Introducing… Snailvaark

Despite initial reservations, it’s turned out that I really rather like Twitter. I set up an account last April and, although making connections has been slow, it’s been great for finding like-minded people… especially folks recycling, reusing, repairing and repurposing. In addition, on days when I don’t want to embark on reading long posts, it keeps me connected with the world.

Anyway, through a regular weekly discussion via Twitter – Make do and mend Hour – I also encountered a large family of critters, The ‘Vaarks. Originally created by Danielle Lowy of The Make it Shop in Manchester, and featured in her booklet How to Make Monsters & Monkeys, the ‘vaarks have taken on a life of their own. Various ‘vaarks have their own Twitter feeds – @Ratvaark, @Mousevaark, @Bendivaark and @Phileas_Vaark – sharing their adventures in gardening, repairing, reusing objects and eating cake.

And, so I hankered after my own ‘vaark. The originals are each stitched from an old sock, but being me, I didn’t fancy sewing and kept looking at the spare knitted snail shell and some left-over sock yarn I had to hand. Then I mentioned on Twitter my desire to make a snail version of a ‘vaark, and thus the seed was sown. I just had to make a snailvaark. Not only did I have to make a snailvaark, however, I had to make one (at the request of Alfred, one of Ratvaark’s guardians) that was able to retreat into his shell. I thought about it long and hard and didn’t make any progress, and then I heard that Ratvaark and his folks are coming to west Wales in May, and want to meet up for cake… hopefully with snailvaark too.

So, this week, I picked up my crochet hook and set to. And I’m pleased to introduce Snailvaark:


This is Snailvaark!

As you can see, he can be a bit shy:



But he can be persuaded to come out again:


Oh, hello

Snailvaark has been very well-received. Danielle-creator-of-vaarks has already asked if she can have one (it’s on my list) and he got a good reception from some of his cousins on-line:

Snailvaark makes his internet debut

Snailvaark makes his internet début (courtesy of @Ratvaark)

In May, there will be a grand ‘vaark gathering (the crowd above plus Bendivaark who lives locally), with tea and cake… who says we can’t develop meaningful relationships via the internet?

If you want to follow Snailvaark’s adventures on Twitter, he has his own fledgeling account: @snailvaark (what else?)

And if you want to follow me, I’m @thesnailofhappy (happiness was, apparently, too much for it to cope with!)

Ready for some adventures

Ready for some adventures

Whey to go!

Yesterday I had two resources: raw milk and time, so I got back to experimenting with making hard cheese. Time is an important factor, as there is lots of intermittent activity on day one… heat up the milk gently, add micro-organisms, leave for an hour, add rennet, leave for an hour, stir, leave, heat whilst stirring… and on it goes. Even during the periods between activity, you have to keep an eye on the temperature, so cheese making requires a dedicated day to get things started. I really love the process – working with living organisms and enzymes means that apparently magical transformations take place rather like bread-making, but with less immediate results. Here is the process in pictures…

Now I have to increase the pressure to the full level and then leave it for another 24 hours. The ricotta that I made from the whey is ready for use and I will turn some of it into a lemon cheesecake later, I think. In addition there’s 3.5 litres of whey in the freezer ready to use in cooking or as chicken feed. The only waste from this process is a very small amount of salty whey.

Only time will tell how successful I have been, but it was certainly a lovely way to spend a dull winter’s day.

New life for old yarn

I mentioned in an earlier post that my friend Kate (who came and made cheese with me the other day) gave me some unwanted yarn. Quite a lot of it was Sirdar Nomad – a wool/alpaca/nylon bouclé yarn. Kate warned me that it felts very easily and that a sweater she had knitted out of it for her mum had shrunk to tiny proportions when washed. The colours – reindeer and woodsmoke – were very muted and I thought that it would make a lovely snuggly blanket for Mr Snail (after all, I have The Masterpiece). I initially assumed that I would have to buy some yarn to ‘frame’ the squares made from Kate’s wool, but then I remembered the large quantity of dull purple yarn that I bought from The Natural Fibre Company about 20 years ago and realised that I could use that doubled up.

