WALKING: Self-sufficiency on legs

An often (and conveniently) neglected aspect of self-sufficiency is the ability to get to places near and far on one’s own two feet. It is not that often that Londoners find themselves caught short transport-wise – even if the buses and trains don’t run on time, they usually eventually turn up. For this reason, it is probably safe to say that fairly few people in London regularly undertake journeys by foot of more than a mile, if that. You can’t count long shopping trips down Oxford Street either — those are more of a mosey or an amble, repeatedly off-set by little sit-downs in coffee shops, benches and changing rooms; I’m talking about proper walks, crossing extended distances on foot.

I live in zone 3 of London, on the Piccadilly line. Back in April of last year, in an attempt to save money on my tube fare, I started getting off two stops early at Caledonian road in zone 2, walking the remaining 2 miles to university. To do this I gave up using the student Oyster card and reverted to a normal pay-as-you-go type. This saves me about £30 to £40 each month.

My original intentions were mainly economic, but I found great benefits in walking those extra 4 miles per day. I feel healthier and my legs have gained strength. The walk is also a good time-out from my studies, allowing me to reflect on other things in my life. It’s just the kind of opportunity for idleness that one could easily waste by plugging into their Ipod and putting their brain in standby mode (and then get hit by that bus you didn’t hear coming).

Out of interest, from the time I started this new commuting method, I also began clocking the distance I covered as a way of motivating myself, counting any walking journey of one kilometer or more (I am a metric man at heart). In the last ten months, I have walked over 900 miles in this way. I wouldn’t say I’ve been pushing myself, either, and the more I walk the easier and more enjoyable it becomes.

On occasion I walk the whole distance home, just over seven miles. The first time I did so I ended up on the final mile feeling like my legs were about to fall off, but now I do this regularly, sometimes without planning to, just feeling the need to walk a little further. This also helps make up for those days of heavy rain when I take the tube the whole way and pay full fare; I may be odd but I’m not completely stupid.

This little money-saving ploy, of course, wouldn’t suit everyone, but it is always worth getting to know one’s local area and discovering how close certain places are to each other. It seems that many Londoners still don’t realize that Central London is surprisingly small, and walking from King’s Cross to Victoria, for example, is a vigorous but manageable 5km walk. I know people who take the tube to travel just one stop, but once you take into account the bustle of getting to the platform and waiting for the train, it can at times be just as quick to walk there.

The crucial aspect of relying on walking to get around is understanding that even if you are physically fit you will probably still find it arduous to begin with. Walking the equivalent of 5km a day by ambling around the office is not the same as walking the full distance in one go. Similarly, going for a weekly 10km hike in the hills is not the same as consistently walking long distances every day. When you really start using your leg muscles on a daily basis you will initially feel the strain on your thighs, calves, buttocks, back and especially on your feet, as your body begins to demand its regular pit-stops. Of course, it is wise to listen to your body, but also to push it a little further each day. For this reason, like with any good exercise, it is wise to gradually increase the distances you cross, and a day of rest each week is always a good idea. As the American comedian Paul Reiser once said, we tend to neglect our feet as they are so inconveniently placed on the other end of our bodies. But, trust me, once you really start using your feet you tend to start paying attention to their little aches and pains and learn to apply a little more maintenance and TLC. I’d rather get used to this now while I have the choice than be forced to do so when the options have been reduced – I’m not talking worst case scenario either, but something as mundane as breaking down along an empty road, or missing the last bus after a night out.

As for worst case scenario, if you think I’m exaggerating, you might be right, I hope you’re right, but ever-rising petrol prices affect all transport costs, not just cars. Motorized transport in general is all very nice, but it is increasingly expensive and relies on an infrastructure built around reliable oil delivery and road maintenance. Now I know that some of you are already thinking “what about the bicycle?” Cycling is a wonderful way to get around, but not only do bicycles rely on spare parts and regular maintenance, modern bikes also manage to be both ridiculously expensive whilst at the same time being less reliable and less practical . . . and then some scumbag steals it. Whilst exploring issues of self-sufficiency does not necessarily have to incur extreme scenarios of social collapse or natural disasters (it’s just a hobby for some), author and blogger Dmitry Orlov described in his excellent book ‘Reinventing Collapse’ the main drawback of bicycles in times of greater self-sufficiency:

