Plastic Pollution: how one household can make a difference

Once upon a time, the weekly supermarket shop often sent me into meltdown. The weird woman sobbing in her car on Asda car-park, or on her front drive the second she got her ton of bags-for-life home? Yup, that was me. I never quite fathomed why it upset me so badly…  that is, until Hubcap and I ‘woke’ to the issues of plastic pollution, palm oil, and the havoc that gross over-consumption is wreaking on the planet (not to mention human health).

So, determined to reduce the amount of non-recyclable packaging we used and the amount of palm oil we ate, we did a shopping review.  As committed long-term micro-consumers and recyclers, we’d always felt pretty smug about our frugal housekeeping and wholesome, largely home-cooked diet; but that soon changed to horrified shame when we realised what bad habits we’d fallen into, the staggering amounts of palm oil we were inadvertently ingesting, and the equally staggering amounts of avoidable waste we were generating, week in and week out. For instance, we’d developed a routine of Tuesday Kit-kats and Friday night treats consisting of a bag of crisps or nachos and a confectionery bar  each; and since discovering Hubcap’s gluten sensitivity, had both become addicted to ready-made gluten-free cakes and biscuits, (essential high-calorie additions to the snap-tin of a labouring bloke) – much of it laden with palm oil and wasteful packaging.  For our lunch sandwiches, I bought tubs of hummus and packs of sliced deli meats, plus disposable bags to put them in, supplemented by individually-wrapped and boxed fruit/nut/cereal bars, multi-mini-packs of raisins, ‘shot’ tubes of nuts and seeds, and individual bags of pulse- or corn-based savouries.  Around the house, we routinely used plastic bottles of hand-wash/cream and body-wash; and I’d  taken to buying those seductively convenient disposable wipes for the kitchen and bathroom, (even flushed some of the supposedly flushable ones down the loo). And so it went on…

Gulp. At least now, having recognised the extent of the problem, we could do something about it – PDQ. The first, and simplest decision, was to kick out all the palm oil. That knocked a huge range of items off my shopping list in one fell swoop: almost all the big-name confectionery products, breads, gluten-free baked goods, cereals, margarine, solid vegetable fats and gravy granules, to name but a few. It was well worth making lifestyle changes to eliminate this noxious, environmentally-damaging substance from our diet; I duly switched back to good old butter and lard wrapped in paper or foil, and made time in my schedule for baking. Ever since, instead of plastic-packed, mass-produced stuff containing a list of additives as long as your arm, we eat flapjacks, biscuits, scones and buns freshly-made from a handful of traditional, wholesome ingredients – much cheaper, better tasting, better for us, and makes the house smell like heaven!


Then, bidding a sad farewell to our beloved Nakd and Palaeo bars, we kicked out all the individual packaging. I bought plastic containers for lunch-box portions decanted from single large packs of salted nuts/pulses, dried fruits and unsalted nuts, jumbo tubs of yoghurt and so on; made my own hummus using fresh lemon and garlic, and chickpeas and oil from recyclable containers; and substituted childhood favourites like Spam, potted beef and Sandwich Spread in tins and glass jars for the plastic-encased sliced meats (I find a single tin of thinly-sliced Spam does us for a whole week’s butties). To eke out my home-baking, I made delicious, economical and relatively healthy rice puddings, jellies with home-grown berries or tinned fruit, and chocolate blancmange from semi-skimmed milk, cornflour, sugar and Fairtrade cocoa powder. To our mutual surprise and delight, I discovered that baking gluten-free bread is a piece of cake, (so to speak), with results infinitely superior to – and far cheaper than – the dry, cloying, badly-mixed mass-produced brands. I religiously saved all film and polythene bags for re-use as sandwich wrap, bit-bin liners or when I went shopping for loose fruit and veg, (the latter supplemented by as much organic produce as we can grow or glean). Instead of taking away, we took to dining in the restaurant (more fun and less washing up); and for our regular Saturday ‘convenience’ stir-fry, I substituted hand-chopped loose veg for packs of ready-shredded, dried rice noodles (two servings apiece in a small packet) for fresh noodles (one serving apiece in a large pack), and sauces in glass jars (or home-made) for plastic sachets – and by doing so, found I could make two nights’ dinner for the price of one. Even Henry Wowler did his bit, happily switching from plastic pouches, expensive (and useless) ‘lite’ biscuits in a plastic sack, and plastic-bottled spring water, to tinned cat food, bog-standard biscuits in paper sacks, and rainwater from the water-butt (when he’s not drinking soiled muck out of the bird-bath, that is). The garden birds were also happy to help by changing from commercial to home-made fat blocks (lard, flour, crushed peanuts/sunflower hearts/mealworms and nyger seed, melted together and poured into plastic moulds saved from the mass-produced versions)!

Around the house, we’ve gone back to paper-wrapped soap and old-fashioned washable flannels and dish-cloths, with coir or loofah scrubbing pads to replace synthetic sponges; and are phasing out toiletries in plastic bottles or aerosol cans in favour of solid shampoo bars, eco-friendly deodorant sticks in cardboard tubes, tooth-powder in glass jars, hand-cream in tins, bamboo toothbrushes, and traditional razors with disposable/recyclable metal blades. For the laundry, I abandoned plastic bottles of eco-liquid and invested in an Eco-Egg containing mineral pellets, supplemented by a small amount of washing powder in an economy-size cardboard box (lasts at least a year) for large or heavily-soiled loads; I also wash some small loads by hand using old-fashioned soap flakes. As for the washing up: we don’t (and never will) have any dishwasher except our own hands, which now use concentrated eco-liquids we dilute in re-usable bottles, or solid dish-washing soap.

