Building a table

I went to a workshop on Wednesday at the OffMarket Freeschool (running for another week yet, with some great workshops still to come!) on furniture building. It was very much about using what you have around: we started out with some thick plywood, a table top, and some lengths of 2×2, and we fetched up with a pretty solid table.

(I also discovered the wonders of a handheld circular saw. Awesomeness.)

The basic principle goes like this:

  • Work out how long you want the table’s legs to be, and cut 4 lengths of 2×2 to that.
    Hint: If you’re starting with 4 separate bits of wood and cutting them all down, it’s a good idea to line them all up next to each other, aligned at one end, and mark the line straight across all four at the other end. If you have pre-cut ends, plan to use those on the floor as they’ll likely be straighter than your cuts.
  • Next, take some pieces of plywood maybe 4-6″ wide for the supports. These will fit under the table, outside the legs, and act to support them. Pieces wider than 6″ are fine, and in fact will be stronger; but remember that you may want to be able to fit your legs under the table, and a support that’s too wide will prevent that (see the photo of the finished table below to understand what I mean here). You want two pieces the same length as each other for the short parallel sides of the table, and another two pieces the same length as each other for the long parallel sides of the table. Put the table-top upside down on the ground and work out where you want your legs to be, then mark up and cut the supports accordingly.
  • Attach the table legs to the supports. Ideally each one should be overlapped at one end, and overlap the next at its other end. In the photo below, the support on the left overlapped the end of the middle support, which in turn overlapped the end of the right-hand support (you can’t unfortunately see this as it’s behind the legs. I should have taken another photo!). Put in one screw per leg side (so two per leg) all round, then go round again putting a second screw in each joint. It is definitely worth drilling a pilot hole first!

    Table upside down on the floor, supports being screwed to legs
  • Turn the whole thing back the right way up, and straighten up the table top. Measure roughly where the middle of each leg is, drill a pilot hole straight through the table top and into the leg, and put a screw through the pilot hole. You want one per leg.
  • That’s it! Table!

    Finished wooden table standing in middle of floor
  • You can adapt the same basic technique to make all sorts of different sizes of tables, but also stools, benches, and anything else with four legs and a top. (We also discussed making something a bit more like a chair, with a slight adaption of the technique.) Our tables were pretty rough-and-ready, but with slightly more careful choice of materials (and maybe a little paint afterwards) you could produce something more elegant.

    And it was fantastic fun!

growing things

DIY rooting hormone with willow bark

I had a couple of cuttings to take (it being that time of year), but wasn’t keen to get commercial rooting hormone to help them along. Someone at the EAT 2011 course in August told me that you can use willow bark as a rooting tonic, which makes a lot of sense given the notorious enthusiasm with which willow will root.

With reference to instructions for herbal decoctions and instructions for willow rooting tonic, I went for the most straightforward option: a fresh willow twig from the tree opposite the house, broken into 2″ chunks, put in a bowl, covered with boiling water, and left overnight. Initially there seemed to be no change in the water and I was a little dubious as to whether this would work. By the next day it had definitely taken something from the willow, and changed colour.

Jar of willow bark infusion, labelled with the date, expiry date, and DO NOT DRINK
Apparently it keeps in the fridge for a couple of months.

The cuttings in question are rosemary and thyme. I want backups of my current plants, as I plan to move the grown-up plants out of their pots and into the ground next to the (rapidly-growing) lawn. My concern is that the soil there is very clay, and lacks good drainage — not great conditions for herbs. In mitigation, I plan to dig a big hole and fill it up with a combination of garden compost, two-year-old potting compost (since herbs don’t like a soil that’s too rich), and a little sand to improve the drainage, before transplanting. But there’s definitely still a risk that the plants won’t survive. Hopefully if that happens, at least one of the cuttings will do and can be nursed up to replace the plan.

I took twig cuttings as usual from both plants, cutting diagonally across the stalk and stripping the leaves from the bottom half so they won’t rot in the soil. I then dipped them in the willow bark infusion before putting them in the compost, and for good measure, watered afterwards with a little of the infusion as well. Now they’re with the other potted herbs on the back patio, and I’ll see if they make it to next spring. (Green) thumbs crossed!

Two small plastic pots of compost on a bench, one with rosemary twigs in and one with thyme twigs
Rosemary and thyme cuttings.

activism, writing

Babies on Bikes!

I have a post today on putting your baby on your bike, over at green parenting blog Peas and Love. Head on over there to read about how old your small passenger needs to be to get started, the advantages and disadvantages of front and rear seats, and a few general safety tips.