The most successful form of transportation is by far the bicycle. While there is currently a bicycle for almost every person in the US, these bicycles by and large sit still in garages and basements, rusting and gathering dust. About a tenth of them might still be rideable at any given time. If large numbers of people attempt to start using them, the immediate effect will be a shortage of bicycle tires, which deteriorate due to dry rot. Even if this problem finds a solution, it will soon be discovered that the vast majority of the bicycles are in fact toys designed for sport, not for hauling loads or for the rigors of a daily commute, and most of them will fail within a year of hard daily use.

 From ‘Reinventing Collapse’ by Dmitry Orlov, reproduced with kind permission from the author.
For more related information you can look up his blog:

But let’s take a step back (no pun intended) and stave off the worst-case scenarios and remember the best reasons to take up walking: it’s cheap, healthy and interesting. Places that always seemed out of the way suddenly become accessible, and there are always things to see that you never knew were there. Walking the same path every single day can get a little tedious, but in London that is when you start to explore the dozen or so other paths you can take, exploring new places and finding shortcuts and links you never knew between familiar places. It’s what I like to call going from A to C via Z. There is a great sense of satisfaction to be had from walking down an unfamiliar street and unexpectedly emerging onto a place you know very well. And even if you never actually do walk all the way home, it is always good to have an idea of how to walk it if you had to.

UPDATE 01/03/12: Today I just crossed the thousand mile threshold. That means that in the last eleven months I travelled one thousand miles’ worth of journeys on foot I wouldn’t have normally done had I stuck to public transport all the way, and I’ve saved about £350 in the process. So I’m celebrating that milestone tonight with a well-deserved beer. Cheers y’all!


IN THE SNOW: Building a quinzee (and making more soup, of course)


Following my last post about enjoying the winter – and following a promise I made to CG members some months back – the sudden arrival of snow on Saturday night was a good opportunity to put my money where my mouth is. So while the rest of the capital slowed to a standstill, we got to work building a quinzee.

A quinzee is a type of emergency snow shelter, designed to help keep someone out of the wind and cold (should they be caught out in the snowy open), basically involving pilling up snow and then hollowing it out. If that sounds ridiculously simple, it is easier said than done. For a start, you have a shovel a pile of snow at least four feet tall, and the more snow you shovel onto the pile the further you then have to walk to get some more and carry it back. Any person who has done any kind of sustained shoveling or digging work will know that it is one of those jobs from which you can quickly tell the doers from the talkers. Also, you need to pile the snow reasonably lightly, without packing it down which would create layers within the snow that weaken the overall structure. This can be done by literally throwing the snow onto the pile, which takes yet more shoveling action. Instead of piling snow from the ground up, it is useful to find a bulky item like a rucksack or (in our case) some buckets that you bury under the pile, saving you a lot of shoveling and later digging, and giving you a central space to build on.

Once you have built a suitably big pile of snow you need to let it sit for a few hours, allowing the snow to settle and crystalize together (if you bury your rucksack, make sure you take out your essentials first). For us at CG it was a good time to boil some water in the rocket stove and prepare some soup, using the cabbage leaves from the garden and adding some carrots and parsnips that Tim had kindly brought along. The snow had caused all of the netting to collapse onto the crops, so we had to delicately remove the nets without damaging the plants. In the case of the cabbage, however, it was just a case of ripping off the nets before ripping off the leaves for the pot. Having planted these cabbages in October, it was about time we used them. We drank a little blueberry gin to warm us up before eating the delicious and hearty soup. Then, it was finally time to finish the shelter.

Tim tries out the makeshift snow shelter


We dug our entrance into the snow pile until reaching the buried buckets, then gently digging around them until they could be removed without collapsing the whole structure. Tim then started digging out the inside space, being careful not to pierce right through the wall. Ideally one needs to plant sticks all over the snow pile, pushing them in by about a foot, allowing the person hollowing it out to know the thickness of the wall, stopping when they reach the end of a stick. With the snow available we had only managed to build a small pile, so we didn’t bother with the sticks, only aiming to create some kind of space to know it works. Call it a test-run for the real thing.

