Rocketry, the culinary version

I was having a chat the other day with some online friends about cooking in any medium-term grid-down emergency, and it was a little sobering. I have a one-ring camping stove for short term, with several gaz canisters – but if I had no power for longer than a week, I’d end up having problems. It’s amazing how we as humans can just ignore the blindingly obvious.

I scouted about on Amazon, and found quite a few possibles, at varying prices, and in themselves they’re great, I love the look of some of them, and I’ve included my single burner gaz stove for reference.

I was just about to buy one when I remembered the rocket stove I’d three-quarters made a couple of years ago. I’d got stuck making the top – all the online instructions I’d found tended to gloss over that bit, they seemed to focus on applying the principles of the rocket stove (which are quite something to get your head around, of course) rather than the finicky bits of finishing off the whole thing.

So, I’d got a big tin, I found one of tinned veg going cheap in Poundland (a size ten tin, in US terms), and I got a second from my local chippie, on standby, in case I made a mess of things, or another local family member wants it. I wanted it insulated, to help with the secondary ignition of the wood gases and help it burn hotter, so I needed insulation: I chose vermiculite, from an ordinary B&Q. The inner surface was provided by a supermarket tin of tinned potatoes – they’re about 1lb in gross weight. The funnel for feeding the fuel in, I used an ordinary size baked bean tin (I have a lot of those!). The leftover vermiculite can be used later in gardening projects, or a second rocket stove.

Fitting all the tins together was much more difficult for me than all the youtube videos imply. I love these sorts of projects, faffing about with little stuff, but I don’t have a long history with them, so trial and error is tough. I worked on the three tins (minus the insulation) for quite a while, with my dad’s old electric drill, until they fitted together as well as I could manage.

That wasn’t very well at all, quite honestly, there were gaps here there and everywhere. So I went to Wickes, which has almost as many branches as B&Q, and bought some fire cement – I reasoned that if it can be used on fires, then it can be used on rocket stoves. I used that to seal the joints between the cans, and after letting it dry for a few days, I gradually filled up the insulating wall with the vermiculite.

That’s where what instructions I could find stopped making sense. I knew I needed exits for the air and flames that were immediately underneath whatever pan I chose to heat up. But I didn’t know how to make those vents through the thickness of the whole wall. I tried fixing on another can to the funnel, with more fire cement, then making a sort of fan on which the pan would sit, but I could tell it wouldn’t last long, and anyway there was nothing to stop the vermiculite flying away every time I turned the stove upside down to get rid of whatever ashes had accumulated. I was stuck.

And thats how it stayed for a few years, to be honest. I moved on to other things, including research, and getting my garden straighter, and then I came across this video.  Eureka!

It showed me how to use the top that had been cut off my biggest tin to create a cover for the insulation, cutting a sort of chimney in it. I made a pretty bad job of placing the hole correctly – I knew the chimney on my rocket stove was wonky, and it all just fitted together badly, there’s no two ways of saying that. To make up for it, I made an insert from the thick aluminium of a disposable barbecue tray, much heavier than a roll of aluminium foil – light enough to be cut by scissors, but still fairly heavy duty. And then I lashed everything down tight with layers of fire cement. I skimmed over the inside of the biggest tin with the cement too, because it was lined with plastic, and I didn’t want to see that catching fire.

I tried to copy the sort of crenellations at the top of the stove, that would support the pan and provide air spaces, but I didn’t have the right tools for the job, and by then I just wanted it finished, quite frankly. So I decided to compromise: I’d bought an old cast iron barbecue way back, but I’d found out its lining (which was leaking from the underside) was made of asbestos, so it was useless to me. But the grid was still good to be used, so I’ve put that on top of the stove. I’ve used the lid from a big tin of potatoes as the insert that guides the twigs into the fire and still leaves a big space underneath to create a draft, and it’s good to go!

It’s not smooth, it’s not pretty, but it is securely functional. And all it cost me was a tenth of a bag of vermiculite, plus a little tub of fire cement. In using them, I gained a ton of skills and experience. I think it’s a win-win, and I’ve become quite proud of it.

Dangerous animals in the UK: Part Two.

So, I’m finally publishing Part Two of the blog about staying safe from animals. All of it applies during a country walk on a Sunday just as much as it applies during some emergency that forces you to try to walk home under your own steam.

Badgers, although their jaws and claws look fearsome, are very, very rarely a problem. They’ve been hunted for hundreds of years, so they’re wary, but if you come across one, or one comes across you when you’re taking a breather, they’ll just avoid you. The only badgers that are a problem are ones that have been raised with humans, so losing their fear and becoming less likely to react with avoidance, or badgers that have been injured or feel trapped: they may well become aggressive, as any animal would.

Deer: in the USA, more than a hundred people are killed every year – but that’s when people accidentally run into deer on the road, and are killed in the resulting crash, sadly. Direct attacks – as with any animal, I’d say not to get between a deer and it’s calf, but there’s something else to consider with deer: rutting season. And there’s an interesting little article about the Royal Parks, from October 2011, which is bang on the rutting season, apparently. I’ve also checked a few American sites, and here’s the advice:

  • don’t be there in the rutting season!
  • move away when you see deer, before there’s any chance of entanglement. Retreat before it becomes necessary.
  • if you have no choice but to be there at that time, and you get chased, climb a tree. Staying still, curling up on the ground, those tactics are useless when faced with a rutting stag.
  • and here’s a scary piece of advice from wirelessdeerfence.com: “if you’re attacked by a stag, try to protect your head and face. If possible, grab the antlers or front legs”. Needless to say, that’s the least attractive option. And given how big stags can be, it sounds almost as likely to be lethal as being gored. The link is to a resource list about dangers rather than the specific one quoted.
Vipera berus by Benny Trapp, Wikimedia Commons

Snakes are feared by many, many people. I have my own share of fears, but snakes don’t worry me at all, I’m much more likely to go “aaaahhh” then “eewwww”. The only one in the UK to be at all worrisome is the adder, as most people know, and it seems to be really difficult to get bitten by one, quite frankly. I’ve seen one in the wild, while I was walking on Dartmoor, and it was sunbathing on a rock as I walked by. Very nice encounter.

