Stepping Away From The Tech

For the last two years, I’ve been working for The Outdoors Group, an amazing company the delivers outdoor education across five sites around Devon from toddler groups and home education sessions to specialist 1:1 intervention for those struggling to thrive in mainstream and adult training to send more Forest School Leaders into the world. We also host birthday parties and team building events. And excitingly, this year we are opening The Outdoors School, an independent special one-of-it’s-kind outdoor school, especially for ASD and SEHM learners.  I work in an administrative capacity, sat behind my laptop or on the phone, either at home or in our cosy office at West Town Farm. I never thought I’d enjoy doing admin so much but I think it’s a combination of loving being organised and being passionate about the business that means that I really do love my job and mostly find it a pleasure, rather than a chore. I like problem solving and I like helping people, both important parts of the role.

However, I’ve always said to folk when talking about what I do that I’d love to do the Forest School Leader training itself one day. ‘One Day’ was a vague concept, some magical time in the future when it would be appropriate and I’d found the courage. But excitingly/nervewrackingly, ‘one day’ has come sooner than I anticipated. At the end of February I’ll be joining a bunch of other aspiring Forest School leaders at our site just outside Exmouth for a week’s practical course to kick off the year of training required for this qualification. I am equal parts thrilled and terrified. I love learning and I love being outside but….after many years of living in houses with stoves and open fireplaces and having attended Forest School with the kids for the last 6 years, I still can’t reliably light a fire! Hopefully this week will solve that…

I’m also feeling rather nervous about the concept of actually running sessions. Sure I run activities at our Home Education group nearly every week but I’m not technically in charge there. I can corral a group of rowdy children aged 2-11 and get them involved in a structured activity but that is indoors, without the added factors of everything that the outdoors brings, including the health and safety element of it. Folk aren’t paying to be at the Home Ed group and if I muck it up, it matters not one jot!

It’s a bit of a moot point though at the moment as I’m not actually going to be in the woods doing delivery for the forseeable future I think but I like to think ahead to when that day comes. I know really, that the whole point of doing the training is to equip the learners with the skills, knowledge and confidence to be able to successfully plan and deliver sessions but still, eep!

Turning off the laptop, putting on my boots and waterproof trousers and stepping outside feels like a bold move. But one that I’m looking forward to. And even if I don’t use the training in the woods for a while, I’m hoping that it will better inform me for my role within the metaphorical ‘office’. However, even in order to make the week’s training happen has been a bit of an undertaking in terms of childcare and I owe a huge thank you to one particularly special friend and my Mum and Dad for helping Dan keep the kids occupied that week whilst he’s working from home. It really does take a village and I’m so grateful for my little one.  So here’s to stepping out of my comfort zone of inboxes and spreadsheets and entering a whole new world of outdoor learning and adventure…I’ll keep you updated as to how I get on!

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Cutting bits of string, I’ve got that. Fire lighting, watch this space…

 

The 4 R’s

Some of you might remember that last July I wrote a column about trying to reduce the use of disposable plastic in my (our) life. I’ve always tried to look for re-usable options where possible anyway but ‘plastic free July’ prompted me to investigate more deeply the role of plastic in my life and identify where we could cut back further. I was also introduced to the concept of the 4 R’s; they are Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. The idea being that by following these 4 R’s you can do your bit as an individual consumer to further reduce the production and consumption of disposable single-use plastic.

Recently, it’s a subject that has been in the media a lot with Iceland promising that it’s own range of products will be plastic-free and other supermarkets looking like they’ll be following suit. In fact, even here in the Express and Echo, a local plastic-free hero, the wonderful Jen Harris, was interviewed as she has impressively got her families household black-bin waste down to a large crisp packet full every 2 weeks! She has also had a massive impact on the people of Exeter, inspiring many around the city to make a stand against plastic. She is one of the admin on two great facebook groups; ‘Exeter Journey to Zero Waste’ and ‘Compost Connections’, both of which I’d recommend if you’d like local tips on reducing your waste.