The results, though not perfect, were surprisingly good. The space in the shelter was slightly too small for an adult (good for a child or dog, though), and yet it still offered some shelter, feeling surprisingly warm inside. We then completed the quinzee with makeshift door, made from a disc of ice we took out of the rain barrel. It should be noted that if used in such a way, the quinzee would require a separate air hole added to the top or side opposite the entrance, unless you really want to find out how airtight (and deadly) snow can be.

And then it’s my turn to try it

It may not look like much more than a pile of snow, but we were proud of our quinzee, especially after working in the cold and wet to build it. There is something so real, so great about working in the snow; while so many people take refuge indoors, it felt good to not only work in the cold and snowy outdoors but also to make soup in the middle of it all just to make it look easy.

Adding a see-through door just to be flash

It is easy, too, once you know how. All you need is a little bit of knowledge, a little bit of resilience, and the will to do it. Just because the snow prevents us from gardening doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty more to learn in the outdoors. I’ve long wanted to build a decent sized quinzee, and thanks to the space in the garden and the kind help of fellow CG members I’ve finally had my wish. The best reward of all is the knowledge of a day well spent, doing something different and memorable, learning something new and burning energy doing it. I shall sleep well tonight . . . in my bed, that is, not in the quinzee.

Enjoying the Winter for what it is

It was a cold day last Sunday, a fresh cold snap in the midst of a mild winter which apparently is due to last a while and get colder. Nevertheless, we had a decent turnout in the garden considering it was to hold a committee meeting, sitting still and discussing Spring planting among other things. We kept the meeting short, with tea to keep us warm. I could see that a couple of our members were struggling, and I salute their tenacity for turning up. It is perhaps understandable to not turn up because of something like the cold or rain, but it is all the more admirable to turn up in spite of it. You might ask why not simply hold the meeting somewhere indoors, but somehow I just couldn’t tear myself away from the garden; it is at the centre of what we do, so we may as well make our decisions there too.

I notice more and more how we in this country have become afraid of the cold. It’s something that our ancestors really had to deal with, while most of us now just try to avoid it, which is not the same thing. Come autumn I often hear people talk of that lovely smell of impending winter: a slight chill inside the nostrils mixed with the smell of chimney smoke, usually with nostalgic memories of childhood winters thrown in for good measure – childhood being a time when we seem totally impervious to the cold, while our parents would run after us to button up our coats. And yet come proper winter, many of us lock ourselves indoors and start longing for the summer, which itself is the time when we moan about the heat and turn on the air conditioning. Up till now it has been a frustratingly mild winter, but now that the weather has turned cold many of us will crank up the heating ridiculously high so we can still walk around indoors in T-shirts while simultaneously complaining about the cost of heating.

All too often in this country, the weather is neither cold nor warm, just kind of mild and dull most of the time. For this reason I like to fully experience the occasional extremes that grace our shores, be they heat waves or cold snaps, and so on a cold week like this one I like to spend even more time outside, to feel that real chill in the nostril and numbing of the fingers (within reason). There is much to be learnt from the cold, how to dress for it, how to work in it, what it does to you. Last year I lived in a horrible house with no central heating, and come winter I had to go to bed wearing six layers of clothing and using a hot water bottle; and yet not long ago this was common practice in many British homes, as leaving the gas heater on overnight would have seemed an unnecessary expense. I’m glad I no longer live in that house, but I’m still glad I got to experience at least one winter there (still, I wouldn’t recommend it to my worst enemy).

 There is also, of course, a yin and yang aspect to cold and heat, with each giving meaning to the other; being out in the cold makes coming into a warm home all the more pleasant and cosy. This coming Sunday will apparently be even colder. I hope it is. All the more a reason to be in the garden and experience it. If you think this is borderline perverse, it’s perhaps good to remember that few of us in the UK ever experience what it means to be really cold; I don’t just mean a bit chilly, but shivering down to our bones. Even in this country there are people who don’t have the luxury of just turning up the heating: homeless people out in the streets or pensioners living in fuel poverty. We should be grateful for indoor heating, not waste it, and learn how to use less of it more efficiently.

So while the weather is sunny and serene, take advantage of it, wrap up warm in several layers and take a proper walk in the cold. Winter has finally arrived, learn to enjoy it once more.