Off this morning (after dropping my fixie at On Your Bike for a new headset & new, higher, steerer to accomodate my growing bump) to check out cargo bikes and trailers at Velorution for the next installment in the babies+bikes series. Rumour has it you can put a car seat in one of those…

activism, misc

Travelling from London to Belfast overland

Over the last couple of years, I have travelled from London to Belfast overland several times, and in several different ways. Herewith a summary of the various options. Note that timings are from London Euston – Belfast/Larne Port; I believe there’s a free bus from Belfast Port to Belfast city centre, and from Larne there’s a train. Both will take about an hour to reach the centre of Belfast.

Holyhead/Dublin (overnight)

Route: Train to Holyhead, ferry then bus to Dublin, train to Belfast
Cost (single): £42 RailSail
Time: 13h30 (overnight)
Epicness: High. Lots of waiting around in Holyhead. On way out: sleep on nice-ish sofas on ferry & fairly comfortable seats on second train. On way back: hideous 4 hours on Holyhead station floor. NEVER AGAIN.
Notes: Daytime route might feel less epic (no need to attempt sleep) but probably even more boring. There is a pub near the station at Holyhead which was open till 2am last Thursday & had a 50p pool table. It also had karaoke in the other bar & someone throwing up in the Ladies, so, yes. Holyhead not the classiest of locations.


Route: Train to Stranraer, cycle*** to Cairnryan, ferry to Larne
Cost (single): ~£60??
Time: ~13h30
Epicness: Moderately epic. Very, very early (0539) start from Euston when we did it outbound, as that was the cheapest train available by a long way. Unsure of timing inbound; possibly also quite epic. Fair amount of waiting around.
Notes: Not sure they take foot passengers (also, 6mi from Stranraer station, though see below re Cairnryan as replacement for Stranraer from Nov 2011). Nice bike ride to Cairnryan; cafes are available in Stranraer while waiting around.


Route: Train to Ayr, coach to Cairnryan, ferry to Larne. Alternatively, could cycle to Cairnryan as with the Cairnryan/Larne option, but I’m not sure how that would work with the RailSail tickets.
Cost (single): ~£50 daytime RailSail, upwards of that overnight**
Time: Outbound : ~14-18h (overnight); 12h (daytime)
Inbound: 16h30 (overnight); 10h30 (daytime)
Epicness: Going overnight from London, if you’re lucky you should make the 07:30 train out from Glasgow (sleeper arrives 07:20). Otherwise the next train is 11:42 (tickets would still be valid), so that’s a lot of waiting around. Left luggage costs £5 per item, if you want to spend the spare 4 hrs exploring Glasgow. Either way, there’s a 1h30 wait in Cairnryan. Daytime, timings are either Euston 05:39 – Belfast 17:45, or Euston 09:30 – Belfast 21:45.
Coming back, overnight there’s a 2h20 layover in Glasgow (opportunity for dinner!). Daytime, timings are Belfast 07:30 – Euston 18:00, or Belfast 11:30 – Euston 22:22. Everything matches up well until reaching Glasgow (where at least there are more entertainment options than in Cairnryan, if you are waiting around).
Notes: There is nothing at all in Cairnryan other than the ferry terminal, at least the last time I was there; take sandwiches, unless they’ve improved the ferry terminal catering during their upgrade. If coming back overnight, I would recommend dinner at Bella Italia on Hope St in Glasgow, which is conveniently close to the station. (Might also be good for lunch on the daytime option.)


Sadly NO LONGER AVAILABLE from late Nov 2011

Route: Train to Stranraer (change at Glasgow), ferry to Belfast
Cost (single): £46 daytime RailSail, >£50 overnight**
Time: 12h daytime, 16h overnight (but mostly on sleeper)
Epicness: 0539 start from Euston daytime on way out; otherwise all matches up well, pretty non-epic. Overnight coming back beautifully smooth. Trains overnight going out appear not to match very well. Ferry actually quite nice, ditto Belfast Port.
Notes: Technically haven’t actually done this one outbound in the daytime, but Cairnryan route is the same trains. There’s an hour layover in Glasgow for the daytime option, or 4 hrs if taking the sleeper.
Coming back on the sleeper is lovely. Ferry & train matched up beautifully; sleeper train a genuinely pleasant experience involving whisky in the lounge car.


Route: Train to Troon (change at Glasgow), ferry to Larne
Cost (single): ??
Time: 9h returning
Epicness: Trains don’t join up with ferry v well, and very early start. Otherwise civilised.
Notes: Haven’t done this Troon-Larne, only Larne-Troon. Only runs in the summer. No foot passengers, I think, so you’d have to cycle.


Another option! Reviewed here (summary: now the best bet IMO but more expensive).


* Endpoint for these is Larne, not Belfast. Train from Larne to Belfast Central is I think about an hour; they’re not wildly frequent.