One of the biggest sources of plastic waste is in food packaging; dried pasta and rice in plastic bags, vacuum packed cucumbers and broccoli, fruit in plastic cartons, plastic meat trays…the list is endless! Luckily, in Devon, three savvy environmentally conscious entrepreneurs have seen a need for a shop that bucks the plastic-heavy trend. Starting with Earth.Food.Love in Totnes, then followed by the Real Food Store in Exeter and now, excitingly, Nourish of Topsham will be opening on Saturday 24th March. The former is entirely plastic-free and the small shop is lined wall to wall with bulk dispensers full of every kind of dried good you can imagine from grains to coffee, cereal, nuts and even make your own nut butter machines! They also have a range of household cleaning products in large barrels so you can bring your own containers to refill. The Real Food Store has a small selection of bulk dipensers and cleaning products as well as lots of loose fruit and veg for the shoppers in Exeter. And to quote them directly, Nourish of Topsham is ‘a zero-waste provisions store…[selling] whole foods, dry goods and everyday items to make plastic free living a little easier.’ I’m so excited about exploring the latter when they open in a few weeks time and hoping that we can get much of our weekly groceries from them.

The rise of these kind of shops is a direct response to the increasing awareness of consumers that we are producing and throwing away too much plastic. Everyone has probably seen a shocking photo of a beach covered in plastic or a sea floating with so much debris you can barely see the water. Clearly, we need to do something to protect our environment and the more of us that choose to support these stores and buy less plastic-packaged products, the better! So come down to Topsham on the 24th March for the opening of Nourish, which is happening on Spring Forward Saturday, a day for offers and Spring treats in over 50 local independent shops, cafes and restaurants. It’s the perfect opportunity for a day out to indulge in a little retail therapy and to #shoplocal whilst you’re at it!

Behind Closed Doors

Ever since Sophia entered the world, my children have been splashed all over the internet. Pictures on facebook, funny ancedotes on my blog, I’ve not been shy of sharing their lives to all and sundry on the world wide web. I’ve come across parents with a much more conservative approach to posting pictures of their children online and although have respected their opinion, have never had any issues with doing so myself.

However, having watched the Snowden documentary recently, a request from Dan and with the introduction of the Snoopers Charter, I’m starting to rethink  personal privacy policy for my children when it comes to sharing their lives online. What I learnt about the sophistication of facial recognition technology and the lengths that security agencies can go to to keep an eye on you scared me. Although me and my family have nothing to hide, surely we have a right to privacy and living how we like without being watched. Call me paranoid but I’m starting to trust governments less and less in light of recent political events.

Even if you put aside potential secret surveillance, I started to think about how I would have felt if, when I reached my teenage years, I had discovered that my early years were broadcast publicly for anyone to see. I think I probably wouldn’t have been best pleased. Sharing an embarrassing story with family members when you see them is one thing but your future employer knowing about the time you ate a rabbit poo thinking it was a chocolate raisin (one of my children but I won’t say which one!) or how long it took you to stop wetting the bed is a whole ‘nother level of privacy invasion.

I’ve read about bloggers who stop writing explicitly about their children when they turn five or others who ask older children to vet what they’ve written. For me, I’ve spoken to the kids and they’re quite happy for me to keep writing about them for now. But we have decided to reduce or stop posting photos of the kids online where you can obviously see their faces and I’ll keep checking in with them in regards to writing about them. Call us paranoid but I’m always trying to embrace a step back from technology and it’s pervasive creeping into our lives and think this is a good way to make moves in that direction. Now if I could just work on my compulsive facebook checking…

Peace Out

(Published in the Exeter Express and Echo on 26th September)

I think I’m probably overdue a light hearted post here in my column but as I popped onto twitter for a client earlier I noticed that it is International Day of Peace today so I’m afraid that you lovely lot are out of luck… I will try to write a vaguely funny post for next week but given that there is a running joke in my family about my lack of sense of humour, I’m not promising anything! So…peace. Obviously I’m not about to claim that I have the answer to world peace, ending the conflict in Syria or uniting the bickering Labour Party but I have been thinking about peace on a much, much, smaller (but arguably still significant) scale.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about stereotypes and concluded that the best way to effect change is by focusing on one interaction at a time. I think the same thing applies to peace and unity. There are a million clichés about how to behave to other people. Turn the other cheek, forgive and forget, love your neighbour as yourself… And not forgetting the golden rule; treat others how you’d like to be treated. And trite as they might appear, I think they do hold a lot of truth and wisdom, even if it has been watered down by overuse.