WHY GROW FOOD? (Or rather, why not?)

I was on the Internet recently looking for mushroom growing kits, figuring it would be fun to have a go at it in the garden. Doing so I came across an article by Sarah Brealey on The Telegraph’s website, highlighting findings by Which? magazine that growing your own mushrooms with kits can cost about 20 times more than just getting them in the supermarket. These findings were probably supported by the Ministry of the Bleeding Obvious, though this is just an assumption from my part.

The article is somewhat flawed in that it gets off on the wrong foot from the very start:

“Mushroom-lovers seeking to beat the credit crunch by growing their own should think again – it could cost more.”

First of all there’s no ‘could’ about it. From mushroom kits that I have seen in shops, the instructions on the side of the box make quite clear the quantities one can expect to produce, and comparing this with the price tag on the box should pose no problem for the average customer: Yes, mushrooms grown with kits will most likely be more expensive. That’s a given.

If mushroom lovers really want to beat the credit crunch, they can start by not eating mushrooms, as mushrooms are a luxury with not much nutritional value (although admittedly delicious).

The revelation that mushroom growing kits won’t save you money should come as no surprise to anyone who has been in a supermarket and understands the concept of economies of scale. In seeking to buy a mushroom growing kit, I never imagined for a second that a 6 by 8 inch tray would ever equate the economies of scale found on a farm, and I seriously hope that no one else would.

And here is another exclusive: growing vegetables in the garden is also usually more expensive than buying them from a supermarket (yes indeed, stop the presses!). If you add in the initial resources, the time and effort involved in growing vegetables at Common Ground, and compare them to the hit-and-miss results that come out, the final price tag would often be the kind you’d expect to find on a menu in a restaurant. 

So why do we do it? I’ve mentioned in an earlier post that the motivations of our members are varied. But speaking more generally, why would anyone want to grow their own food when they can get it more cheaply and easily at the shops?

Food growing is an activity for people who don’t want their food to just come out of a plastic tray on a shelf, people who want to be less dependable on the economy, people who want to learn something about how it is done and how they can do it themselves, gaining practical life skills, and (best of all) people who just want to discover new things and have fun in the process.

Growing food is fun, it’s healthy, it’s an education, it’s a challenge, it makes you appreciate the value of food. On that note, another study by the Grocer magazine also revealed that food prices in the UK are over ten times cheaper than they were 150 years ago (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-16450526). This is not to deny that there are serious and growing problems across the world related to food prices, causing famine, strife and political dissent in parts of Asia, Africa and South America. It should, however, serve as a reminder for people in developed countries to ask themselves whether food prices where they live really are comparatively high or whether they just seem so because we keep spending our money on useless and over-priced crap we don’t really need or can’t really afford.

While the banks may have been responsible for starting the credit crunch, we all played a part in the economic downturn that followed, spending money we didn’t have, believing the gospel of everlasting economic growth.

It’s just a thought, feel free to disagree. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to growing mushrooms this year.

Self-Sufficiency and Idleness – A match made in Heaven

Our first session in the new year was aptly on January 1st. The first thing that greeted me when I opened the garden gate was a dead pigeon. I hope that’s no bad omen. Later that day four of us sat together sheltering from the heavy rain, enjoying a cup of tea and some of last year’s pickled beetroot, just chatting and enjoying the garden, or more precisely, enjoying being outdoors, in spite of the rain. As for last Sunday we mainly made some more pumpkin soup. Apart from a bit of weeding, replanting and other little pottering activities, there hasn’t been much to do in the garden lately (though there will be very soon); you can only stare at plants growing for a certain amount of time before your mind starts turning to other things. But after the excesses of the Christmas season, it felt good to be idle.

I can only apologise to anyone who has ever been disappointed at turning up to the garden to find there isn’t much work to do. In my defence, I will say that this is quite normal in the winter, and I hope to see them in the Spring when things get busy. But I would also invite them to turn up on such a idle days while they have the chance, to take the time to just appreciate being in the garden, taking a seat, having a cup of tea and just being in the moment.

