Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Why I signed The Letter To The Future

I hadn't heard about the RSPB's Letter To The Future campaign until I got involved in the Big Garden Birdwatch at the end of January. With a General Election due later this year, the campaign aims to bring wildlife to the attention of politicians around the UK.

The campaign's six objectives are:

1) To create a countryside fit for wildlife -- by asking the Government to fund projects to restore and protect habitats

2) To safeguard our sealife -- by creation of marine nature reserves

3) To stop extinction -- by asking the Government to do all it can to prevent loss of bird species in the UK's overseas territories

4) To save tropical forests -- by urging the Government to secure a global climate change agreement

5) To stop climate chaos -- by showing support for green industries, renewable energy, etc

6) To inspire children through nature -- by asking the Government to fund opportunities for children to enjoy nature

I have two young children and I want them to grow up in a pleasant environment and to be able to see the wildlife that I grew up spotting in the garden (how sad it would be if they never saw a sparrow). Those were my reasons for signing the Letter To The Future, and I hope you will do so to.

There is more information about the campaign on the RSPB's site (here).

Monday, 15 February 2010

Giving up or starting afresh

Tomorrow is Pancake Day, and my son is already eagerly awaiting dinner time so he can watch his dad flip pancakes to try and get them to hit the ceiling! The day is also known as Shrove Tuesday. For Christians, Shrove Tuesday is a day of celebration and feasting before the fasting period of Lent begins the next day (Ash Wednesday). It is also known as Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), hence the celebrations seen in New Orleans and Brazil.

Most years, you will hear people announcing what they are giving up for Lent, be it alcohol, chocolate, smoking... A few years ago, my mum told me of an idea put forward by the vicar of her Church to take up something for Lent, eg, joining a prayer or study group, volunteering time once a week to clean the Church, ironing!

I thought this was quite a nice idea, and this year it has been embraced by several organisations, notably Christian Aid with their Count Your Blessings campaign. The Diocese of St Alban's (in which I live) have also launched Challenge 2010. By signing up you receive a daily Bible reading, and the challenge is to read it, learn it, pray it, and do it.

I have signed up and hope the daily reading will provide a bit of focus for me during Lent, even if I don't manage to achieve all the challenges. If all else fails, I am also giving up chocolate and alcohol!

Sog's homemade chicken pie

Thought I'd post the recipe for my current favourite dinner, chicken and veg pie.

I began by cooking 3 chicken breasts in the oven (about 180 degrees in a fan oven for about 25 mins) then cut them into half inch cubes. Next, I sliced 2 carrots and cut a head of broccoli into florets and parboiled them for about 5 mins (almost cooked but still crunchy).

Next, I chopped an onion and sweated it for 5 mins in a pan with some low fat spread. I then added 4 sliced mushrooms and cooked them until soft. I sprinkled a heaped tbsp of flour over the mix and cooked for a minute, then gradually added about 1/4 pint milk and 1/4 stock, stirring to prevent lumps. I seasoned this sauce with a tbsp of wholegrain mustard and a heaped tsp of dill.

I added the chicken to the sauce, stirring to mix. Then, I placed the carrots and broccoli in the base of an ovenproof dish and poured the sauce over, gently mixing to avoid breaking up the broccoli florets.

All that is needed is a pastry lid (I use ready made puff pastry) on top, brushed with milk, and put in the oven at 200 degrees (fan oven) for 25 mins (until pastry is golden).

Serve with mash and gravy :)

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Bedfordshire sights

We've only lived in Bedfordshire for 3 years and are still discovering the best towns for shopping, where to eat out, and places of interest to take the kids. When I was young, I remember my parents would drive out most weekends to a nearby village to look round and get to know the area. So that seemed like a plan for today.

We fancied a bit of a walk, and my husband thought we could perhaps walk along a different section of the Kingfisher Way, part of which runs past our house. However, after experience last year of walking the section through Langford, which was very overgrown, I thought this might not be the best idea! After some research I found another route along an old railway line, between Sandy and Bedford (route info and map here). It seemed suitable for us because it was wide and flat, so OK for the pushchair and little legs.

We decided to park at Willington, because the path ran through the village and there were a few sights of interest there. I'd read about an unusual dovecote that belongs to the National Trust, so we started there. Unfortunately (or fortunately for my husband), it doesn't open until April, so I had to settle for taking a photo.