Unusually, the NHS has a page on snakebites, with plenty of links. There’s a lot on that page, as well as walking websites, but these are the basics:

  • don’t rush or panic, that will increase your rate of circulation and let the venom cause more cell damage.
  • rest as much as possible, for 4 or 5 days.
  • get to a doctor as soon as you reasonably can. Treatment is usually anti-histamines, to control the swellings, and antibiotics for secondary infections. Anti-venom is rarely prescribed because the side effects are usually worse.
  • try to identify what bit you – take a photo on your camera or your phone. Remember the shape, size and colour.
  • remove jewellery and watches from the bitten limb, in case it swells quickly.

There’s an interesting blog from a veterinarian practice in Warwickshire, about animals getting snakebites, which hadn’t occurred to me: but if you’re taking your dog into “snake country”, then of course it could happen.

And if you’re with someone who’s been bitten (this is from the NHS) here’s a list of what not to do:

  • don’t try to suck the venom out of the bite like they do in films.
  • don’t cut the bite area to make it bleed.
  • don’t rub anything into the wound, or apply ice or heat.
  • don’t use a tourniquet.
  • don’t try to catch or kill the snake.

My personal experience of being chased by animals is restricted to heifers, goats and geese. Very lively experiences:

  • the heifers, I was running up a slope near a tourist town, to get a better view of the whole area to take a quick photo, when I surprised them, they were just over the top of the slope so I hadn’t seen them previously. My fault. They startled and ran at me. I turned tail and ran for the stile I’d just used. No problem, fortunately, except that I was breathless with laughter.
  • the goats. Same sort of thing. I used an old gate, thinking I was still on a public footpath. I wasn’t, and the two goats sitting peaceably in their little field charged me. I didn’t have time to use the gate, they were too quick, so I jumped over the low fence just by the gate. My fault.
  • the geese, that really wasn’t my fault. I was visiting a friend who lived on a very rural farm, where the geese had free reign in the farmyard, and they didn’t know my face or my smell, and they ran at me, squawking and flapping. My friend stepped in, and they subsided immediately, didn’t bother me again.

If any rural prepper is thinking of having guard animals that also have other uses, I’d seriously recommend goats and geese.

So that’s it. In the UK, danger from animals isn’t about bears, or wild boar, or mountain cats – it’s often some of the most familiar animals we have, and the rest of the problems are from small animals or insects (those are another post, this is quite long enough). Any animal should be treated with respect: even domestic cats can bite and cause damage. Try moving a sleeping cat from your bed waking up a sleeping cat while you’re moving it from the centre of your bed when you want to go to sleep (yes, this is something else I have experience with) and see how charming and friendly it isn’t.

A few things to think about.

A Death In The Family

No matter how much you prepare, a death in the family is rough. My mum died in December – that’s the reason for the long gap between posts – and one of the ways I’ve coped is thinking about all the preparedness issues that have come up.

With an ageing population, and health services stretched tighter and tighter, more of us will be facing these issues. And personally, I think that life expectancy will fall, because the NHS resources that my family had just won’t be there – medicines, nurses, doctors, carers, porters, equipment, all sorts of things. That’s not “the end of the world” – that’s just about our tightening economic situation.

Go Bag
I live hundreds of miles away from where my mum lived, so I needed a Go Bag, not only for that final goodbye, but for nursing duties shared with my brother and sister over the previous weeks. Yes, it was ready, I could have walked out of the house five minutes after I got a phone call. But I had a library book to return that couldn’t be extended, I had three online bills to pay, I had to water the houseplants … ridiculous things. So I did the everyday things instead of starting what turned out to be the final six hour journey at 3pm. Wrong decision – I didn’t get to see her to say goodbye, though I know she was unconscious by then in any case. Go Bags are only part of the story.

Medicines
Some medicines weren’t supplied to us in sufficient quantities, and some were oversupplied. A bottle of Over The Counter medicine that lasted 36 hours, and a bottle of morphine that lasted 10 days? Mad. To get more of the medicines that were needed, it helped to have a written record:

  • what was prescribed?
  • what quantity?
  • who wrote the prescription?

The latter was unexpectedly important: it might have been from the last visit to a consultant, or a regular GP visit, or a regular visit from a nurse, or an emergency visit from the district nursing clinic. If you don’t know, everything can be delayed, and while the individuals were fantastic, the systems they were struggling with were … Dickensian, let’s say.

Afterwards, they can be returned to a pharmacist for safe disposal – or ordinary things like paracetemol can be kept, of course. If in doubt, though, take it to a pharmacist. Or give it to a charity that sends these things where they’re desperately needed.

Keep A Diary

Leads on from the above, really. You need to know who it was that came to the house two days ago, and how to get in touch with them again, and exactly what they said. And you won’t remember, when so much is going on. Who offered the use of a walker? Do those two medicines counteract one another? Who do we talk to about getting night sitters? Social Services need to get involved?

Ask Questions

Every medical and personal care practitioner we spoke to understood that this unique time is unique in different ways for everyone, and every family, and every terminally-ill person, has different needs and will make different choices. My brother had two great catch-all questions at the end of each meeting: “Is there anything else you think we need to do? Is there anything else you think we should know?”. It helped a lot.

What really matters?

Life becomes very focussed at the end of terminal illness. The things that mattered to our family were pain relief and cleanliness. Both these things were easily sorted in this case, thank heavens, and “personal care” is a vastly underrated service. Yes, families could do it. But very few patients want their own adult children to perform these services, and that’s where personal carers step in, full of practicality and kindness.