And lo! Within a week, our household waste output fell by two-thirds, thanks solely to a little more thought and planning and some minor housekeeping adjustments. I saved so much money by making more vegetarian and vegan dishes from scratch, and cutting out plastic/palm-oil infested snacks and unnecessary disposables like the ubiquitous wet-wipes, that we could afford to buy pricier eco-products, occasional treats like quality Fairtrade chocolate wrapped in paper/tinfoil and local free-range meat, and get milk and juice delivered by a milkman – thereby supporting local farmers and reducing our waste even more. (It’s wonderfully encouraging to hear that milkmen are making a huge comeback everywhere, with a correspondingly huge drop in our national consumption of plastic bottles and tetra-packs).

The other instant result: no more crying in the car-park.  The weekly supermarket trawl immediately turned into an interesting (if often frustrating) challenge, rather than a depressing burden, a satisfying lifestyle hobby of seeking ever more ways to reduce our carbon footprint, and shop more ethically and sustainably. Although we’re still far from zero-waste, I’m thrilled and amazed by how much we’ve achieved over the past three years for very little effort and no real sacrifice; I don’t even miss former favourite chocolates, Nutella and biscuits – in fact now I’m ‘woke’ to their flavour of orang-utan blood, rain-forest smoke, the sweat of child slave-labour and the tears of indigenous peoples, I find them more repellent than tempting.

Best of all, it’s not rocket science. Although the compromises involved in making the most ethical shopping choices are often highly complex, you can make a massive difference to your consumption/waste output simply by reverting to traditional ingredients in minimal/recyclable packaging, and doing things in traditional ways (like carrying a re-usable container of squash instead of buying a can or bottle of soft drink every time you go out!).


And to illustrate just how massive that difference can be, I’ve quantified these examples of plastic packaging our small household now saves per annum:

Cat: 365 pouches, 12 sacks, 12 bottles = 389 items

Birds: c. 300 fat-block trays

Chocolate/confectionery: c. 100 Kit-kat/200 other wrappers = 300 items

Savoury snacks: c. 400 crisp, nacho and ‘shot’ packets

Sweet snack bars: c. 1000 packets

Ready-made hummus; c. 100 tubs

Margarine: c. 12 tubs

Deli: c. 150 meat packs/50 pate tubs = 200 items

Individual yoghurt/dessert pots: c. 500

Gluten-free biscuit/cake trays: c. 100

Gluten-free bread bags: c. 75

Takeaway containers: c. 50

Stir-frys: c. 50 sachets/100 bags = 150 items

Shampoo bottles; c. 10

Toothpaste tubes: c. 12

Hand/body wash or lotion bottles: c. 30

Wet-wipes: c. 24 packets/1000 wipes = 1024 items

Synthetic sponges: c. 50

Laundry liquid bottles: c. 10

Washing up liquid bottles: c. 10

Milk bottles: c. 120

Grand total: c. 4842 items

Whew!  That’s a lot of wheelie-bin-loads. So if you loathe wasteful consumerism as much as we do, take heart: you could make many of these improvements too, with or without the support of your nearest and dearest. And next time someone says, ‘Oh, there’s no point making an effort, one person can’t make any difference’, you can respectfully contradict them by sharing this blog!


Shadow King: the Life and Death of Henry VI

Shadow King: The Life and Death of Henry VI by Lauren Johnson
Head of Zeus Publications, 2020, paperback, 700 pages, £12.00
ISBN 978-1784-979645

Henry VI has gone down in history as one of England’s worst kings. Not for being cruel or despotic; on the contrary, his nature was kindly and pliant, peace-loving and deeply devout – qualities that made him likeable as a person but hopeless as a monarch, a faint wavering shadow of his shrewd, martial father. His life would have been very different, and he may have become a better ruler, had he grown to manhood under the guidance of Henry V, this perfect model of the medieval warrior-statesman. Instead, by the latter’s untimely death in 1422 with his French kingdom far from pacified, the infant Henry only received the dire legacy of an unwinnable war, and perpetual bitter conflict between members of his family over the implementation of the late king’s will and their respective powers on the minority council.

Such is the context for the opening chapters of Lauren Johnson’s sympathetic new study, which sets out to ‘explore Henry VI as an evolving individual struggling in an extraordinary situation. In short, to consider him as a man.’ Recently released in paperback, Shadow King is a handsome volume, illustrated with 24 colour plates, family trees of the Houses of Lancaster, Beaufort and York, and three helpful maps, (France 1415 – 53; Wars of the Roses battles 1455 – 71; and 15th century noble landholding in England and Wales).

The well-referenced text falls into logical sections: Henry’s minority 1422 – 37; adult rule to 1453, including his marriage to Margaret of Anjou; political and mental breakdown, culminating in his deposition by Edward IV at Towton in 1461; his fugitive years, short-lived re-adeption, and eventual fate in the Tower of London. A brief ‘Afterlife’ and epilogue conclude the sad, strange stories of this unfortunate king and his queen, followed by two appendices, ‘Where did Henry VI die?’ and ‘Key Characters’, 68 pages of notes, and an extensive bibliography of primary and secondary sources.