** £27 Glasgow-Belfast (RailSail). Then you need to buy the London-Glasgow leg, which if taking the Caledonian Sleeper is more complicated. IN THEORY you can get £19 bargain berth overnight sleeper tickets; in practice it’s nearly impossible, although if you can be flexible about the dates, you can get £39-£49 singles. From £53.50 for an advance sleeper (£88 standard non-advance); from £25 for advance seated sleeper (£51.50 standard non-advance).
*** Note that bike helmets are now a legal requirement in Northern Ireland, which may affect your willingness to take your bike over there. It certainly puts me off. Update: this didn’t make it into law; you’re still free to cycle in NI with or without a helmet as you prefer. (Thanks to commenter below for correction.)


I think if neither time nor money were a factor, my preference would be to go via Stranraer, or as of next month, Cairnryan (to Belfast) both ways. Probably in the daytime on the way there (though last time we went overnight), and definitely overnight on the way back.

If time is a factor and money is available, overnight out via Holyhead and back via Stranraer is a reasonable compromise between cost/comfort/waiting around. It avoids taking a day of leave just to travel (even with the overnight Stranraer/Cairnryan option, you won’t reach Belfast until late afternoon/early evening), and avoids the hideous overnight return via Holyhead; and it saves money on the outbound less-hideous Holyhead trip. However, you won’t get much sleep, and what you do get will be on sofas on the ferry or on the Dublin/Belfast train. The overnight Stranraer/Cairnryan option with the sleeper is much more comfortable.

If cash-poor but time-rich, daytime both ways via Stranraer (Cairnryan as of Nov 2011) is only £4 each way more expensive than Holyhead and way, way nicer, especially as the very early start from Euston is not obligatory. The Larne option was OK but a bit faffy.


Traffic on the Thames

From the balcony of our new house, right next to the Thames, we have an excellent view of the river traffic going up and down past our front door. There’s not that much of it considering the size of the river (certainly not compared to, say, when the Pool of London was a real port, and its wharfs and warehouses, the remnants of whose slipways and jetties you can see on the foreshore when the tide’s out, sat where our estate does now), but it’s still fascinating to watch.
Nearly opposite us there’s the river police HQ, and their motorboats buzz up and down at intervals. The other day I saw two police motorboats and a rubber dinghy full of about 15 black-clad river coppers apparently running some kind of training exercise.
The river bus and river tours boats run quite frequently. Unfortunately for their use as a genuine part of London’s transport network, travel on them isn’t included in a Travelcard,and fares are quite high, though Oyster discounts are available.
Then there are the miscellaneous boats; party boats and cruise ships and rubbish barges and little tugs. Even better than just watching them, if you’re lucky you can find out who they are. The fascinating MarineTraffic website shows tracking information for vessels all over the world via a Google Maps overlay, and includes a lot (although not quite all) of the vessels on the Thames. The unofficial Tower Bridge Twitter account @towerbridgeitself also tells you when the bridge opening, for which vessel, and in which direction they’re travelling. Check out who it’s following on Twitter if you’re interested in other bridges, too. 
And while we’re on the subject of river information: don’t forget that the Thames tide tables are also available (in a limited way, anyway) via Twitter.

the garden project

The Garden Project: quick-win vegetables

So, we planted one side of our new garden with grass already. On the other side (the eastern, and thus west-facing, side), the first quick win was to move the pots of tomatoes and herbs from the old balcony. The west-facing fence was ideal for tying up the tomatoes, and it immediately made the space look more garden-like.

My parents also brought along four or five large polystyrene tubs (from frozen food deliveries) and some bags of compost, so I used those to plant a few turnips and some rocket and mustard greens, all of which do well in late summer. Another good quick win.

My intention is to construct a bunch of raised beds, as the ground underneath the paving slabs is compacted London clay, which hasn’t been cultivated at all for at least a century or so.[0] Instead of trying to improve it enough to grow directly in it, it’s easier to put compost on top and let the soil underneath improve gradually. (It’s also safer, as we don’t know what the ground might be contaminated with, other than certainly lead, like any other patch of inner-city ground.) However, I want to think about the placement of these for a bit, and observe the flows (of sun and frost) in the space, before I do anything too much.

I decided that a single raised bed would be OK: at worst, it would be manageable enough to dump all the soil out of it next spring and relocate it. So I turned a deconstructed pallet into one raised bed, and took out the paving slabs and weed matting under that area. That left me with about an inch of sand, and compacted London clay underneath. I stuck a fork into it all a few times, then dumped some half-rotted leaves and about 100l of old compost/new compost/’soil improver’ (cheap from the Southwark waste recycling centre) on the top of it.