Timing

You can’t arrange the timing of a death, of course, but we were “lucky” for a December death in that we were able to have the funeral before Christmas. Some families who suffered a bereavement only a few days after us had to wait until after the New Year, because of a backlog at the crematoria, of all things. If you think you might ever be in this situation, remember that you can only book a funeral once you’ve registered the death: thats absolutely the first thing to do, once signed off by a medical practitioner.

Other things still carry on happening

Agonising and surreal, but true. Between my mother’s death and her funeral, the members of the immediate family had a house sale, a house purchase, and an offer for another house accepted. It was weird. But those things still had to be paid attention to. It helps to have people with whom you can share the responsibility – community is crucial, especially at times like this! None of the sales and purchases were mine, so I was the one who dealt with the Order of Service, and also with getting together groups of photos to be used at the celebration after the commital. The others could focus, for a short time, on all the legal business that was necessary.


Tell Us Once
This is a government scheme, and gives you a few shortcuts so that you don’t have to phone quite as many government departments as you otherwise would. It’s not complete though, so make sure that you cover the exceptions. The Registrar should give you details.  Details are included in the government link above.

Executors’ ID papers
My mum’s will was lodged with a solicitor, and named all three of us as Executors, so that any of us could do whatever needed to be done. The solicitor she chose should spend a considerable amount of time in purgatory. That’s as polite as I can be about that firm. They wanted photo ID and two proofs of residence from each executor, nine pieces of paper in all. Between recent house moves, changes in status, changes in utility companies and geographical distance in the case of me and my sister, it was a nightmare that delayed us for over a week.

The solicitors were initially very fuzzy about what they wanted, and refused to speak to us directly. At first, they didn’t even give us an exact list of what they wanted. They made assumptions about what services we wanted and didn’t want, and in general made many more demands on us than had been the case a few years ago when my brother in law died and we needed to obtain his will, in the same situation. I won’t easily forgive them the strain they caused us. It was horrendous.

As I was writing this, I found a solicitor who does exactly what I thought should be done, what’s common sense to me: they explain the process online, and have a series of forms to be downloaded, printed off and used as circumstances demand. I really wish we’d had a solicitor like this.  The Law Society and Citizens Advice can also be helpful.

Texting And Letter Writing
Texting was incredibly valuable – it saved our throats from having to repeat the same information over and over again, and we had no web connection at my mother’s house, for various reasons. We wrote quite a few letters, too, by hand, which seemed very odd. During the previous month, we’d written to everybody we could think of that would want to know, so we had a ready made set of addresses and phone numbers to use.  And perhaps you’ll still be able to talk to the terminally-ill person you’re caring for about what they would like to happen, and who they would like to attend.

Gifts on the day of the funeral
There were a few people we wanted to gift things to, and the celebration after the funeral seemed the best time: we’d been able to talk it through, and all the people we wanted were there. It worked really well, and created some lovely memories for the end of that day. We’d ordered extra copies of the Order of Service so that people who couldn’t manage to come could at least have that.

Finance papers
I’ve been my mum’s finance person for years, including doing her filing, so it wasn’t too bad. But it had been her decision to amalgamate various savings accounts, and that saved us a huge amount of hassle. The pensioner bond and the premium bonds needed separate notifications (thank you for nothing, gov.uk!) but there were only four other notifications that were needed.

Probate

We’re working on Probate at the moment; sometimes it’s not needed, but my mum’s estate is not one of those. Most companies were helpful, but some very big names, even with good staff in a Bereavement Unit, seemed appalling. The Halifax Bank, for instance, thought a helpful method of confirming the identity of Executors would be to set up a quiz with information about their credit file. I disagree! The unlucky executor was me, and I’d just changed energy supplier, and I had to guess two out of the three questions they asked me, for that reason. Utter nightmare. They also wouldn’t use my mother’s address in correspondence, they used my address instead, unlike every other organisation we’ve been in contact with.

So, this has been my life for the last few months. Part Two of my post about animals is still sitting in the wings, but that will have to wait until the next round of the probate work is completed. Life goes on. So does prepping.

Dangerous animals in the UK: Part One.

Cows, dogs, foxes, and horses, with more to come in Part Two.

The death and injury rates are tiny, of course; I just like the headline. I’ve been slowly preparing for a second edition of my book, Getting Home In An Emergency, which I’m assuming will be free to people who’ve already purchased the first edition. Plus I’m doing a lot more travelling up and down the country recently, visiting here there and everywhere. So when I saw a headline from last year in The Independent, “Cows officially the most deadly large animals in Britain”, I had to have another look. Any long journey will include rural areas, and it’s basic preparedness to be aware of the potential dangers posed by farm, domestic and wildlife.

There isn’t any advice in that Independent article, though we can take a few implications from the stats presented:

  • don’t get near a calf, and most certainly don’t get between a mother and it’s calf.
  • if you have a dog in a field containing cows, keep the dog close to you.
  • groups of people seem not to be vulnerable at all, so if you have any concerns about a particularly frisky herd, try to cross the field in a group of people.

Dogs are the next most deadly animal. Heartbreakingly, of course, it’s often babies and toddlers in the news, who are killed by a pet. To pre-empt that situation, personally, I would never, ever allow such a young child in the same room as a dog that hasn’t had extensive obedience training, and has a proven character. And even then, I’d be keeping an eagle eye out. Taking a risk with the life of a child in your care; it mustn’t be done.