Stylistically, some passages read like an historical novel: ‘The inky waters of the River Thames rippled and slid beneath the wherrymen’s oars. In places the peaks of the waves glistened, light falling from the windows of Winchester Palace as bursts of laughter and music echoed out.’ (Page 45). Such imaginative touches bring the text to life for many readers, although my own preference is for Johnson’s straight prose, which I found admirably clear and refreshing. Why gild the lily?

As for content, I particularly enjoyed the first two sections. Johnson makes excellent use of some seldom-used sources to paint a convincing, detailed picture of Henry’s early life. Her exposition of the complex political situations in England and France, (riven by its own civil war between the Armagnacs and Burgundians), and the equally complex personal war between Henry’s kinsmen, is lucid and easy to follow; and she offers some perceptive analyses of the likely effects on an impressionable child of having to perform the rituals of royalty surrounded by such constant conflict and tension. Theoretically wielding absolute power but practically powerless to control his feuding councillors, it’s no wonder that Henry grew up hating discord, and wishing only to please and appease the people closest to him, emotionally or literally.

However, as the story moved into more familiar territory, I felt some disappointment. Plainly no fan of Richard, Duke of York, Johnson gives short shrift to his justifiable reasons for expecting a primary place on Henry’s council/in his confidence, and justifiable chagrin at being passed over for lesser men. York’s assumption of pre-eminence was based on his royal pedigree: descended from the second and fifth sons of Edward III via his mother and father respectively, he was one of England’s wealthiest magnates with a claim to the throne arguably stronger than Henry’s. This was not lost upon the king’s beloved Beaufort kin, a legitimated line sprung from John, Duke of Lancaster’s affair with Kathryn Swynford, who, (along with sundry other jealous rivals), persistently undermined York in Henry’s malleable affections. Had Henry managed to keep his powerful cousin on-side, the Wars of the Roses might never have happened; instead, he progressively alienated York, and wounded his pride, by showing an unfair and obvious partiality for the base-born Beauforts . It seems a shame that Johnson doesn’t extend her even-handed approach to Duke Richard, or treat him as another ‘evolving individual struggling in an extraordinary situation’ who, no less than Henry VI, deserves to be viewed ‘as a man’ trying to do his best for his country, his family and himself.

I was also disappointed by the brief, conventional accounts of the battles of Wakefield and Towton, the great Lancastrian victory followed shortly by the catastrophic defeat which cost Henry his crown, changing his life – and the course of English history – forever. In a work of this magnitude, it’s inevitable that some areas will be less well researched than others; nonetheless, for such a crucial episode, it was frustrating to see some old Wakefield myths perpetuated and enlarged. Like other commentators unfamiliar with the place, Johnson describes Sandal Castle as ‘majestic’ when, as castles go, it’s quite small (Sandal would fit inside the truly majestic Pontefract Castle several times over) and utilitarian. Interestingly, the ‘meagre’ household expenditure of £4 6s 7d for the Christmas – New Year period is cited to show that the castle was poorly provisioned, whereas to me it says precisely the opposite: it was already so well provisioned that little further spending was required. (I say ‘little,’ but the sum in question represents around 18 months – three years’ pay for a labourer, or six months’ pay for a liveried archer – it’s all relative!). This debatable interpretation is then used to present a version of the battle of Wakefield which simply doesn’t make sense: York, Salisbury, Rutland and their men, driven by hunger to hunt in the deer-park ‘north of the River Calder,’ ambushed by the Lancastrian army and slaughtered. Said deer park wasn’t just north of the river – it was the Outwood, some three miles north of Sandal and two miles north of Wakefield city, with its chantry chapel of St Mary perched on the Calder bridge; an unnecessarily long way to go when Sandal Castle had its own deer-park to the south, literally on its threshold, and miles of nearby river for fishing and wild-fowl hunting. (For my personal take on the battle, see ) I also found her treatment of Towton somewhat superficial, and lacking reference to more recent studies such as those by George Goodwin and Tim Sutherland.

Suffice to say, if I wasn’t such a pro-Yorkist anorak about this period in Wars of the Roses history, these criticisms wouldn’t have occurred, and I would have read the whole book with the same relish as I devoured the earlier sections! So, on the whole, I’m happy to recommend Shadow King as a worthwhile read, an enthralling tragedy which left me moved and thoughtful, and which will make a valuable addition to my bookshelves.

Amazingly Fat Cat

This week saw our Henry Wowler’s least-favourite day of the year: the day he gets poked about by a stranger then jabbed in the neck. Yes, it’s annual medical time!

We heaved his cat-basket into the van with considerable effort, braced for a scolding about his heaviness; and in the vet’s waiting room I read a poster, ‘How to Tell if Your Cat’s Overweight.’ Can’t feel its ribs? Check. Saggy dewlap? Check. Lack of interest in playing? Check – sort of. As soon as Henry learnt to kill things, he went off toys, although he still enjoys savaging his Christmas catnip mouse, playing ‘knock on the patio window then run away when they open it,’ and chasing the odd leaf or twig round the garden; but on the whole, if it doesn’t bleed, he deems it not worth bothering with. Lazy and lethargic – um, how do you tell with a creature that spends 18 out of 24 hours asleep?