It’s easy to hold onto grudges, to let anger and resentment fester. No one wants to be wronged, insulted or taken advantage of. But sometimes we need to check our issues at the door, be the bigger person and make that first step to resolving the problem at hand. Time and time again, small disputes escalate into situations much bigger and nastier than they have to be. One bit of advice I was given just before getting married has stuck with me over the years; never to go to sleep angry with each other. I think it’s sound advice as the longer an issue remains unresolved, the more the details can get twisted, misremembered and blown out of proportion.

My thoughts on this all are that the less friction there is in the grassroots of a population, the more harmonious society will be and hopefully this might filter up to where it matters. I’m not naïve, I do realise that global and political disputes are much more complex and deep than a work colleague spat or neighbours arguing over property rights. But even if my theory is well and truly flawed (and it probably is!), surely it can only be a good thing if you’re feeling more peaceful in the here and now of your life? So choose which cliché you will and start living it, the road to a more peaceful life starts here…

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A festival for everyone

Festival season is most definitely in full swing and my newsfeed is full of pictures of tents, bands and amazing shows that friends and families have been to over the last few weeks. This year, there seem to have been very few wash outs and plenty of great experiences. Most recently was the very local Sidmouth Folk Week and they were blessed with plenty of sunshine for their beach side concerts and celidhs. We haven’t been to any this year (though my very blessed daughter is off to Beautiful Days this weekend with her bestie!) due to Elijah’s age…his latest favourite thing to do is to run as fast as he can away from you laughing hysterically and somehow, I didn’t think this would make for a relaxing festival experience!

I look forward, however, to choosing one to attend next summer. But which one? Therein the problem lies! I won’t lie, taking a family to a festival can be a fairly costly experience and so, for most of us, we have to choose carefully as we’ll only go to one. I remember as a teenager, the choice was much more limited. There was Glastonbury, Reading/Leeds, V Festival and Download and possibly a few more small ones setting up but nothing like the plethora that exists these days. There really is a massively wide variety, a festival for everyone. From alcohol and drug free ‘green’ festivals like Green Gathering and Into the Wild, family friendly festivals like Camp Bestival and Shambala, purely music oriented festivals like the legendary Glastonbury, folk festivals and even a rising number of Christian festivals such as Creation Fest. We went to the latter a few years ago and had a great time. Unusually, it was a free festival where you only paid (a modest fee) for your camping and situated on the Royal Cornwall Showground you could choose to go to the talks in the day or just head to the beach before being treated to a great lineup of all sorts of different artists in the evening. We’ll certainly be heading back there before long I’m sure. Another favourite of ours is Beautiful Days, just a stones throw away from us at Escot. It was such a friendly, inclusive and fun festival. We had a great time last year, even with the massive volumes of mud, and definitely will return once the boys are just a touch older.

Although it’s easy to be cyncial about the hype surrounding festivals, especially when they cost the same as a weeks camping, I really do think they are worth making the effort for. There is something about hundreds or thousands of likeminded folk pitching up, enjoying music and entertainment together and shedding their day to day lives for a pop up instant community that just can’t be beat. It is a one-of-a-kind, uniquely special experience and one definitely worth trying if you haven’t before. And although our very own Beautiful Days is sold out, there are still some festivals with tickets left that you could try this summer, from the rock based Reading Festival to the folksy Towersey Festival. Why not jump in and see for yourself?

‘festival girl’ (self named!) at Beautiful Days

Published in the Exeter Express and Echo on 15th August. 