In the course of our daily travels around the country, however, there are different issues. So here’s what I’ve learned:

  • don’t panic! This isn’t lifted from Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, but it’s very true. Not only do you need to avoid the appearance of panicking, you need to calm down your physical responses – dogs can smell our emotions, so to speak, our pheromones and hormones, plus agitation may actually trigger the dog’s aggression.
  • stay still, and keep your hands at your sides. I had personal experience of this one, in Spain: I was leaving the Cortijo where I was staying, heading onto a dusty trackway, and a local dog bounded up, barking furiously. I’m not afraid of dogs, but my companion was, so I said “No”, very loudly, just once, and shook my finger at the dog simultaneously. It stopped in it’s tracks, yes, but it also went for my finger. I pulled back at the speed of light and was unharmed, and I learned a valuable lesson that day.
  • don’t face the dog – stand sideways on, it’s less threatening. Avoid eye contact too. The dog may actually sniff you, but will still choose not to bite you.  Probably.
  • don’t run! You’re acting as a prey animal if you do that, and you can’t outrun a dog.
  • distract it, if you can and if it seems right, by giving it something to chew on. Your water bottle (have a spare in your pack!) a glove, anything. If you know you might face a dog on your route, it could even be worth carrying something like a toy, or a ball, to use in this scenario. I wouldn’t carry dog treats, as I’ve seen suggested – they’re more likely to attract dogs in the first place.

Foxes are also known to attack babies and toddlers, even when they’re sleeping in their cots upstairs, though I have come across one incident when a fox attacked a sleeping cat and then the adult cat owners who rushed to the cat’s defence. The incidents seem to have been exclusively in urban areas, so if you’re walking in the countryside, whether for pleasure or during an emergency, you’re extremely unlikely to be bothered by a fox. The RSPCA has a great page on foxes, which contains some valuable links as well as further information in a pdf at the bottom of the page, I highly recommend it.

Horses are big enough to be intimidating to people who don’t know them or understand them, but injuries caused by horses are overwhelmingly likely to be from horseriding accidents, and from other interactions started by the human. The lesson is, if you’re out walking, for leisure or during an emergency, don’t approach a horse: looking at it, trying to stroke it, trying to get up on it, and most especially getting between a horse and it’s foal. It’s a prey animal, it will run if it can, but if it feels it can’t run from you, it will attack, and it’s big enough to kill you. Additionally, stallions could be more confrontational if they feel you’re threatening their mares, and a herd, if frightened by you, could stampede and cause real damage. Weirdly, this happened in High Barnet in north west London, just last month, October 2016. There were no human injuries, fortunately, but two horses had to be put down.

I took the pictures below at an urban riding school a while back, and they show how easy it might be to get into problems. This foal is six days old, and very, very wobbly. In the second picture, she’s trotting happily after her mum, but she’s so uncertain on her feet she could easily fall behind, and a human could then easily get in between them without realising. It can happen very fast, which is why it’s best to stay on the alert when there are animals nearby.

Six day old foal with mother
Six day old foal with mother
Foal is off for a trot with mother
Foal is off for a trot with mother

The focus here is entirely on staying safe around animals.  I do think we can turn all this around to train guard animals – not just dogs, but goats and geese, maybe even swans, will give you advance warning of people on your property.   More about that in part two.

 

Floods and gas explosions in Norfolk

A wonderfully alarmist title, that!  In September, I was on holiday in Norfolk (as well as staying with friends and foraging earlier – I had a real blast).  I was in a rented holiday cottage near Bacton Gas Terminal, and it was quite an eye-opener.

I saw at least half a dozen different sorts of sea defences – some designed to stop waves dead on, some designed to make them lose their power, and a couple of different types of gates too. One of the shore-side sets looked like it might have been designed to stop, or at least delay, a terrorist attack on the Terminal from small boats, but when I asked around, I was assured not. I’ll reserve judgement until I see similar defences in less security-conscious environments, however, because I certainly saw a lot of security patrols round and about, who were examining passers-by very carefully indeed. They’ve been on the go since at least 2007, so no big secret there, by the way.

The Gas Terminal is an amazing thing. It extends to each side of the local main road, but the fences and the security are things of beauty. I like panoramas of bright city lights at night (except for the effects of light pollution on astronomical studies) and the Terminal certainly qualifies as a substitute for a city in that respect.

It has its problems – there was a fire in 2011, for which Shell was fined a total of £1.5 million for neglecting basic maintenance, reported in the Daily Telegraph at the time. And at the same time, one of the oil companies that use the site was warned about inadequate moorings of one of it’s floating oil platforms. .

What really surprised me, though, was the list of precautions at the holiday cottage, which I’ve listed below. We were right opposite two fairly pleasant caravan sites, and they were only two fields away from the Terminal.

Emergency Instructions to be followed on hearing the Bacton Gas Terminal Complex Red Alert Alarm

GO IN:

  • stay calm
  • DO NOT EVACUATE UNLESS ADVISED You may place yourself in greater danger (this will normally be done by the Police).
  • make sure neighbours are aware and go indoors.
  • close external doors and windows and turn off ventilation systems to keep out any gas.

STAY IN:

  • extinguish all naked flames if possible.
  • stay in a room facing away from the terminal complex, preferably downstairs.
  • pull curtains closed and stay as far away from the windows as possible.

TUNE IN:

  • children at school will be properly cared for by their teachers, who will know what to do.
  • tune in to BBC Radio Norfolk FM 95.1, 95.6 or 104.4 or Heart Radio on FM 102.4
  • do not use mobile phones- except in an emergency – until the ALL CLEAR is given. This will ensure lines are free for the emergency services.

Seeing that list, I was really glad I was in a sturdy cottage, not a flimsy caravan. We had no trouble, of course, but it’s a surprisingly long list.  And to be honest, the phrasing of the advice not to evacuate could really really be improved, because as it reads right now,  the job of putting you in danger is to be done by the police.  Not what they intend!