With Wowler, it depends on the weather, (when it’s fine, he spends more time outdoors doing cat stuff ), and whether anyone’s at home, (Mummy and Daddy-cat’s arrival means dinner, irrespective of how early we finish work – cue for him to wake and start prowling round hassling for food). So no check here – I’d call him averagely active for a cat of his age and temperament. Hesitates before jumping up onto furniture? Check. Mind you, Henry does like to consider the pros and cons – often at some length – before he acts, to avoid any taint of slavish obedience when invited to jump on the bed or onto Mummy-cat’s lap for a cuddle. I’m not sure if that counts as ‘hesitation’ – he’s perfectly capable of jumping without it when the occasion demands, and agile enough to make a standing leap onto the kitchen worktops (attested by the trail of small muddy rosettes I find after rainy nights). And he still has a visible (if substantial) waist, and no problems with flexibility or grooming his hard-to-reach areas. How overweight can he be?

We soon find out – 6.9 kilos! Amazingly, despite receiving exactly the same diet all year – a half-tin of meat and two handfuls of biscuit a day, plus his ration of toothy-bics (ie the dental-care type) – he’s gained 500g since his last weigh-in. Oops. Henry Wowler is, once again, officially Too Heavy; although to my great relief, he hasn’t topped his highest weight of 7.2 kg, recorded three years ago. But despite being a big, solid cat, he should weigh nearer six than seven kilos; so we discuss his intake with the vet, who recommends that I weigh the handfuls and cut back to no more than 30g of dry food per day.

OK. Next morning I duly chuck two heaping handfuls onto the scale, nervously wondering how much we’ve been over-feeding him. It weighs 35g. In other words, the absolute maximum he’d get on the rare days he succeeds in whingeing extra breakfast out of Mummy-cat and conning his bedtime biscuits out of both cat-parents, is a paltry 5g more than the vet’s recommendation. I reduce it to 25g, which looks more like his average daily portion. Phew. I’m delighted that we generally give him less than the recommended 30g – but amazed that, notwithstanding, he’s still managed to put on a pound. How did that happen?

Um. I guiltily recall the odd scraps of Spam or chicken he gets off our plates; doesn’t happen often, but that’ll have to stop – as will giving him any chance to steal scraps I put out for the birds. Plus I suspect he recently went through a phase of pinching a feline neighbour’s food, because he kept coming home in the afternoon looking smug and suspiciously fat, (but still demanding his usual dinner). Luckily, if that was the case, I think the neighbour must’ve got wise and either stopped leaving food outside, or started locking the cat-flap when they feed their own cat. And we can’t control the number of rodents he pogs overnight, (or even necessarily know about it, unless he leaves bloody remnants in the kitchen) – but however good the hunting, it never stops him demanding his full daily ration of cat-food. (Perhaps he thinks mice contain no calories, like chocolate eaten in secret).

Whatever, the upshot for Henry Wowler is no more unscheduled treats, and no more than a measured 25g biscuit and 12 toothy-bics with his meat every day. I’ll also try to make him run about a bit more, (although that only seems to sharpen his appetite). Then I’ll keep my fingers crossed that when we take him to have his teeth cleaned in the New Year, the vet will find our amazingly fat cat has shed a few ounces…

Animal Costumes = Animal Abuse!

Imagine I have a small child who can’t communicate with me verbally, or prevent me from physically abusing them. Imagine I buy that child a hot, uncomfortable, ludicrous comedy costume for my personal entertainment. Imagine I force it onto the child’s body, and when they wriggle and struggle and cry, I say, ‘Oh, never mind, you’ll soon get used to it.’ Imagine I then take photos of their baffled, miserable little face, or videos of them struggling to move around in said ludicrous costume. Imagine I splatter these all over social media, inviting the whole world to mock and laugh at my child, and inspiring others to torment their own helpless children in similar fashion.

What would you think of that? You would, I hope, be horrified and disgusted, report me to social services, get my child removed to safety, and me banged up in prison.

Now substitute the word ‘pet’ for ‘child,’ and suddenly it’s all OK. ‘Oh, how cute, how funny, how precious!’ you may cry when you see images of unfortunate pets suffering in ludicrous costumes. ‘Just look at the expression on its face! Oh, I must share this with all my friends! I must torment my cat/dog/hamster with one of these ludicrous costumes so I can get lots of likes on Facebook and YouTube!’

Well, you certainly won’t get any ‘likes’ from me – in fact, if costuming pets to make them a laughing-stock is your idea of fun, I want nothing to do with you. I deplore, loathe and detest this stupid fad. It may be pretty low down on the continuum of grotesque cruelties humans inflict on animals every minute of every day; nonetheless, it is a cruelty, part of a mind-set that believes animals exist purely for our pleasure and entertainment, so it’s fine to do whatever we want to them irrespective of the effects on their well-being.

Don’t get me wrong: I completely approve of clothing and/or shoeing animals when it’s necessary for their warmth or protection, or as part of their work. But this silly, growing dressing-up trend has nothing to do with animal welfare, and everything to do with human whimsy and fundamental misunderstanding of animal needs and rights.

For instance, yesterday I was particularly appalled to see a Hallowe’en costume for cats that makes them look like a giant spider. Sure, on the most superficial level it does look very funny, and lets you play hilarious practical jokes on people; but if you stop to think from the cat’s point of view, it’s a total disaster. Even if the cat is placid and doesn’t overtly object, once it’s been put in this costume, it’s stuck. It can’t scratch if it gets itchy. It can’t groom without choking on synthetic fibres. It can’t remove the ludicrous costume when it gets too hot. And if (like the cats in the advertising video) it’s allowed to go out and about, it’s in constant danger of getting caught up, injured or killed – especially if someone freaks out at the sight and attacks it. What a great Hallowe’en decoration: your cat-tarantula kicked to death on the street outside your house, or dangling, strangled, from a tree in your garden – just imagine how your kids would love it!

