of snacks. However, a dent has not been made. So I intend to make Plum and blackberry chilli chutney, bottle plums and pears, make blackberry wine, and freeze a raft of fruit. The fact remains though, that chutney and preserves will not feed us all Winter, and we will get sick of our runner beans before long. Even the rampant courgettes won't sustain us. I can pot and preserve as much as I like, it won't really help (The chickens must be nervous....) Basically, it is the eighties. I'm poor again, and all I can do is batten down the hatches, love the kids, and hope they don't notice. In a few more months I may be waiting in line at the new Tesco, asking for work. (sob). Or maybe i'll be picketting it. Hope springs.

So, to that end, here's a recipe for spicy plum chutney, which is DELISH with blue cheese and a cracker. This should be made, and left for 4 weeks, or up to 2 years before eating. It's gorgeous, and not at all plummy. It's what I want and hope my kids will be: a lovely fruity, diverse thing born out of adversity.
1.5kg plums, stoned and quartered or more, depending on size
Handful blackberries
6 shallots, finely chopped
700g dried fruit (I used dried apricots and sultanas)
600g sugar (I used half jam making sugar and half brown)
500ml vinegar (I used cider vinegar, but rice vinegar is also nice)
1 lemon, sliced into 8 slices, then finely chopped. (This adds pectin)
And the spices:
4 sliced cloves garlic
Thumb sized piece of ginger, chopped
Some people stop here, but I also added:
10 black peppecorns
7 juniper berries
1 teaspoon coriander powder
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon allspice
1 teaspoon salt
3 black cardamons, whole (remove after cooking)
2 sticks lemongrass, bashed (remove after cooking)
6 birdseye red chillies, in muslin, whole (remove after cooking)
You can add or subtract spices as you like, I like a fairly hot chutney, and the black cardamons are my secret ingredient, they add a smoky touch to the end product, being quite unlike the green.I'm cooking up a batch as we speak (pictured, top), that has more blackberries, less plums, and star anise in.

Basically, add all the ingredients, bring to boil, then simmer for about 4-5 hours, until you have a nice thick, reduced mixture that parts like the red sea when you draw a spoon across the bottom of the pan. Then cool slightly before pouring into warmed jars (I bake my jars at gas 3 for 10 minutes to sterilise), and sealing. Put them in a dark cupboard and forget about them for 4 weeks, then distribute and eat. I can't tell you how much this makes as I used a hodge podge of old jars, it made 2 large and 4 small the last two times though! Never underestimate how much chutney reduces. I urge you to try your hand at chutney. Nicer than jam, and more useful to the late night snacker. It makes cheese on toast a grand meal.  (The picture, right, shows Plum chilli chutney, Plum ketchup, and plum and ginger chutney, and the brownish round fluff you can see at the far left is a hens' arse.)