The sea defences were really interesting too. Below is an ingenious gating system for the thigh-high sea wall thats on top of the promenade built along the actual sea wall, near Bacton Gas Terminal. It gives wheelchair access, dogs are allowed on it all year round, no one has to worry about actual gates to be closed properly, I imagine its a fun learning experience for the local 7 year olds on their scooters too.

Ramps at Bacton become a permanent flood gate
Ramps at Bacton become a permanent flood gate

There’s a handy little pdf from North Norfolk Council that illustrates and describes them all, or most of them. I didn’t see the reefs, but of course they’re not often on view.

Here are another couple of pictures of mine too. Below is the road to the sea at Sea Palling, complete with obscured face for anonymity’s sake. It’s close enough to the sea that you can just make out, at the summit of the hill, the words “Sea Pa … epende”. That’s the Sea Palling independent lifeboat station. And that’s a really big hill, specifically to act as a sea defence, completed in 1959 after the floods of 1953, when hundreds lost their lives in Eastern England, including 7 at Sea Palling.

Sea defence hill at Sea Palling, with floodgate on top
Sea defence hill at Sea Palling, with floodgate on top

But that hill, more than 20 feeet high – that hill has floodgates on top. You can’t see them too well in this photo, but their seating can just about be seen on the far right of the next photo, of the independent lifeboat station, facing the sea.  Those floodgates definitely show the scale of the potential problems.

Sea Palling Independent Lifeboat Station
Sea Palling Independent Lifeboat Station

It’s obvious, from what I saw, that the dangers are very real, and that any individual prepping has to take account of the large-scale emergencies that this area is subject to. Which means:

  • windup radios, or at least battery radios, are essential, to listen to those radio stations, whether that’s about weather or evacuation routes.
  • transport. If you live round here, or stay near here, I would say that personal transport is an absolute necessity.
  • water! When the power goes out, as it does because of flooding, water often follows.
  • emergency snacks too, that can be thrown into a rucksack and thrown into the car, or put on your bike if you’re on a bike.
  • a bug out plan. Evacuation plan, if you prefer, but between floods and gas escapes, you need to know how to get out of the area – which roads might be flooded? What does natural gas do, does it follow the contours of the land when it escapes, or does it drift into the sky? That will affect your evacuation route.
  • as a bit of a postscript, you should know what to do if you have a domestic gas leak.  This link to British Gas will tell you.  For the record, it’s 0800 111 999.

Still a great experience, and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

September Foraging

I’ve been staying with a friend in a very sandy area of the country, unlike my own heavy clay soil, and it’s been fascinating to see the different gardening crops and routines.

2.7kg of crab apples on the go
2.7kg of crab apples on the go

But most of all, we’ve been foraging: crab apples, rosehips and hawthorn, all of which are nationwide, whatever the soil is. 2.7 kilos of crab apples, 2kg of rosehips and another kilo of haws, all from lovely locations. The rosehips were gathered a mile from any road at all, deep in a local nature reserve full of sand dunes and protected toads (we saw a baby, less than a centimetre long).

Wild rosehips on the Lancashire sand dunes
Wild rosehips on the Lancashire sand dunes

We followed two recipes, both from the Preserves book from Hugh FW’s River Cottage series, the hedgerow jelly and the rosehip syrup. I can’t see it on Amazon at the moment, but this one is similar (and there are second hand copies for pennies via that link:

There were many lessons …

Firstly, get your kitchen organised, and have everything ready to process your haul. My own kitchen is more or less up to speed with this – though not as good as British Red’s setup shown on his blog English Country Life – but my friend is looking after an elderly lady, so while I was there, the kitchen was filled with the paraphenalia for three of us, all with differing nutritional and dietary needs. In a grid-down situation, of course, we’d have to focus more, and concentrate more.

Secondly, using resources as local to you as possible, for freshness, for convenience, for time: the haws were only five minutes walk away, but the rosehips and crab apples were 15 minutes drive away. So more research beforehand is needed to make it work without overwhelming your days.

Thirdly, walking your neighbourhood at different times of year, is helpful in so many ways. It will show you what crops you can experiment with, and you can learn how long a crop is available for. We scouted the rosehips in the second week of September, but didn’t have time to pick them till the following week, and more than half of them were nibbled by wasps or rotten by then.

Next, an outside space to sort what you’ve gathered is pretty important, especially if you’re cooking in your domestic kitchen, not a dedicated space in an outbuilding or shed of some sort. I’m not sure my friend quite agrees with me on this one, but I don’t want to bring extra pests into the home, I want the leaf detritus and rotten berries onto the compost heap as soon as possible. Plus the sheer amount of space needed when you also have to sterilise your jars and bottles and so on, just makes it impractical to do everything from the initial processes right through to the bottling in the same room that’s being used for domestic life. Luckily, my friend has a little courtyard garden where we could sort through things in peace.

Getting the equipment together would be my fifth point, and I’ve said it before during earlier experiments. But you have to be willing to improvise too. In our case, we had a “died in storage” situation with the elastic of the muslin bag my friend used to filter the crab apple jelly. It had completely collapsed, and nearly slid off its tripod, taking the crab apple pulp with it. So the muslin bag was held on with its loops and with wire tied around it, which you can see in the photos. It was great, and it worked.

Crab apples draining through
Crab apples draining through

Lastly, labels. Last, but important. Labels are good – if you were doing this sort of preserving even a couple of times a week, you couldn’t possibly remember what’s what. Labels may look chintzy in some shops, but they’re a real essential. Showing the month and year you made your produce is also a good idea.

Labels aren’t last, sorry. There’s also the crucial taste test! The rose hip syrup wasn’t good, to be honest – much, much too sugary. And as with any wild species, the taste varies from plant to plant. In this case, the taste of the actual rosehips was very mild, and overwhelmed by the sugar. The spicy crab apple jelly, which also has the haws in it, is still maturing.  I’m hopeful.