No. Animals are animals, not small furry people; they deserve to be respected and treated according to their nature, not hurt and held up to ridicule. Animals don’t want, don’t understand, and seldom need, clothing. Animals don’t ‘get into the spirit’ of human festivals; they don’t understand what’s going on, and are more likely to be frightened or agitated than to enjoy wearing a festive sweater or having a pair of foam reindeer antlers strapped to their head. They don’t understand – nor do humans who dress up their pets understand, or apparently ever stop to think – that apart from being uncomfortable, these ludicrous costumes are terribly dangerous, that they can catch on objects, or brush against candles/heaters and burst into flame. Imagine how well that’d go down at your birthday party: a terrified, agonized cat in a blazing tutu doing the wall of death round your lounge, or your dog’s elf costume snagging on the Christmas tree and pulling it down in a great smash of baubles on top of itself and your children.

And I don’t understand why anyone would wish to torture a beloved animal companion by inflicting this kind of thing on them. Animals are, in their own right, beautiful, cute and frequently very amusing; they need no artificial embellishment. As readers of my blogs and Facebook posts will know,  I love to share the doings of our Henry Wowler with the world, and many people seem to enjoy hearing about them – but it’s all his own, pure feline behaviour while he is, and always will be, dressed only in his own fur (oh, and a microchip, the only thing we’ve ever succeeded in making him wear – he won’t even tolerate a collar). I mean, look at him: I wouldn’t dream of insulting such a perfect being, demeaning his natural dignity, or making him unhappy/uncomfortable, by forcing him to wear some ludicrous costume for foolish people to laugh at.


Last but not least are the environmental considerations. While our planet is on fire and we’re facing a massive global climate crisis, pet clothing companies are wasting untold resources of energy, water, petroleum by-products etc on producing this pointless, non-biodegradable novelty tat for people with more money than sense. It’s the kind of consumerism that has GOT to stop if humanity, collectively, wishes to survive into the next century.

So I implore you: please, please, if you care about your pets, don’t dress them up! Boycott these harmful, wasteful products, delete images of them from social media, and discourage other people from buying them. If you’ve got that sort of money to spare, give it to an animal welfare charity instead – and do join me in campaigning to at least raise awareness of the dangers and undesirability of pet dressing, and at best, getting these horrible products taken off the market altogether.

‘Green Gardening’: My Top Five Tips!

When I was a child in the 1960’s, gardening was, literally, a very green activity. Every summer weekend, every suburban neighbourhood would buzz with the quiet shirring sound of manual lawnmowers, and the gentle snip-snip of hand-shears as hedges were cut and shrubs pruned – the pleasant, soothing sounds of gardeners using only their own muscles,  with the days of deafening power tools still lying well in the future.

Of course, the advent of petrol-driven mowers and leaf-blowers, petrol or electric hedge-cutters, strimmers  and so forth was a great time-saving boon for folk who were busy, had big gardens to care for – or, like us, worked as professional gardeners. Despite our eco-aspirations, we often can’t afford not to use these noisy, smelly machines, otherwise we couldn’t get through our workload in the allotted time – customers don’t want to pay for the extra hours it would take to do everything by hand.

However, we’ve made progress in greening our gardening business, thanks largely to technological improvements which have brought a whole range of excellent battery-powered machines onto the market. Our first such acquisition was ‘Little Red,’ a Mountfield domestic lawnmower with a folding handle I can carry in my hatchback. All plastic, with no engine to break down or need annual servicing, it only weighs as much as a bag of shopping, making it easy to manoeuvre around fiddly garden features; it’s so quiet that I don’t need ear-defenders, gives a lovely cut, and has enough juice to mow all the lawns of a standard council-house garden if the grass is dry (cutting wet and/or very long grass uses more power).

Once you’ve enjoyed the convenience of battery, you never want to go back to noise, petrol fumes or awkward, dangerous electrical cables again. We duly bought ‘Little Hedgey,’ a Mountfield domestic hedge-cutter with an even longer-lasting battery, and most recently, ‘Big E-GO,’ (see below), a superbly-designed professional-grade mower for bigger lawns. These user-friendly lightweight machines are all future-proofing for our ageing, aching bodies, and environmentally-friendly too,  (the batteries only cost about six pence to fully re-charge, and will cost us and the planet nothing when we finally get round to installing solar panels).


We’re also doing what we can in response to climate change and the worrying decline in biodiversity and insect biomass. Last year’s severe drought prompted us to install more water-butts and encourage customers to do likewise; and on our smallholding, Hubcap dug a cistern to hold over 2000 litres of rainwater – enough to keep our orchard alive through several dry months, trapped in the ground by a thick layer of turf and hay mulch round all the trees. This magic mulch also supports the micro-organisms needed for healthy soil, and, supplemented by un-mowed strips of ‘beetle bank’ in the orchard and numerous areas on site left to grow wild, provides habitat for a great range of insects including crickets, grasshoppers, and many varieties of butterfly and moth.