There is a good yin and yang element to gardening: You get to know when there is a lot of work to do, but also understand that when the work is done it is a good opportunity to sit back and do nothing. In today’s busy world this is almost seen as a crime or an abnormality. Too often, when faced with a free moment, we try or feel forced to fill it with something, be it extra work, social events, going to the gym, etc. For some people with busy jobs and/or family lives it is hard not to do these things, sometimes impossible, as the demands of modern life as well as our responsibilities continue to hound us. Still, one shouldn’t confuse idleness with laziness or distraction.

Tom Hodgkinson of the Idler magazine may or may not agree with me on this, but being lazy is when you can’t be bothered to do something, often shirking your responsibilities in the process, whereas being idle is when you give yourself the time to do nothing in particular, knowing there is nothing else you need to do just then. I do mean doing ‘nothing in particular’, as opposed to just sitting in a chair staring at a blank wall, although one shouldn’t completely discount that activity either. Doing nothing in particular is the very time when you let your mind wander and discover things and surprise yourself. It is a surprisingly non-passive activity, as that is when you out of the blue read War and Peace, learn to knit a scarf or play poker, or turn over a little soil in the garden to plant some onions. You do it not because you have to, but just because you can and suddenly feel like trying it.

Then again, neither should idleness be confused with distraction. In this world of bells and whistles it is easy to amuse ourselves at the touch of a button, with calls, texting, games, streaming news and television on our phones, rarely knowing what boredom is. I’ve never been one to listen to music while on the move outdoors with an Ipod or similar gadget. Not only do I not feel comfortable not being aware of the sounds around me, but I think those gadgets also make people using them look like mindless zombies. I’ve met people barely able to walk fifty yards on their own without resorting to ‘plugging up’ into their music. This is not idleness, but more like switching off your brain and going into standby mode. Mind you it’s easy to judge others, but I’m certainly not immune to distraction either. I love watching TV so much I don’t have one at home, to stop myself wasting too much time watching it. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying some distractions, but to rely on them as a desperate means of avoiding little moments of emptiness seems to take it to unnatural extremes.  Are we that afraid of being left alone with our own minds?

Although I am no expert, my times tarp-camping in the wild have taught me that the daytime is often a long period of furious activity, gathering wood for the fire, constantly purifying water from a stream by boiling it, foraging for food, shelter building, etc., using every minute of daylight available to prepare you for a cold and dark night ahead. But once night falls, and you have your shelter, fire, water and food, then all there is left to do is to just sit there and enjoy the warmth and light of the campfire. This, however, is more than just a romantic notion, it is also an important aspect of both self-sufficiency and survival. In many less developed parts of the world, people who don’t have our luxuries of mass distraction still know the importance of being idle when the moment asks for it. We in the affluent West should all ask ourselves how would we cope if we were stuck somewhere without our phones and Ipods to keep us occupied?

So while there is still time in the garden, I like to enjoy such idle moments, giving respite from my studies, but also from the pressures of everyday life. But every yin needs a yang, and so too much idleness becomes devalued – that really is just being a lazy bastard. But no worries of that in the garden, as when the plants start to thrive in the spring, they will suddenly keep us very busy.

GARDEN PHILOSOPHY: The Garden versus Nature (and phoney nature-lovers)

For those who might have been worrying about the mouse in the garden shed and my attempts to catch it, you can rest easy for now. So far, if anything, that mouse has been making a fool out of me. While there likely may be more than one mouse, I shall think of them as just the one, and call it Jerry, in honour of the fact it is making me look like a right Tom.

To catch Jerry I bought some mouse traps of the killing kind, from a reputable company who shall remain nameless as their product, it turns out, is rather mediocre. These mouse traps are supposedly ready-baited with pieces of yellow plastic that apparently look like cheese to the mice. I was suspicious of this wonder gimmick, as setting a piece of bread on a mouse trap is not exactly rocket science, but I couldn’t find more basic traps anywhere. If anything, I figured the pathetic cartoon-looking piece of cheese on the traps might make Jerry die of laughter.

Unsurprisingly, the plastic cheese attracted nothing. I then began setting food on top of the plastic cheese, such as pieces of flapjack or pork pie. I would return the following day to find the food gone, but the traps otherwise undisturbed. Clearly Jerry is one agile little mouse! This has failed several times, even after securing the food tightly on the trap. Hence so far, all I have succeeded in doing is to feed Jerry.