Driving back towards the village centre we saw a sign for The Danish Camp, which is where the path passed by, so we parked up. Adjacent to the path is 'The Moated Site', a wetland situated within a series of moats dating back to medieval times. The wetland is currently closed for the winter, but we could see lots of unusual birds through the fence.

The birds on the left are Mandarin ducks; I'm not sure what the others are.

These unusual birds are Golden Pheasants.

After a short walk, which involved my husband depositing chocolate decorations left over from Christmas in trees (from the local goblin population) for the kids to find, we jumped back in the car and headed home. Except "heading home" when I am navigating involves large detours to "see things".

First stop was Moggerhanger Park, which we had passed on the way. I'd spotted the sign advertising teas until 4 pm and got excited. We drove onto the estate, took a wrong turning, and ended up in front of the hall's grand entrance. "Keep going, keep going, I can see the way out!" We didn't get chased by an angry groundskeeper fortunately; we'll probably visit again in the Spring, looks like there are some nice walks in the grounds.

Next, we passed through a village called Cople, which has some pretty cottages and a beautiful Church with square battlements atop the nave. A short detour towards Bedford (we got slightly confused by the road signs!), we turned off the A603 and headed South again, through the village of Cardington. This village is dominated by the striking view of two enormous airship hangars. I never fail to be awe-struck by the sheer size of these buildings, and had to hop out of the car for a photo or two.

My iPhone camera does not do justice to the view unfortunately, but check out the links above for better photos.

Last stop on the way home was the pretty village of Old Warden, located within Old Warden Park (which contains the Shuttleworth Collection among other things). I like this place because it is full of quaint little cottages with tiny diamond-leaded windows and elaborate carved bargeboards.

The house aren't really bent by the way, that's my attempts at photography with an iPhone from a moving car!

Sunday, 7 February 2010

A trip to the fish shop

After a lovely morning alone with my daughter (at Sunday School), I was really pleased to be able to spend some time alone with my son, a very rare event at the moment. We decided to go to the local fish shop to buy some replacement fish for our tropical aquarium.

I told my son he could choose four new fish and he chose a rosy barb (new Mr Fish), neon tetra (new Nemo), gold danio (new Dave), and leopard danio (Duncan). I steered him towards the barbs and danios because I had read that they tolerate high nitrate levels well, after our problems last week.

While we were waiting to get our fish, we had a look at the marine fish. This type live in saltwater so we cannot have them in our aquarium (tropical fish live in freshwater). Here are some photos we took. (Apologies for blurry pics but I was using my iPhone and the tanks were watermarked!)

A science lesson

Last week, we introduced six male guppies and a swordtail to our new tropical freshwater aquarium. Sadly, during the week, three guppies died. After much research, I learnt about the nitrogen cycle and how this will have led to the deaths of the fish.

I feel quite sad that I hadn't researched this myself before we bought the fish, leaving the 'fish homework' to my husband! However, in all fairness, he had done some reading but hadn't heard about the nitrogen cycle.

It is quite basic chemistry too, something as I biochemist I am quite ashamed to have forgotten about. Simply, uneaten fish food and fish faeces decompose and produce ammonia or ammonium depending on the pH of the water. Ammonia raises the pH and makes the water toxic for fish.

Over the course of about a week, bacteria grow that convert ammonia to nitrites. This compound is just as toxic to fish. After another week, different bacteria develop that convert nitrites to nitrates. Nitrates can be removed either by partial water changes or by live aquarium plants.

So, after two midweek partial water changes (about 15-20% replaced) our fish are much happier, so we decided to buy some replacements. Hopefully they will like their new tank mates.

Saturday, 6 February 2010

A baking day

I enjoy baking, especially if my children are helping. They get so much from helping to weigh ingredients, sifting and stirring, preparing tins, and scraping the bowl at the end!

Yesterday, I decided I'd like to make a Sticky Cake from a recipe given to me by my mother-in-law. This recipe requires mixed fruit to be soaked overnight in cold tea, so I prepared this in the afternoon with help from my son (weighing fruit) and daughter (eating 'spare' raisins).

Today, we finished the preparation and below is a photo of the finished product, with the recipe. It tastes delicious, and my father-in-law says it tastes even better spread with butter.