Contrary to popular belief, Lepidoptera need more than just flower-nectar to feed on, they need long grass to live in (making me feel like a vast home-wrecking juggernaut every time I mow a lawn). Unfortunately, even green gardening often disturbs, and sometimes destroys, this small fauna; but in view of their drastic reduction  in numbers, we try hard not to hurt them, never kill anything deliberately, and are forever rescuing stray worms and snails from our paths, involuntary swimmers from bird-baths, and cold, exhausted bees. We extend this policy to the house, too, where no insect has been sprayed or swatted (except by the cat) for the past several years – we’ve even perfected methods of ushering unwelcome flies out.

Encouraging insects and invertebrates pays tremendous dividends. By going organic, planting insect-friendly flowers, and putting up ‘bug hotels,’ we’ve turned our small garden into a fruitful, self-supporting eco-system complete with biological controls for pests . We don’t need or use slug pellets because we have at least one resident hedgehog to gobble them up; wasps and small birds eat our aphids; and our apple trees are beautifully pest-free thanks to the jam-jar full of ladybirds we collected round the house over winter, put to hibernate properly in the cold dark loft, and released onto each tree in the spring. Our tiny, gin-clear pond on the smallholding is filtered only by a fresh-water mussel, naturally oxygenated by aquatic plants, rainfall and an occasional top-up from the water-butt, and any mosquito larvae in it are devoured by amphibian tadpoles and a large fat stickleback. Meanwhile Henry Wowler deals with the rodents, although his unfortunate tendency to bring live ones in through the cat-flap causes us more mouse problems than it solves.


As for weeds, where we can, we tolerate – even enjoy. I hate mowing out dandelions, buttercups, daisies and red or white clover – they add such colour and jollity to a lawn, as well as feeding our precious pollinators. Plenty more so-called weeds, like purple loosestrife, could be considered perfectly attractive wildflowers, and are frequently useful – for example, dandelion leaves can be eaten in salads or used to brew a diuretic tea, while young tender stinging nettles, boiled, make a tasty, iron-rich substitute for spinach. Where we can’t tolerate them, we hand-weed or hoe if possible; or in the last resort, break off flowering heads before applying weed-killer to minimise the risk of poisoning pollinators. (I still have some weed-infested patches I can’t bear to treat because they’re so full of insects).

Altogether, this gentle, holistic approach to our business makes us feel we’re doing as much as possible to protect and improve the small parts of the world we directly control, working to minimise our negative impact and maximise the positive – with some very heartening results. Our own garden and smallholding are veritable nature reserves, where we regularly find plants, insects and birds we’ve either not seen for years, or never seen before. The endangered hedgehog is thriving in the gardens of numerous neighbours and customers; the rain has brought back goodly numbers of worms, slugs and snails, and made all vegetation grow hugely – a refreshingly verdant contrast to last year, and a great boost for carbon capture!

More than ever before, in these perilous times, our fragile planet needs gardens and gardeners. Green gardening plays a crucial role in providing habitat for threatened wildlife , cool shade to help us withstand heatwave summers, vital soakaway ground to absorb extreme rainfall, compost to nourish the soil and its organisms, a bounty of fresh, organic, plastic-free produce literally on our doorsteps – and in the process, absorbs countless tons of atmospheric pollution. Cumulatively, the world’s gardens make a gigantic difference to the environment; and between Brexit and climate change, gardening is surely the best occupation or hobby to have – because in the not-too-distant future, we may all be forced to conserve every drop of water, and grow as much food as we can, to reduce pressure on resources  and avert shortages and rationing. So I’ll close with five of my favourite ‘green gardening’ tips to prepare for the challenges ahead – get out there and enjoy!