E+E Column: On Being Content

It occurred to me today that although it is good to be ambitious, I’d much rather learn and succeed at simply being content. We’re on holiday in the Lake District and whilst walking through some gorgeous woodland, the kids picked ‘wishing sticks’ (dandelion clocks) and distributed them around the family. Close your eyes and make a wish, then blow. A whole host of possible wishes rushed through my mind; a thatched cottage with a spacious garden, good health for a variety of poorly loved ones, a guarantee that Donald Trump loses comes November, a winning lottery ticket… but eventually I settled on wishing that we might just be content as a family. I don’t think I’ve jinxed it by telling you all as this is a concept that I already know, just one that it helps to revisit periodically.

We’ve all heard tales of incredibly rich people tending to be very stressed, of top executives being the folk most in need of therapeutic treatments and past times. It is said that the more you have, the more there is to worry about, the more there is to lose. Many a person has wasted large chunks of their lives striving to achieve something just out of their reach, has focused so much on their goals that they’ve neglected to fully embrace and enjoy the life that they already have. Anecdotal evidence suggests that upon questioning people at the end of their lives, biggest regrets tend to almost unanimously centre on not spending enough time with loved ones, rather than missed career or financial opportunities.

Of course, there is a balance. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have aspirations, dreams and goals in life. Undeniably, great things are done by people with drive, with a spark and a willful force to keep pushing even when things are against them. But it’s about making sure you don’t become consumed by these goals. It’s about looking at what you’ve already got, at the people in your life and being able to be happy. To be able to live in the moment without always having a mind on the next step of your long term plan.

Dan and I are a good match for each other when it comes to this topic. I’m inclined to give absolutely no thought to the future. I live in a dreamworld where we need no pension, where we can just live on a boat into old age doing odd jobs to see our way and of course, we’ll not be struck down with any ailments that will hinder that way of life. Dan on the other hand, is conscious that we need to have a back up plan so we don’t end up slogging away into our 70’s and 80’s.He wants to make sure that we can look after the kids, provide them with a fun and secure childhood and then be able to look ourselves when the time comes. In our house, mostly, these two attitudes meet in the middle and we do a reasonable job of remaining content, enjoying the season that we’re currently in, without worrying too much about the future. It’s a constant work in progress but one worth pursuing, the art of contentment.

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E+E Column: An Alternative Way of Living

Like most people I know in their late twenties/early thirties, Dan and I are not homeowners, but rent our house from a landlord. Although we are not rolling in it, we’re not on the breadline either and our income could cover mortgage repayments without issue. Unfortunately, the sticking point for us, like thousands of other people in the same boat around the UK, is that of the deposit. Saving such a massive sum of money whilst paying high rent is although not impossible, definitely a lengthy process. Even when you factor in the 5% help-to-buy offers, for a house in Devon for a family of 5, that’s still a hefty chunk that you need to save.

So what’s the answer? Save for 5-10 years beore buying a house and being committed to another 40 years of repayments? Or rent forever, essentially giving someone else the best part of £10,000 every year? Both of those seem like pretty depressing options if you ask me. I’m guessing a lot of people agree because more and more people are starting to choose to live in non-traditional settings, be it boat, van, static caravan or yurt. And I can see why. The idea of being debt free and owning your own home, however small or quirky it may be, is incredibly appealing. Add in the factor of being close to nature and the hippy in me is convinced!

In fact, it probably won’t come as a surprise for you to learn that Dan, myself and the kids actually lived on a 31ft yacht for almost 3 years beore moving to Devon. We moved off for various reasons, partly because we weren’t sure where you could liveaboard down in the Southwest and partly because it just wasn’t the right boat for a family of 4 (although it worked fine when it was just the 3 of us). And while I quite enjoy having a washing machine, garden and bathroom, there are a lot of elements of the off grid/small home lifestyle that I miss. I miss not paying huge amounts of rent every month. I miss the minimalist lifestyle, uncluttered from masses of useless possessions, I miss the freedom of living on a floating home, knowing we could literally untie and sail off if the wind and whim took us.