So, I made as many granny squares as I could from the Nomad, edged them with the NFC wool, stitched them together and added an edge…. easy as that! It has only taken me three weeks to make and the result is a square blanket measuring 160 cm along each side. The idea is that it is for snuggling under (on the sofa) when it’s chilly. Due to our unseasonably warm weather at present, I don’t think is going to get much use immediately, but it will probably come into its own in the summer!!!

So, there you have it – some unloved yarn into a useful object – magic!

The March of Progress


In the absence of a Susie Cooper plate, this Clarice Cliff bowl will have to do!

This plastic film
is dangerous —
suddenly after all these years
the experts say.
But wait —
in order to allay our fears and cheer us up
here’s what to do about it:
put the food into a bowl
and cover it with a saucer…
Well I never did! Oh my!
The March of Progress.
I can see my mother
putting that Susie Cooper plate
on top of a half-eaten jelly
in that orange and green fruit bowl.
I can see her quite clearly
and that was 1938.

Charlotte Mitchell

Another of my favourite poems… partly because it sums up our modern world and partly because it mentions Susie Cooper, an Art Deco potter working at the same time as my great aunt, Clarice Cliff.

Like previous poems I have quoted, this is with the permission of Candy Guard, Charlotte Mitchell’s daughter, and is from Just In Case: Poems in my Pocket  published by Souvenir Press, 1991 ISBN 0285630601. Currently out of print, but available secondhand from Amazon.

Not all milk is the same

Being asked to teach someone else to make cheese led to me doing a bit more research about ingredients. I was surprised to discover that my previous batch of cheese had inadvertently been made with homogenised milk… it was no wonder the curds didn’t form properly. So, I decided to source some minimally processed milk for my session with Kate.

We used to have raw milk delivered to the door, in bottles, but the farmer retired and no one locally seems to sell it any more, so I sought some by mail order. I was delighted to discover a farm that sells milk from their Jersey herd and who do next day delivery. It’s not cheap, but it is very high fat and just what I was looking for. I ordered 12 litres and we used three for the cheese and one for some yoghurt*, so I now have 8l remaining in the freezer and I’m going to use this to make some hard cheese in the next few days.


Lovely curds ready to go into the moulds

The unpasturised, unhomogenised Jersey milk was a delight to work with – it made beautiful curds that were easy to handle and there were lots of them. Of course because I was teaching someone else, it made me think much more about what I was doing, and I realise how gently everything needs to be treated, and how much like magic it is that simply cutting the curds into pieces allows the whey to be released. Unless you are making hard cheese, there is no pressing or squishing and a reasonably firm cheese forms in the moulds with only the lightest handling and a few turns.


Fresh curds in the moulds

We made a very simple soft cheese that had a texture a bit like a cross between feta and Caerphilly! I am planning to get some Geotrichum candidum culture to allow me to make a mould-ripened version of this sort of cheese. This would give it a white surface a bit like brie and would allow it to mature for longer and thus develop more flavour. Interestingly, we tried making ricotta from the whey, but there were relatively few solids left. I’m not too bothered about this, as the whey is great for all sorts of other uses.

So, I will be buying creamy raw milk again for cheese making. Kate is on the case to see if we can get some locally (she has a promising lead), but if not I will keep ordering it from the supplier I used for this batch. I find working with living cultures very interesting – they are so sensitive to the environment and the raw materials they are working on. So, now I need to master a good hard cheese….



* Not a success – far too creamy.

Poems in my pocket

Don’t you find it sad when books that you love go out of print?

Last week one of my favourite poets, Charlotte Mitchell, was featured on Radio 4’s Poetry Please programme and listeners were clearly desperate to read her work. Sadly, her books are out of print and so the only place searchers on the internet could find anything was here on my blog. I discovered this because of a spike in my statistics for a post featuring one of her poems – Just In Case.