  1. First and Foremost: Do It! Gardening is wonderfully therapeutic, as healthy for you as it is for Planet Earth. Even if you have no outdoor space at all, you can still enjoy seasonal flowers and a vegetable garden: spring bulbs, miniature roses, geraniums, cress, radishes, bean-sprouts, herbs and chili peppers all do well in pots on a window ledge or other suitable location.  Window-boxes, hanging baskets, tubs by the doorstep and climbers on trellis make a lovely display on terraced houses whose fronts open directly onto the street, as do container plants on apartment balconies, and all provide welcome nectar sources for urban insects. With a little imagination and the right sort of plants for the conditions, any outdoor space, no matter how small or unpromising, can be turned into a beautiful living asset to your home. For instance, our back garden is the smallest on the estate, yet we still find room for a fig tree, a grape-vine, raspberry canes, a salad bed, assorted herbs, a greenhouse for tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers , a twisted hazel, various flowers and shrubs, a small lawn, and a patio with numerous container plants – as well as a shed, two water-butts, and a wood-store. As a result, it’s a riot of colour, alive with birds, bees and bugs, (and bats by night); full of interest all year round, and an absolute joy to sit in or enjoy through the window.
  2. Shun Artificial Grass! The antithesis of green gardening, this horrible product is as bad for wildlife and the environment as it is for people, and inferior to the real thing in every way. Living grass remains cool even in baking hot weather, an important consideration as we face increasingly extreme summers; it absorbs carbon dioxide and releases oxygen through photosynthesis, improving air quality; and, of course, it supports a huge range of organisms. The fake stuff is completely devoid of, indeed discourages, any sort of life; it photo-degrades into micro-plastics to pollute the air, soil and ground-water; and it can become dangerously hot, reaching temperatures in excess of 50 degrees Celsius under strong sun – enough to give first degree burns to your children or pets when they go out to play on it, and I won’t be surprised if it’s banned for domestic use within the next five years due to injury claims. So if you want to enjoy your lawn safely in the midst of a heatwave, either stick with real grass, or find a sympathetic, natural alternative to plastic, like bark chippings or a different ground-cover plant. Camomile lawns, for instance, don’t need mowing, produce pretty white flowers you can use to make camomile tea, and give off a heavenly scent when you walk across them. If maintenance is your big issue with real grass, forget about trying to achieve a weed-free billiard table and embrace informality: only mow every two to three weeks, and appreciate the daisies and pretty yellow miniature chrysanthemums  (as the bees surely will). Longer grass looks attractively natural, is much better for carbon capture, and much healthier for the grass itself – our lawn stayed green, and blessedly cool to walk on, throughout last year’s brutal summer simply because it had missed a cut before the drought really hit, whereas short, newly-mowed lawns fried to a crisp in no time and took months to recover. Further lessen the workload and enhance the effect by leaving uncut wildlife areas; tall waving grasses and flowering weeds look delightful, especially if you toss in a wildflower seed mix, and make a great haven for butterflies, moths and beetles. DSCN5344And for the ultimate in lawn-labour-saving, ditch your old, cumbersome mower and switch to a battery model. They’re cheaper to run than petrol or mains electric, light enough for a child to use, and make grass-cutting a positive pleasure (the fragrance! the nice stripy effect! the satisfaction of a job well done!) – not to mention good healthy fresh-air exercise. How can nasty plastic compete with that?!
  3. Have As Many Water Butts As You Reasonably Can. Rainwater might be a renewable resource but it’s an unpredictable one, as we saw last year to great cost – yet still we take this vital asset for granted and squander it in disgraceful quantity. So it’s prudent to future-proof against drought by maximising your rainwater catchment, whether in water-butts or sunken tanks – it’ll help keep your garden alive in the event of severe shortages and water rationing.
  4. Encourage Biodiversity. Mother Nature really needs a big helping hand, so plant your garden to provide year-round shelter and food – nectar, berries and seeds -for as many creatures as possible. Around ours, as well as front and side hedges, big ivies, and several  trees or large shrubs where birds can nest, we’ve put up bird-boxes and a wren-pot, plus a hedgehog box and several bug-hotels. And since Hubcap was so surprised and delighted to see swifts back on the estate this summer, for Christmas he’s asked for two swift bricks which our neighbour will install in our gable wall in return for a brick for his own house. Then with any luck, next year the swifts will spot these new nesting sites and set up a little colony – or if they don’t, we’ll buy a swift-call lure to entice them! We also provide year-round fresh water and good-quality food: for the birds, sunflower hearts, mealworms, fat blocks and fat balls (always in a proper feeder, never the individual plastic nets in which they can become entangled and die), and Spike’s semi-moist pellets for the hedgehog. Meat-based cat or dog food does just as well, but never give hedgehogs milk, (they’re lactose intolerant and it can kill them), bread, or mealworms, (which prevent them from absorbing vital nutrients). The result? We’re blessed with a miniature Garden of Eden, teeming with wildlife great and small. The downside? Blackbirds pinch our soft fruit, mice gnaw our best hessian sacks, and there’s bird-splat (spectacularly purple in elderberry season) and hog-poop everywhere – but we wouldn’t have it any other way. We feel privileged to help struggling species, and in return we get to watch all the wonderful drama  of their lives, every day, played out in front of our windows.  Yes: the more biodiverse you make your garden, the more you’ll help nature – and the more you’ll enjoy it!
  5. Don’t Freak Out Over Stingy Things. Swarm of honeybees trying to nest on your house or in your garden? Don’t panic! Above all, don’t kill them (or call in a pest exterminator to do it). Bee numbers have taken such a battering in recent years that we can’t afford to lose any more of their precious little lives – just ring your local Beekeepers Association, and someone will gladly come and take the colony away for you, free of charge, and find it a good home. What about wasps? Again, don’t panic! Shrieking and flailing about are sure-fire ways to scare or annoy a wasp into stinging you.  And please don’t kill them in the mistaken belief that it’s essential – humans and wasps can co-exist quite safely and happily. (Hubcap and I have both lived for years with a wasps’ nest in either our loft or garden without either party being aware of, or bothered by, the other’s existence; we find that, by and large, if you leave wasps alone, they leave you alone). Besides, they’re an essential part of any green garden’s eco-system, and valuable workmates for any gardener: ferocious hunters of pests like aphids, and ravenous scavengers who clear away rotting fruit and carrion, bit by tiny bit, to feed to their grubs – all tremendous fun to watch, too. So do tolerate these amazing insects if you possibly can – you may even learn to love them, as I do – and look out for my forthcoming blog in praise of the much-maligned wasp. Happy green gardening!

Richard III: Bound by Loyalty?

What do you do if someone you love marries someone you think is, at best, deeply unsuitable, or at worst, deeply despicable?

The only answer, if you want to remain close to your loved one, is to put your feelings aside for their sake, and try to develop civilised relations with your unwelcome in-laws – especially if said loved one is an absolute monarch, and their unsuitable spouse your new queen.

Such was the situation in which the 12-year-old Richard, Duke of Gloucester, found himself in 1464, when news broke that his eldest brother, King Edward IV, had secretly married a Lancastrian widow, Elizabeth Grey (née Woodville). While other, older members of his family (with good reason) openly opposed the match, Richard was apparently wise, tactful, or perhaps simply devoted enough to Edward to keep his own counsel – history records no evidence of hostility between Gloucester and his Woodville in-laws prior to 1483, whereas his kinsman and erstwhile tutor Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, was killed in rebellion against the king in 1471, and his elder brother George, Duke of Clarence, was executed for treason (possibly at the queen’s instigation) in 1478.