So, I don’t think Dan was completely unprepared when I raised the subject of alternative living again recently. This time, inspired by a conservation at a party, I’ve been pondering the idea of living on land, in a van or static caravan. However, 5 years and 2 more children on, Dan isn’t quite as keen to dive in this time round. I don’t blame him, the fact that he works from home definitely presents a challenge. Nonetheless, I’d be lying if I said I don’t want to at least consider the possibilities and practicalities of scaling back and doing the off grid thing again. There is so much to be gained, not least, financial and physical freedom. Watch this space I guess…

26.04.16

E+E Column: Under Canvas

Logically speaking, the effort involved in digging out all our camping gear, packing the car (a challenging feat in itself!), pitching the tent and doing the same thing in reverse less than 24 hours later would seem to indicate that going camping for just one night is simply not worth it. But from my experience, logic goes out of the widow when it comes to camping because it really is worth it. I don’t think I’d be overstretching to say that camping, no matter how short the duration, is quite simply, a tonic.

This weekend we kicked off our camping season with a chilly night’s stay at River Dart Country Park (a bit more upmarket than the bare bones sites we usually frequent but most definitely highly recommended). Today we are all pretty weary but do not regret the trip for a second. We went with friends which I’d argue makes all the difference to camping with kids. Having other adults to split childcare with is invaluable and having playmates camping just a stones throw from your tent takes the excitement of sleeping under canvas to a whole new level.

I do have a bit of an embarassing confession though, we’re not quite as hardy as you’d think a family camping at the end of April should be for we have a wood burning stove in our bell tent. Since purchasing this, our camping trips have been transformed. We never have to worry about being cold and the kids love always having the opportunity to toast marshmallows, even on sites that don’t allow ground fires. So this weekend, as the temperature plummeted and half a dozen adults were hopping from foot to foot in the chilly night air, unwilling to go to bed at the same time as the kids but feeling like they might have to, we were able to invite our friends in to huddle round the stove with the leftover marshmallows, the best chocolates I’ve ever tasted (thanks Karina!) and a bottle of whiskey to share (thank you Phil!). We just about managed to not wake the kids and all thoroughly enjoyed some uninterrupted adult conversation and time spent with friends.

We’ve another two camping trips planned in the coming months and I daresay some impromptu trips will pop up as well. I’m counting down the days already, there’s just something about spending time outdoors, getting back to basics and spending time with good friends with no pressure or place to be that you really can’t beat. Happy Days!

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Democracy?

I, along with thousands of others around the country, have been growing increasingly frustrated over the last few weeks and months. Unhappy with how our government are acting and angry at being so completely and utterly ignored. In fact, angry isn’t a strong enough word. I am furious. Since coming to office the Conservative government under David Cameron has first targeted the weak and vulnerable in our society; cutting benefits and tightening rules to an extent where our papers are full of stories of severely disabled and dying people left with little or no money to survive on or the indignity of being asked to attend a fit for work interview when it is quite clear that they can’t. They moved on to attacking our public servants, we’ve seen protests and strikes from our firefighters, our doctors, our teachers. Their concerns have been brushed to one side, they’ve been accused of lying and melodramatics. They are sneakily trying to sell off our national parks, to push through fracking despite almost universal opposition. Our Prime Minister has gone through two major scandals (‘pig gate’ and more recently, the Panama papers) in less than a year. Enough is enough. Twice in the last month, several thousand people have flocked to London to demand a change, to see Cameron leave, to call for another general election. We’d have gone ourselves if we could have afforded the fuel to get there. Several online petitions have received hundreds of thousands signatures demanding action.