Some may wonder, why be so cruel? Why not use humane mouse traps and release it someplace else? At the risk of offending some readers, humane mouse traps only suit people who are either in denial, own a pet snake, or are willing to make the mouse someone else’s problem.

Leaving aside the snake owners, some seem to think that upon being released in a forest or park, a mouse will rejoice at being given the opportunity to live a long and contended life in the heart of nature with its animal friends, when in fact the mouse will probably get devoured by one of its bigger ‘friends’, unless it rapidly manages to find another house to move into, at which point it becomes someone else’s problem. Mice live in human habitats for the same reasons humans do, namely shelter, safety, warmth and relative comfort. Just like you won’t find many humans willing to move out of their house to go live in the forest, most mice would also be a little pissed off at having it forced upon them.

Many urban-based nature-lovers have a somewhat Disney-fied idea of what nature is. They imagine an enchanted forest with golden rays of sunlight shinning through the branches, birds singing in tune as they whirl in the air, squirrels play acting like happy children, funny little ants busily working away in rhythm, while the trees all sway in unison as they join in the magical dance of nature. This misconception can easily be remedied by spending two or three days camping out in a forest in the rainy season, but the above mentioned nature-lovers would probably never do such a thing, as forests lack certain basic essentials, such as a roof, four walls, fitted kitchen, power sockets, central heating, wifi…

Don’t get me wrong, I do love nature, and I have spent quite a few rainy nights sleeping out in a forest with nothing but a tarp for shelter (cold and miserable yet strangely contented), but I have to somewhat leave those thoughts aside when I’m in the garden. Organic gardening still requires turning over soil, ripping up weeds, chasing off pigeons and squirrels, disposing of slugs and greenflies and other pests. Those who disagree with me are usually the same who don’t do any gardening but are still willing to eat what gardeners produce. This year I have easily killed thousands of greenflies, squashing them with my thumb, and I won’t lose sleep over them. I kill slugs by stepping on them or feeding them to the birds; some people may find this cruel, but I find it preferable to blanket spraying the garden with pesticides to kill everything, pest or not. Gardening, even organic, is not an exercise in nature loving; it requires some degree of ruthlessness as the gardener firmly dictates what can and cannot grow in a particular patch, and punishes little trespassers of the rodent or bug kind. I’m trying to discuss this idea without going down the path of mentioning extreme (and anthropomorphistic) animal rights, but the ideas are relatively similar. I certainly won’t torture the slug to get information from it (“Who sent you? Who do you work for?! We have ways of making you talk!”), but neither will I ponder over its rights to live, start a family, have access to free education and a pension for when it retires. It’s a slug.

Similarly, while I have been growing fond of Jerry’s antics, I’m not going to let him poo in the shed, or dig holes into our pumpkins, and neither am I willing to do the cowardly thing by moving him to become someone else’s problem. I’ll be a big boy about it, get my hands dirty and deal with him myself. That’s the real way of nature, it’s not an overly-friendly place, feel free to disagree.

Then again, for the time being, Jerry is winning this particular battle. I expect him anytime soon to drop an anvil on my head and set my foot on fire, before setting Spike the bulldog after me to run me out of the garden.


For those of you who have never seen the garden for real, we have uploaded a short video tour of the garden on youtube. It’s nothing amazing, but it gives a general idea of the garden and the work we’ve undertaken in recent months. You can see it here.

Perhaps a cold and bleak day in December does not show the garden at its best, but that in some ways is just part of year-round gardening, plus we’ll hopefully have a chance in the Spring to make another video showing the garden in full bloom.

Incidentally, the celeriac soup mentioned in the video was pretty good. I said celeriac soup, but by the time we had it going  we also added in a potato, two parsnips and a leek, and Leo kindly brought in some bread and chicken that he fried at home, while I prepared a salad from the garden lettuce and nasturtiums, adding some pickled onions from last summer’s crop. We ended up with a feast, feeding a party of five, and it tasted all the better for preparing and eating it out in the cold, enjoying the coming winter for what it is.

On another note, people who litter seriously need to evolve and learn how to use a bin.

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