Richard’s unswerving support throughout Edward’s life is entirely consistent with the famous motto he adopted as an adult, Loyaulté me lie. Most commonly translated as ‘Loyalty binds me,’ this has an alternative and less well-known translation: ‘Justice rejoices me.’ (See Sutton & Visser-Fuchs, p. 271 – 74, for a fascinating discussion of Richard’s mottoes). Both meanings fit well with Richard’s documented interest in the law, and his attempts to emulate his revered late father Richard, Duke of York, in meriting high honour through the exercise of good lordship, fulfilment of obligations to superiors and inferiors, maintenance of the king’s peace, and dispensation of impartial justice.

Richard may well have known and used Loyaulte me lie earlier than 1483 in sources either lost or yet to be discovered, but its known survivals all date to the period from Edward IV’s death through to Richard’s own reign  – including its appearance, bracketed with his signature, on a scrap of paper also bearing the signatures of his nephew Edward V, and his then ally Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham.

To me, this casts another, far more sinister light on an innocuous phrase, akin to the undertones of ‘A Lannister always pays his debts’ in Game of Thrones. Loyalty might have bound Richard to Edward – but it had also bound his hands, rendering him incapable of acting against the Woodvilles unless and until his brother died. Richard’s actions after this unexpectedly occurred on 9th April 1483 suggest that he had always hated and distrusted the queen and her large, acquisitive family, and longed to take revenge for their presumption, the attendant loss of prestige to the House of York, and the execution of his brother Clarence; he may also have blamed his brother-in-law Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers, in particular, for hastening Edward’s death by encouraging him in debauchery. Certainly, within a few months of the latter’s demise, Richard had arrested and subsequently executed both Rivers and Richard Grey, a nephew from the queen’s first marriage; attempted to capture another brother-in-law, Edward Woodville (Lord Scales); deposed one nephew, and possibly disposed of him too, along with his younger brother, Richard, Duke of York.

So I find it hard to believe that Richard, a subtle and highly intelligent man, was not aware of, (and secretly amused by), the dark sub-text of his chosen motto – because clearly, the loyalty that bound him from April 1483 to the end of his life on 22nd August 1485 was not to his misbegotten nephew, the uncrowned Edward V. It was to the House of York and his own blood family, while the justice that rejoiced him was giving his rapacious in-laws their just desserts, and saving his country from the rule of an illegitimate Woodville king.

References: Anne Sutton & Livia Visser-Fuchs, Richard III’s Books, 1997, Sutton Publishing Ltd


Today, 4 am: ‘Waaoow!’ The gentle patter of rain is rent by mournful cries as Henry Wowler yells his ‘wet-wah’ up at our open bedroom window. ‘Waaoow?’
Hubcap sighs. ‘Shall I give him his breakfast?’
‘If you like,’ I reply.
Hubcap returns in due course. ‘Soaked, starving and hysterical,’ he says. ‘There was half a mouse and a big pile of mouse-vom in the middle of the rug – It’s a wonder I didn’t step in it.’
It makes such a nice change for Hubcap to rise first and deal with one of the early-morning horrors our cat-son regularly presents me with that I laugh in the dark. ‘Welcome to my world.’

4.25 am: ‘Waaow! Waaaooow!’ Oh God, not again… it’s going to be one of THOSE nights. Before he wakes the entire neighbourhood, I stumble out of bed and say, ‘I’ll go downstairs and sleep with him.’
To my surprise, I find Henry isn’t particularly wet – but he claims, loudly and repeatedly, to be insufficiently fed. Guessing that Daddy-cat forgot to give him dessert, I administer his daily ration of dental biscuits and a little extra cat-food, then tuck myself up on the couch. Normally, Henry would leap aboard in great delight and sleep in my armpit for as long as I’d let him – but not today. No, today he prises the living room door open, scratches noisily on the hall carpet and thunders upstairs.
In a vain attempt to stop him disturbing Daddy-cat again, I follow, return to bed and invite him to lie on my chest. Henry tramples it briefly then retreats to lie on my feet in the most uncomfortable position possible. I move to make space for him at the foot of the bed. For five minutes it seems he’s gone to sleep. Then thu-dub! He lands on the floor and starts shouting again.
‘*%!?@*!!!!’ Daddy-cat shouts back. Henry flees. I follow him down to the kitchen, (good grief, he thinks he’s going to get more food), shut the door on him, go back to bed and callously shut the window against further outcry.

6 am: The alarm goes off. Feeling jaded and irritable, I head downstairs to make our breakfast and discover that Henry Wowler, in great chagrin, has scratted up the duct-tape repair on the old lino ripped by previous scratting (roll on retirement/installation of new kitchen with tiled or laminate floor) so that I struggle to open the door between living room and kitchen. Threading dangerously between my feet, he pleads loudly for yet more food. On the basis that he had, after all, sicked up last night’s supper, I relent and give him a little – for which Daddy-cat rebukes me. It transpires that actually, as well as a generous breakfast, he HAD given Henry his dental biscuits – so as well as both of us being disturbed and sleep-deprived, I’ve been conned out of extra extra food. So when the cat-pig finally settles down in his accustomed place on our bed and goes smugly to sleep, I take revenge and apply spot-on wormer to the back of his head – and laugh when it makes him get up and go off in a huff.