And what has happened in the weeks since? Not much. I received a reply from The Petitions Committee effectively brushing off the petition, saying it’s claims weren’t true and that they cannot call a general election under rules that were passed under the coalition government (how convenient). Then tonight I read an article on The Canary about censorship and some legislation that Cameron is thought to be trying to push through. This new legislation apparently will ‘include measures to gag individuals, close down premises and ban organisations’ who fall under the Domestic Extremist category. This sounds legit until you realise that they’ve somewhat changed descriptions so a ‘large number of persons in pursuit of a common purpose’ whose conduct is ‘motivated by a political or ideological viewpoint’ could qualify. You can’t get more vague than that, bit of a convenient catch-all category that could be applied as and when it suits the government, from people protesting the privatisation of our national parks to civil servants striking. Scary stuff.

To be honest, it feels like democracy is Britain is a complete and utter farce.How can it be that so many people are so desperately unhappy with the state of affairs, that people are protesting and striking in unprecedented numbers, that petitions are gaining near half a million signatures, that opposition parties memberships are sky rocketing and still, nothing is changing. What more can we do to get them to listen and either make changes so they are actually representing what the people of Britain want or call a general election? I genuinely don’t know the answer. And along with many, I’m starting to get more and more concerned about what is going to happen over the next few years. If things continue the way they’re going, things are going to be a hell of a lot worse for the majority of us before the next general election. As a Christian, I believe God has a plan for us but I also believe that Jesus told us to look after those in need, to stand up for those without a voice, to love our neighbours. So I want to do just that.

I’m aware that my readership is small but if you’re reading this and share my concerns, please please comment. If you have any ideas, any helpful words, I would absolutely love to read them. Let’s get a discourse going, let’s start brainstorming. We can’t stop fighting this. We need to stand up and unite in our opposition to the selfish, cruel government that is currently driving us into the ground. We need to make change happen.

E+E column: Discovering Hedgerow Delights

Whilst pottering around a field on Dartmoor yesterday as part of the Festival of British Archaeology I partook in a brief but interesting foraging walk. The lady leading us started by enthusiastically telling us that 70% of her diet came from foraged foodstuffs. I was impressed…that’s a heck of a lot of hedgerow delights! Although not my first foray into foraging, I possibly found this walk one the most useful instructional moments yet. Did you know for example, that we can use dock leaves in place of spinach and other leafy greens? Or that common sorrel is deliciously lemony and can be used in salsa verde or to flavour fish? Or most controversially, that the seeds of hogweed smell divine and can be used to flavour ice cream, Indian dishes and a whole host more (although wearing protective clothing whilst harvesting and not breaking the stems is incredibly important to prevent the chemical burns that we’ve all seen on the news recently). I’m seriously amazed at what is quite literally, growing on our doorstep, ready for us to harvest and use in our kitchens.

Over the last few years we’ve picked a lot of elderflowers, blackberries and elderberries but despite gaining a little more knowledge each season at what else we can eat for free, I’ve been reluctant to take the dive into more serious foraging. Friends tell me that dandelion and nettle soup is delicious but I’ve been too cautious to try it myself. But no more! The idea of using dock leaves appeals and they are so plentiful and common that I trust myself not to mistake them for something else. So this week I’ll be down the ‘rec picking us some dock leaves to add to our curry and pasta dishes. Hopefully they’ll live up to their reputation and more importantly, I’m hoping the kids will eat them with minimal complaint We’ll see…

The whole experience got me thinking though about all this kind of knowledge that used to get passed from generation to generation but is now getting lost to the convenience culture of supermarkets and pre packaged meals and foodstuffs. I have nothing against the latter, we all have days when time is against us and the easiest option is to pop to the shop for a pizza or some pasta and a jar of sauce. But I do think this knowledge is important. We could be utilising what grows for free all around us, preserving a slice of our history and heritage and getting outside more all at the same time – sounds like a no brainer to me. As our guide yesterday said, eliminate the word ‘weed’ from your gardening vocabulary and replace it with ‘harvest’. Let’s start using these prolific hardy plants for adding something special to our cooking or as an alternative to chemical medication where appropriate (a glass of water left overnight with goosegrass in, for example, is meant to be a great detox after the night before). I might even try that nettle soup recipe!

26.07.15