After a relatively mild start to the year, winter has now hit West Yorkshire with a vengeance! Yes, the combination of a week of hard frosts, light snow and a shoulder injury for Hubcap has put Helmickton into full cold-weather lock-down mode, with our new Dunsley Yorkshire smokeless stove proving to be literally worth its weight in gold. We’re very glad we decided to have it recessed into the chimney breast; it’s so much bigger and hotter than our previous Dunsley Highlander that the kitchen would be unbearable otherwise - especially when we ‘very fill’ it, as the instructions charmingly, if ungrammatically, recommend! And it’s doing a fine job of heating the house, thanks to an excellent Christmas present: this Valiant cast-iron convector fan, a simple but effective means of circulating the heat and pushing it around the whole ground floor – something well worth having for anyone who uses a solid fuel stove.
And since we’re both currently at home all day with it blazing away, the stove has also come into its own as a supplementary cooker.
Over the past week I’ve made scrambled eggs and a rice pudding on it – and thanks to another excellent Christmas present (a cast iron and ceramic tagine - basically a small, self-contained oven which can be used on any sort of hob), yesterday I slow-cooked a full meat-and-two veg dinner with gravy on it, for no cost apart from firewood from Beckside and a few lumps of coal. Very satisfying as an energy-conservation and money-saving measure – and the food’s pretty satisfying, too! The picture shows the tagine and fan working away; you might also be able to make out the old black kettle heating water to thaw out the bird-bath, and a pair of Hubcap's work-boots drying out in the warm alcove. It truly is a great asset.
Other winter conservation measures we’re actively involved in are keeping our resident bird population well fed and watered. Despite the general decline in British bird numbers, our garden birds are thriving; and as well as the usual suspects, recently we’ve been delighted to see starlings here for the first time in many years, along with a glorious cock pheasant and the occasional thrush (a sadly rare visitor these days). We’re also doing our best to look after the insects. Creepy-crawlies may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but with flying insect numbers decreasing at an alarming and dangerous rate, every single little life has become so precious that I’ll no longer even swat a fly. And despite the numerous ‘bug hotels’ situated around the garden, we’ve always had an issue with ladybirds coming indoors in cold weather to hibernate, only to wake up fully in the heat, then get accidentally squashed or die of dehydration trapped in the soft furnishings. So this year we’re trying a different tack: instead of chucking them outside to risk freezing, we’re collecting them in a jar of dry leaves with a ventilated lid. We now have dozens tucked away, torpid in the cold dark loft, where they’re protected from frost and can sleep safely until the spring. Then we’ll release them round the fruit trees at Beckside, where they’ll act as a superb biological control against aphids, and help us keep the land organic – another very satisfying thought.
Finally, on a completely different tack: last week I delivered a talk on The Reign of Richard III which Hubcap thought was one of my best ever; and while researching for it, I was struck by an idea about Richard III's famous motto, 'Loyalty Binds Me.' If you'd like to read more about it, check out my latest blog, Richard III: Bound by Loyalty?