Sticky Cake

1 cup (5 oz) mixed dried fruit
1 cup (6 oz) soft brown sugar
1 cup cold black tea
1 egg
8 oz self-raising flour

Place fruit and sugar in the tea and leave to soak overnight. Stir in the flour and beaten egg. Pour into a lined loaf tin and bake for 1 hour, gas mark 4 (180 °C).

While we were waiting for this cake to bake, my son and I decided to bake some quick butterfly cakes. Except he decided after we'd baked them that he wanted to put icing on the top and sweets! That means the cake is a bit dense as a fairy cake, but still tasty! Here's a photo of the finished product and below it is the recipe, again from my mother-in-law.

Butterfly cakes

4 oz margarine
4 oz sugar
2 eggs
6 oz self-raising flour (for fairy cakes I would use 4 oz)
2 tsp milk

For the filling

2 oz margarine
6 oz icing sugar
1 tbsp milk

Cream margarine and sugar together. Beat in eggs one at a time. Fold in flour and add milk. Put into small cake cases and bake for 15-20 mins at gas mark 5 (190 °C). (This recipe gives 12 'large' cakes or about 18 small ones). Cut a 'circle' of cake from the top of each cake, cut this piece in half to make two 'wings' and fill the hole with buttercream. Replace 'wings'.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

A sad fishy tale

If you have seen Finding Nemo you will know that little Nemo tries to escape the aquarium by jamming the filter. In a sad twist tonight, we discovered our own Nemo (a guppy with a stripey tail) had died, he appeared to have attached himself the filter. (If it wasn't so sad it might be vaguely amusing.)

My son, watching as we extracted him, said quite cheerfully: "So now we only have SIX fish." At which point I told him very sadly that Dave had died the day before. "So now we have FIVE fish" he announced.

He's great at mathematics, and has a cold heart (where fish are concerned)!

Naughty schoolchildren!

Today, while I was dropping my 4-year-old son off at school, his teacher came over and took me to one side. "Please can I have a few words with you?" Goodness me, I felt like I'd been caught drawing on my desk again when I was 9!

The problem? Apparently he is not sitting still at storytime, preferring to jump up and down or play with nearby toys. So, just a typical 4-year-old boy then? "Perhaps he is just tired" she added. Well, yes perhaps he is. He has only been full-time at school for 3 weeks after all.

The teacher then continued: "He's also not eating his snack." Well, I am not surprised. I am asked to send my son to school with a piece of fruit and a drink everyday, for him to have at 10 am. If he has eaten a good breakfast at 7.45 am he is not going to be hungry enough for a piece of fruit! He's also not eating his fruit at lunchtime, something else that hasn't gone unnoticed.

School lunchboxes are very heavily regulated. When I returned my son's school meals letter to say he would be having a packed lunch everyday I received in turn three leaflets (one from the Government, one from our local council, and one from the school) informing me what a 'correct' lunch should contain.

I'm lucky if I can get my son to eat a ham sandwich at lunchtime. Now, I have to ensure he also has a yoghurt or some cheese to fulfil the dairy requirement, two portions of fruit of veg, and a drink. (I actually measured the juice I was sending him to school with today: 1 pint of cordial!) Unsurprisingly, he is not eating much of his lunch or drinking his juice, leading to a lot of wasted food.

Maybe one of these Government advisors who dream up guidelines should think about wider issues before issuing their advice. For example, reducing food waste by not insisting on so many 'portions', and cutting obesity by not forcing our children to eat so much during the day!

I'm being lighthearted and flippant about this issue, but I'm sure others could give my points much more considered thought.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Signs of Spring

I took a little stroll around the garden this afternoon (it didn't take long, my garden is rather small!), noting jobs that need to be done soon (eg, cutting back last year's perennials, weeding). I was really happy when I spotted some bluebells pushing their way through the ground.

I also noted some pots of scented crocuses that will soon be in flower. These are a scented variety leftover from pots that I planted up for Christmas presents for my family. I am looking forward to bringing them indoors to enjoy a bit of Spring.

Another exciting moment today was when I noticed some men planting trees (I live on a new development that is in the final 'landscaping' phase). They planted a row of three Prunus maackii 'Amber Beauty' (common name, Manchurian cherry) behind my garden fence, which will be lovely once they are established. A new habitat for the local birds and wildlife, and some much needed screening from our neighbours behind.

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