Spicy crab apple jelly
Spicy crab apple jelly

If there was an ongoing crisis of some sort, there are better things to do with sugar than to make a sugary drink. Still, since we’d made it, I used it on my porridge instead of honey – it was certainly sweet enough, and there are nutrients and micronutrients in rosehips. Waste not, want not.

RICE: a new-to-me medical acronym

I can’t emphasise enough that this is about a small medical experience of my own – it’s not medical advice.  That said, please keep reading …

I needed to pop over to my GP’s last week, and luckily I was able to squeeze in to their “clinic” – which seemed to mean “you don’t get an appointment, just turn up at midday and we’ll see you when we can”.  Fair enough – I was seen at about 12.20, in and out in a few minutes.

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I’d been chopping back brambles during the previous weekend – which is most definitely a prep, clearing a garden so that you can plant edibles – and at the end of the day, noticed a bright red area.  A bite?  A bramble puncture?  Who knows, I’d have to have a time machine to find out.  But 24 hours later, there was a big problem, a huge swelling, that increased the size of my ankle by maybe 40% . Not great, not great at all.

Since it was still there two and a half days later, I went to the doc.  After looking at the NHS website, I was concerned there might be an infection, especially an infection of the cellulitis variety, which can be horrendous.  But although it was bright red, it wasn’t sore and it wasn’t tender, so I was hopeful it was something easily sorted.

And it was! I was given the acronym RICE: rest, ice, compress, elevate.

REST: let your body heal a bit.  Not so relevant to me this time, but important at other times. Apparently, it’s best to take 1 or 2 days rest, if indicated by a doctor.

ICE: to take down the swelling, and help the area heal faster.  Don’t put the ice directly on the skin, wrap it in a towel or just use the classic bag of frozen peas, wrapped in a tea towel.

COMPRESS: to help limit the swelling to the injured area, and to give support.  It’s crucial not to compress too much, if you cut off the blood supply to the affected area, you could then give yourself a life-changing, totally avoidable injury.

ELEVATE: elevating to ease the pressure on the wound, and to help gravity with the healing.

More detail on all of this is available on this website, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which is the only one I could find, oddly.  There’s a WebMD page too.

Because of the particulars of my little wound, I was also advised to use an antihistamine, and an antiseptic cream such as Savlon. Job done.

It did start me thinking about wounds like this in relation to prepping, however.  If it had been an infection, that would have depended upon antibiotics to cure it – and antibiotic useage is in deep trouble right now, as all the drugs we have are becoming less effective, and resistance has recently been discovered even to the antibiotic of last resort, as described in this BBC report from the end of last year.  And everyday gardening is mentioned in that report, incidentally.

Once I’ve been wearing my heavy duty gardening gloves, I’ve become pretty cavalier about protection whilst gardening: that’s going to change.  Ankles are vulnerable too, even in sturdy sandals like mine, there are plenty of openings that leave you vulnerable to problems.  I really don’t fancy becoming a statistic in the Antibiotics Apocalypse, even though that phrase is only a marketing headline, it does sum up what could well be a severe problem in the future.

Lightning Strikes!

Lightning strikes image by NASA
Courtesy of NASA

There are a huge number of lightning strikes every year, and a surprising number of them kill people. Exact numbers, however, are hard to come by – so, using data on the USA collected by NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), it can be confirmed that over 400 people are struck by lightning every year in the USA, and that between 55 and 60 of them are killed. Of the rest, many of them suffer permanent neurological damage. Let me repeat that – permanent.

It can be a devastating problem. Just last month, in June 2016, almost 100 people were killed in India – in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkand and Madhya Pradesh. These figures represent catastrophe for the communities and families involved, especially as most of the casualties are labourers with only one income in the family.

Weather is more extreme in the USA and in India than it is in the UK – but we’re catching up quite a bit, thanks to climate change. Just this week, there was a warning for a majority of the UK for “Thunderstorms/Flash Flooding/Large Hail/Tornadoes”. I was surprised to see that list presented in such a matter of fact way, and it’s only because there’s so much going on right now – Nice, Turkey, Brexit after effects including a new Prime Minister – that it didn’t make headlines.

There can be very little notice of lightning strikes, because they can occur so far away from the centre of the storm – thats why it’s important to err on the side of caution, although that can seem completely impractical. What if there’s a storm, with distant thunder, when you’re due to leave the house for the day, dropping the kids off at school before getting to the train station to go to work?

I can tell you what best practice is, around lightning strikes. I can tell you that if I finish seeing a client and there’s a storm on, I suggest that we wait it out before either of us leaves. But I’m self employed – now that I know so much more about lightning, I’m not sure what I’d do if I was still an employee. Please leave feedback below, if you can, or contact me privately if it feels too identifiable.

The installation of lightning conductors and protectors is outside the scope of this article (though I sense another article on it’s way about that) but there are many, very simple things that we can all do to reduce the likelihood of lightning damage.

INDOORS

Switch appliances off AND unplug them. When there’s a surge in electrical supply because of a lightning strike, it has to go somewhere. Surge protecting extension leads will probably protect from comparatively small surges, like the ones that happen when electricity comes back on after a short power cut.

Storms can happen fast: make sure that you can get to your wallplugs quickly, that you don’t have to manoeuvre heavy furniture out of the way. Or that you have one of those protective extension leads – you can unplug your appliances really fast, and then, if you want, you can still grapple with the furniture to try to ensure that the extension lead isn’t fried.

There are UPS as well as extension leads: Uninterruptible Power Supply products ensure that the computer can be shut down safely, rather than an emergency shutdown. At the level of investment that most individuals can afford, that’s the best there is. Power down, in good order and unplug.

Don’t use a landline phone when you can hear thunder and especially not when you can see lightning. If the phone line itself is struck, even a couple of miles from where you are, you might quite easily be thrown across the room. Cordless phones, and mobile phones, are said to be unaffected – but isn’t a cordless phone plugged in to your landline is still liable to get affected by a strike on the phone line? I wouldn’t risk it, it’s a very low probability event, but a very high impact one.