My copies

So, rather than bemoan the issue I thought I would do something about it. Sadly Charlotte, who was also an actress, died in 2012, but I knew that she had children and so I decided to make contact and sent a message to her daughter, Candy Guard who is an author, illustrator and animator, to ask if I could quote some of her mum’s poems in full here on the blog. And Candy has very kindly said that I can! She also mentioned that she has been thinking of getting the poems published as a ‘collected works’, so maybe they won’t be out of print too much longer – fingers crossed.

I also discovered that Candy’s animations are really worth looking at; in her own words they always concern ‘feisty yet wobbly female protagonists’ and, like her mum’s poems they speak to me about real life. I am particularly fond of ‘Alternative Fringe‘, which sums up exactly why I have long hair and never go to the hairdressers!!

Anyway, without further ado, here is a poem that (somewhat outdated with the advent of mobile phones and disappearance of student grants) made me giggle, but mentions Candy, to whom I am tempted to send a gorillagram by way of thanks!!

The Passing of The Telegram

I wanted to alert my phoneless daughter —
a student on a grant —
that a later train than first advised
would contain an aged aunt.
The man at British Telecom was useless,
I put the phone down with a slam,
he said the only thing to do
was to send a gorillagram.

I had to send some furry ape
to Newcastle upon Tyne
to read the following message:
Aunt Win arriving sixteen forty-nine.

And this one just had to appear here:


I’m very angry with those snails,
They’ve eaten my mesembryanthemum,
I didn’t ask those snails to come.

I’m very angry with those snails
In spite of their beautiful, silvery trails.
They’ve munched the glory out of my garden,
The succulent stems and the brilliant pink.

Said the snails: ‘We weren’t looking for visual pleasure,
We were looking for food and drink.’

Both poems are from Just In Case: Poems in my Pocket  published by Souvenir Press, 1991 ISBN 0285630601. Currently out of print, but available secondhand from Amazon, as is I Want to go Home: Poems Through a Day, 1990 ISBN 0285629956.

If you come across some writing or a picture that you like and want to include on your own blog – why not contact the author/artist/photographer and ask if you can share it? Our experience is very positive in this respect… Mr Snail contacted Tom Gauld some time ago to ask for permission to use one of his cartoons in a blog post and was delighted to be told that using it was fine. I know I’m always happy when someone asks to share one of my pictures.

Anyway, I have a couple more of Charlotte’s poems to include in future posts, so keep a look out… or better still, seek out her books.

The value of…

Mr Snail is currently writing a few blog posts on “The value of value“. The other day I asked him whether he was going to write one about the value of a secondhand Kindle and he said that he wasn’t, so here is one from me….

A few weeks ago Mr Snail’s Kindle died. He worked hard to try and fix it, but had no success. So, he wrote a blog post about it (take a look if you want to see what all the electronics inside look like). This post was read by writer and artist Kate Murray, who contacted him with the offer of her old Kindle (slightly physically damaged, but fully functional). Mr Snail asked what she’d like in return and she replied that she’d like to learn to make cheese. So that’s what we did… she came over on Thursday and I showed her how to make soft cheese. It sounds like I got the rough end of the deal (after all the Kindle wasn’t for me) but, in fact, she also gave me a dozen or so balls of yarn and so we were all winners.


What is a lesson in cheese-making worth?

I love this sort of exchange – everyone gains, indeed everyone gains more than the object or skill acquired. Mr Snail has a functioning Kindle, which means that he can progress with his latest book (he wanted to be able to read the current draft away from the computer and make notes). Kate can now go and try cheese-making on her own with a bit more confidence. In addition, she has off-loaded some ‘stuff’ that was of no use to her (she can’t work with the yarn as she has an allergy to wool and anyway it felts severely when washed so has few uses) and she couldn’t sell the Kindle for much because of the superficial damage. And I not only got some yarn, which is already well on it’s way to being a snuggly blanket (that won’t matter if it felts and shrinks), but also I got to spend some quality time with a friend.