In deciding what to plant, I took the polyculture annual veg approach I learnt in a session on the EAT course. There’s a limit to what will do well planted in late summer, but I started off with a few kale and broccoli raab plants, which by now have a few small edible leaves. A couple of weeks later, I planted a few transplanted turnips (success: middling), some chard, and a lot of rocket and other mixed greens. The salad seedlings are coming up well now, and in a week or so I’ll be able to harvest the first baby chard leaves.

In late September, I planted a row of spring cabbage towards the back of the bed — it may be too late for these to do well, but we’ll see; I might get lucky with the weather. Later this month I’ll plant some garlic around the edges (good for keeping the pests off), and in November, some broad beans wherever there’s a bit of space.

It was definitely worth the effort – even if I end up having to move it in the spring – to have that bed already in place and seedlings growing for the winter. It feels something like a proof-of-concept, or perhaps just a promise to myself that there will be a lot more of these by this time next year.

[0] The house was built in the mid-1990s, on land that used to be occupied by a warehouse, which was there from at least the early 20th century; we’re not sure exactly when it was knocked down, but at best the land will have just been derelict for a bit before the estate was built. Prior to the warehouse, there was either housing, or possibly boat-building, going on in the area.

the garden project

The Garden Project: creating grass

Along with my recently-moved-into new house came a new garden. Specifically, a south-facing space about 8m long by 5m wide (tiny by most people’s standards; pretty decent by local standards; and a huge improvement on the 5m x 1.5m balcony of our previous house). As of our moving-in date, it was entirely paved over, with a single and somewhat overgrown dog rose at the southern, shadiest end.

My overall intention is to spend a few months thinking, from a permaculture perspective, about a proper plan, and start to implement that in the spring. Indeed, ideally I’d wait a whole year before doing anything, but I think by the spring I should have enough information to get going.

However, there were a couple of more urgent issues:

  1. We wanted a patch of grass for the dog more or less immediately.
  2. I wanted some kind of plant-related quick win, to make it more like a garden and less like a very large pavement.

For the grass, then, we went for the quick-and-dirty decision-making process, which looked a bit like this:

  • There’s a patio at the house (north) end, which is solid concrete masquerading as railway sleepers(!). Doing anything with that will be time-consuming and expensive, so for now it stays. So no grass there, leaving the rest of the garden to be considered.
  • We wanted the grass to be accessible directly from the patio, so that it’s useful for humans to meander over and sit on, and so that the dog wouldn’t have to wend her way through the vegetable-growing part of the garden to have a pee. Given the north-south orientation of the garden, that meant a north-south strip.
  • There’s an old gardener’s maxim “west is best”; so I wanted to hang onto the west-facing side of the garden for the veggies.

By process of elimination, we wound up with the east-facing side (the western side) of the garden for the grass.

We started off with a test patch at the bottom of the garden. Unfortunately it turned out that under the ‘easy to lever up’ paving slabs, in a couple of places there were ‘much harder to lever up, and bloody heavy’ concrete slabs. Underneath that was an inch or so of sand, and underneath that, a layer of weed matting. (Under that, highly compacted clay, as one would expect in London.) P succeeded in getting up all the slabs and concrete on the test patch, and ripped up the weed matting. Since grass doesn’t like too rich a soil, we mixed in a lot of old compost with the sand, and dumped some grass and wildflower seed on top of it to see what would happen.

Answer: glorious green success.

This week, D took up the rest of the slabs on that side, forked over the sand and clay and spread a light layer of compost, and we spread more grass and wildflowers over the lot. Hopefully we’ll have at least a little greenery there before the winter sets in properly.

In the next post: pots and a raised bed, for late summer and winter vegetables. (Hopefully also I’ll have added some photos to this post by then.)


One change at a time: easy shower greywater reuse

After a very full-on fortnight learning about permaculture and activism at the Earth Activist Training 2011 course in August, I came away all fired up to make some changes at home. I would absolutely love to set up some kind of greywater reuse system, but given the 40 sq m of garden available in my central London terrace, it would be both a big practical challenge and a pretty poor use of our limited outside space.

However! There is a very straightforward way to reuse some of your greywater, which requires only a bucket. Put the bucket in the shower, where it can catch some of the water you use while you’re showering. The next time you need to flush the loo, grab the bucket and pour it down there instead of hitting the flush. There you go: a bucket of water saved per day, with next to no effort.

I started doing this a couple of weeks ago, and can definitely recommend it: both easy to implement and personally satisfying (if you’re the sort of person who gets satisfaction from saving water). Sure, it’s not a huge amount; but it’s more than nothing. Not only that, but I’ve found myself more aware of the water I’m using whilst showering (and have taken, for example, to turning the pressure down a bit), which is a neat secondary advantage.

Watch this space for more on my permaculture adventures; specifically the plans for the brand-new garden, and my solution to maintaining the allotment next year on what will be a very small amount of available time.