Don’t use water, or touch metal or electrical objects. This is the time for reading a book, doing a few stretches, having a singsong or writing a letter. Dusting the skirting boards, even!

If you hear thunder, you’re close enough to be struck by lightning – take precautions as above as quickly as possible. Lightning can strike up to 10 miles away from the rainfall or thunderstorm cloud.

OUTDOORS

If you’re outdoors, get indoors as soon and as safely as you can. Remember that all thunderstorms produce some lightning, and if you can hear the thunder, you’re in danger. And there’s no safe place outdoors in a thunderstorm.

Move away from tall things (trees, power lines) and metal things too (parasols, bicycles) since they all attract lightning.

If you’re surrounded by trees, take shelter under the shorter trees.

However – don’t be the tallest object in the area, so avoid open areas as well.

Get to a low-lying area if you can, because of lightning striking the tallest objects around, but remember that flash flooding is increasingly common these days, don’t put yourself at risk of that either. All of this really emphasises my first point – there’s no safe place outdoors in a thunderstorm.
If you feel your hair stand on end and feel tingly, that means that lightning is about to strike, so crouch down, get on the balls of your feet and bend forward putting hands on your knees. The scientific basis for this is to make yourself as small as possible, to make yourself as small a target as possible, and to ensure that if you are unlucky enough to be struck anyway, the current will pass through your extremities, not your torso (i.e. not your heart and lungs).

Don’t lie flat, that will make you a bigger target, and put more of you in touch with the wet earth. Water is a great conductor.

Speaking of which … if you’re swimming, get out of the water, fast. If you’re in a boat of any sort, the same applies. Get out of the water, and get away from it.

If you’re with a group of people, spread out – statistically, this actually increases the chances of someone getting hit, but it also increases the chances that not all of you will be hit, so that any victims will have help on hand.

Lightning can strike several people at once, especially grouped together, and a mass casualty situation caused by lightning is triaged in a different way from others: if a strike victim is breathing on their own, they’ll probably continue to breathe, so most attention is paid to the people who aren’t breathing.

The best-practice recommendation is to stay inside a safe building or vehicle for 30 minutes after you hear the last thunder clap. That’s a long time, I know – but how often are thunderstorms in your area, even nowadays?

IN A VEHICLE

Keep the windows closed, that will help them conduct the electrical charge through to the ground and away from you. And the window area itself may be struck: if the window is open, that means that you will be struck, directly.

A car only provides protection if you are inside it (and it has a hard top). But just as with the surge protectors above, there’s still a chance. Be careful.

Don’t touch any metal part of the car, or the car radio.

IF SOMEONE IS HIT

Lightning victims don’t carry an electrical charge – they’re safe to touch, but they need medical attention urgently. Phone 999, or the medical emergency number of your own country if you’re not in the UK.

Deaths caused by lightning strikes are usually due to cardiac arrest – learn how to give emergency resuscitation. This page has the well known Vinnie Jones resus video, hands only CPR is a lifesaver.

Watch for two wounds: an entrance and an exit burn. Don’t put anything on them, just cover them with the cleanest, most sterile material you have available at the time.

If possible, move the victim to a safer place – lightning really can strike the same place twice, unfortunately.

Finally, this is a great view of where lightning is striking right now.

Dangers on the beach

Real life issues came calling on me in late spring and early summer, some good (weddings!) and some bad (illness and a few unnameable emergencies). So there was no blogging, but I was still taking pictures, and bearing in mind my determination to post a series about flooding, I thought I’d put up these pictures, taken during the storm that killed my garden fence.

Public Sea Safety Information
Public Sea Safety Information
Be Happy And Safe
Be Happy And Safe

The media love stories about sharks in British waters (though here’s a more realistic piece from the Beeb last year) but my pictures to the left show the real dangers: people getting swept off their feet by a large wave and not being able to get back in control, swimmers not realising how dangerous the water temperature and currents can be, people jumping off the piers and either hitting their heads or just not having the strength to swim back to shore. Even on sunny days. And sadly, people jumping in to try to save their dogs: usually, the dogs manage to swim back, and the people drown.

All of that is made worse by drunkenness – Brighton is one of the ultimate party towns, of course – and ignorance of the local conditions in particular, and the power of the sea in general. Some of those who die are children, whose parents/guardians let them walk right at the water’s edge during a storm, because they genuinely don’t understand how unpredictable the sea can be. And at Brighton, the shape of the beach causes huge problems, the shingle shelves very steeply in a few places: you can see it in the picture in this second BBC report.

Brighton and Hove Council have got a good section on their website about sea safety, including videos and video transcripts and a link to RNLI information. The text includes the weaver fish, which I’d heard of, but didn’t know how to treat. I do now!

Such avoidable deaths … please make sure you and yours are safe near the water, wherever you are, and that you know about any local hazards.

Save

Flooding

As I’ve done with other big topics, I intend to write about this in several parts. This part is an introduction and the rest is about what to do to safeguard against flood effects – good solid prepper activities, which will make recovery from any flooding go more smoothly.

Introduction

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Floooding risks outlined

Coastal flooding on the scale of the 1953 disaster, when over 300 people died, isn’t currently as high up the UK government’s disaster scale as it used to be, because of all the money that’s been thrown at sea defences since then. Pockets of land still suffer from coastal erosion, and for the people affected it’s life-changing; plus one or two storms each year are bad enough to damage sea walls, causing flooding and endangering life, but it’s not currently as severe as inland flooding. It may become so once again later on in this century, because of sea level rises, but as of this moment, it’s inland flooding that needs our attention.