How do we assess the value of this? We’ll, I suppose we could look at the monetary cost of a new Kindle, and of the yarn and we could find a cheese-making course and see how much that would cost, but that would be missing the point. The only money that was really involved was the cost of 3 litres of milk, some cheese culture micro-organisms and 12 drops of rennet, plus Kate’s fuel to get here; but the value was high for all of us. As Mr Snail wrote in his first ‘The Value of Value’ post:

We don’t know the value of anything, only the pounds and pence cost.

So, lets reclaim value and appreciate what things are really worth.

Shoot #1

It’s always exciting when the first seed of the year germinates…


look closely… it’s there!

After the rain

There was not a single day in November when it didn’t rain here, there was only one in December and, so far, there has been some rain on every day in January. This has meant that it’s been very difficult to work on anything in the garden. I don’t like walking on sodden ground as it damages the soil structure, and our poor, clay soil is enough of a challenge without adding to the problems.


Bye-bye weeds

Fortunately, however, the last week or so has been less wet and so the ground has dried just a little. Today there has been no rain so far, so I took the opportunity to mulch another of our raised beds. A while ago, whilst sorting through pots in the shed I came across an unopened pack of black plastic mulch that I’d forgotten I had bought. It was just the right size not to need and cutting and because it wasn’t windy today, I was able to get it in place without too much trouble. The bed had some old broccoli plants in it that needed to be removed first and a few brambles had to be pulled out, but otherwise all the weeds were covered with the mulch and should decompose under the plastic thus adding to the fertility of the soil. This is the second bed to be mulched this winter and I’m hoping it will make planting much easier in the spring.

Winter gardening jobs are often, like this one, not very exciting. Usually at this time of the year it’s all about preparation or tidying. My second job today was particularly tedious – the latest round in the battle against the brambles. We have an area alongside one fence that seems incapable of supporting any plants other than nettles and brambles… however much we cut them back and dig them up, they just keep coming back. I’ve tried all sorts of other plants in this patch, but nothing survives, so really now we just try to keep it under control and accept that it’s good for the wildlife. It would, however, without management, get totally out of control, so we attack it regularly with the secateurs.


Hello potatoes!

And that was it in the garden – important jobs, but nowhere near as fun as planting. There is no germination yet in the propagator, but the left-over seed potatoes that I put in pots in November are growing, so we may have a small crop in the spring. They are currently outside, but they can come back into the limery if the temperature drops. So now, I’m just itching for spring to arrive and for gardening to start in earnest.


I don’t knit socks to sell – they take so long to make that even asking a paltry per-hour rate would take them out of the reach of almost all potential customers. Although a pair of handmade socks will last for years and is much easier to repair successfully than a mass-produced pair, no one wants to pay the true value. This means that, in general, if you own a pair of socks that I made, it’s because I love you! The only way I will undertake a commission to make socks is if I can barter for them – although I still have to like you a lot to even agree to do this! There are , however, folks out there who have skills that I do not and so there is a possibility of an exchange.

And so it is with my latest creations. These socks are very special: not only are they going to be exchanged for some leather work (haven’t quite finalised what), but more than that, they are made in part with wool from a friend’s sheep at The Inkpot, which is…

home grown, home shorn, Yorkshire spun, permaculture designed, pasture fed, holistically managed, non chemical, rare breed, British native, slow grown wool

Because it’s pure wool, it’s not ideal for hard-wearing socks, so the heels toes and ribbing are knitted from ‘sock wool’, which contains some nylon so that it doesn’t wear out too quickly. Even that yarn, is British (from West Yorkshire Spinners).

The recipient of these socks also already owns the first two hedgehogs that I made (Shy and Spike)… so I decided to expand the family. Therefore, the parcel contains three additions… two made from the Inkpot wool and one from the sock yarn. Of course, the spikes are made using eyelash yarn and that, sadly, isn’t British, but these three were made from left-overs from previous hedgies.

What do you make for love?


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