Inland flooding happens more often nowadays on a yearly basis, and it’s now started to happen repeatedly within each year, often in the same places. This year, 2016, saw people in north west England flooded half a dozen times, and the year before, parts of Somerset had been flooded for weeks at a time. The National Risk Register details the consequences of inland flooding:

  • casualties and fatalities
  • damage to property and infrastructure
  • loss and/or interruption of supply of essential goods and services
  • possible contamination and environmental damage.

Monitoring and forecasting is spread between a whole raft of organisations: the Met Office, the Environment Agency, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, Natural Resources Wales and the Flood Forecasting Centre. Floodline is the relevant, active warning service.

Consultation for a review of national flood resilience has just finished (on 4th March) though heaven knows when it will actually be published. In the meantime, there’s a central government page on the .gov.uk website for the 2015-2016 floods, which is more immediately helpful. Though my guess is that if you’re one of the people who have been affected, that page won’t look that great, and I must say, the government flood pages, whether they’re warnings, advice or active help, are a complete mess. There’s no one listing of all the useful pages that I can find, not at all. I can find them all, eventually, but I had a real sense of being on a merry-go-round.

Summary of the points below

  • check if you’re at risk.
  • sign up for flood alerts if so.
  • if you’re especially vulnerable, check beforehand if you can evacuate to somewhere safer close by.
  • nothing is 100% perfect: you may have to accept that the water will get in.
  • put everything as high up as possible: the next floor, the tops of the cabinets, tables, furniture on bricks if nothing else.
  • phone numbers and references of utilities, aid agencies, insurance company, financial affairs, friends and relatives should be kept with you.
  • deploy any flood defences you have: sandbags, floodboards etc.
  • garden: move any large/loose items or weigh them down.
  • move animals to safety, or prepare to evacuate them too.
  • move your car out of the flood risk area, but make sure you can still access it for evacuation.
  • make sure your flood kit is up to date: torch, warm and waterproof clothes and footwear, water, food, medication, rubber gloves, basic entertainment.

Safeguarding against floods

A lot can be done! Checking online whether your area is particularly at risk is the first step.  I used Bicester to check this, as it was the town I used in my book Getting Home In An Emergency.

Although it’s not really near any particular danger points, the little streams that run through it have the potential to cause local havoc. That dark blue colour means there’s a 1 in 30 chance of flooding in any one year, that’s worth knowing.

There’s also a map showing current river levels: there are up to three information or gauging points in Bicester, where river data is collected, and this one shows that at the time of writing (10 March for this section) it’s in some danger of flooding, though it’s far from the worst it’s ever been.   There’s also a link for danger from surface water flooding, and that one made it look like poor old Bicester was in danger of drowning.

So that’s the first thing: check whether your particular location is in any danger, both long term and right now, and checking the “gauging stations” close to you to see exactly how dangerous the current situation is. You could also sign up for flood alerts (like the maps, a link to the signup page is on the “Winter Flooding 2015” page). For people in danger zones, the flood alerts are free; I suspect others have to pay.

If you’re especially vulnerable – you live in a park home, or a ground floor flat, or a bungalow, or you or someone who lives with you is disabled or even bedridden, you have fewer options than most of us, and you’re unlikely to be able to ride out any flood in your own place safely. So you have to be prepared to evacuate, whether that means getting in your own car and driving out, or heading to a neighbour – maybe to a flat on a higher floor, or to the clubhouse if you’re in a park home, but something, somewhere. I strongly urge you, if you’re in this situation, to talk with your neighbours and see if a mutual aid exchange can be established. You can evacuate to them, maybe you can water their plants and draw their curtains when they go away?

The last thing to remember is that nothing you do is 100% perfect: even if you’ve done everything, and the three feet of water flowing past your home isn’t getting in, you may need to open your doors yourself, to let it in. Unfortunately, this is so that the pressure of the flood doesn’t collapse your walls – better to have to gut the inside of your house than have it collapse altogether.

If whatever defences you do have are overwhelmed, what would help you inside your property? I’ll write about defence products another time, but putting everything as high up as possible is a good basic precaution. Start with things that are low down, near to the floor, that are absorbent: wooden furniture, equipment or decorations – chairs, tables, and so on. I have a semi-abstract wooden sculpture of a cat that I’d hate to lose to a flood, it sits on the floor like a real cat would. Plenty of useful things aren’t particularly valuable but would be thrown out if they were contaminated by floodwater (remember it’s likely to have raw sewage in it): the wheels of a trolley, a wheelbarrow, or a bike, anything with moving parts like a hand whisk in a drawer. Plants and dishes … put everything up high, as far up as you can, on top of the kitchen cabinets is probably the highest – the floor above is best of all, of course.

There’s a two page pdf document that could be helpful. The listing of phone numbers – gas, electric, insurer, local council etc – is something that was amongst the first precautions I took when I first started prepping, and I’d hope anyone who’s been prepping longer than six months or so already has that bit sorted.

That document also has a list of specific actions which are really useful in case your defences are overwhelmed, as mentioned above:

  • move furniture and electrical items to safety
  • put flood boards, polythene and sandbags in place
  • make a list now of what you can move away from the risk
  • turn off electricity, water and gas supplies
  • roll up carpets and rugs
  • unless you have time to remove them, hang curtains over their rods
  • move sentimental items to safety
  • put important documents in polythene bags and move to safety.move your car out of the flood risk area
  • move any large or loose items or weigh them down
  • move animals to safety, or make sure you can take them with you when you yourself evacuate.
  • Inform your family or friends that you may need to leave your home
  • Get your flood kit together and include a torch, warm and waterproof clothing, water, food, medication, toys for children and pets, rubber gloves and wellingtons.

Other subjects I’ll be covering later include:

  • travelling/moving in a flood
  • flood defence products pre-installed in your property
  • afterwards: your health, your garden, your future.
  • flash floods