A really great adventure…Part 2 Dunkirk to The Ardennes

We were incredibly unlucky with the weather on our way to Greece. We caught up with a thunder storm which had passed over us the day we left Margate, which followed us all the way to Croatia.  Every night we had to hide in our tiny two-man coffin style tent while the heavens opened and thunder made the ground shake. During the day we would overtake the weather front, only for it to catch us up over night. It was miserable! I was so happy we had brought an Overboard bag. Overboard bags are normally used for sailing, turns out they are great on long wet motorbike journeys too! Even though our motorbike gear was drenched and we were generally soggy, that bag meant we had somewhere dry to sleep.

Sheltering from the rain near the Ardennes

Sheltering from the rain near the Ardennes

We left Dunkirk heading towards Arras, we had decided after a brief spell on the motorway that maybe the scenic route would be better. The bike was restricted and couldn’t keep up with the traffic, plus we wouldn’t see the country.  We passed through Béthune which has a beautiful square, where we sat on the cobbles and ate our packed up lunch: saucisson sec and brie. The buildings surrounding the square are quintessentially french. High pitched sloping roofs and art deco exteriors. It was lovely and sunny (the thunder overtaking us for now) but I do remember thinking how hot it felt especially with all the motorbike gear on. I felt an ounce of trepidation with the impeding temperatures of southern Europe.

From Béthune we biked to Hirson where Andi had stayed before on a cycling trip.To get to the campsite we had to bike down a muddy track for about a mile. The campsite was shut so we headed off back up the track. This is where we had our only crash of the trip.

Halfway up the track the bike got stuck in a gutter at the edge of the road. We lost control and came off. Andi was thrown away from the bike and I was wedged in between the bike and the road. Luckily for me the bag held the bike up just enough that I wasn’t trapped. The bike was revving, the wheel still turning as we both jumped up to lift the bike back up. It was so heavy, especially with the bag attached. I probably should’ve been upset but I just couldn’t stop laughing, probably shock! Andi kept apologising, he was really worried I was hurt. Luckily we were both fine our car boot motorbike gear did the job! The bike wasn’t quite so lucky, it had taken a knock resulting in a broken clutch handle. Andi had to use the tiny stump that was left the whole way to Greece.

We carried on our journey, a little shook up, to a campsite in the Ardennes. The Ardennes is a national park near Belgium. It’s very green, with big conifer trees and rolling hills. It’s a beautiful place even in a thunder storm. We had a classic dinner of two beers, a tin of ravioli and a bowl of porridge. We eventually fell asleep, after hours of deafening thunder.

 

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A really great adventure…Part 1 Dover to Dunkirk

I never took a gap year, and it’s something I’ve kind of always regretted, and initially it wasn’t at the top of my priorities. It would tend to rear it’s head when I’d had too much wine. It all started when I started running off into the night, when on a night out. Coming to it’s crescendo when I caught myself trying to leave a pub through a toilet window, during a pub quiz. It was actually the pub toilet window escape that pushed me over the edge. I kept feeling completely stuck and just really needed an adventure. Which probably explains why I ran away to Greece, without any real plan.

The longest I had been on a motorbike, before Greece, was a day trip to London from the Isle of Wight. I had no gear, lots of fear and didn’t really know Andi at all.  We’d only been dating for a couple of months (distant friends for 4 years before that) when we left. I didn’t tell my parents, so they wouldn’t worry.

We had no plan, apart from buying a road atlas of Europe, Andi had a compass and we’d brought our bike gear from ebay and car boot sales. I didn’t have a proper jacket until the day before we left. We had a budget of  £20 a day for food and accommodation. The bike could do 200 miles a tank, each tank was 10 litres of petrol, approximately £14. We were riding a BMW GS650, an enduro bike (a kind of road/dirt bike hybrid). It was restricted to 125cc as Andi had just passed his full test (I didn’t know this until much later in the trip). We also brought a water-proof 72 litre bag which we strapped to the back of the bike using a skateboard as a support.

With me wedged between Andi and the bag we set off for Margate from Guildford. After spending a couple of days doing final prep for our trip in Margate with Andi’s family we set off for Dover to catch a boat. I’d never been to Dover and I have to say how spectacular Dover is. It’s cut out of the chalk cliff, as you drive down a slope after lots of super flat countryside you suddenly go down a hill and your surrounded by chalk walls and boats. We found the cheapest boat they had, which was to Dunkirk. Leaving England on that boat was electric. I felt so free, I even considered going Braveheart on the whole thing.

Dover to Dunkirk

Dover to Dunkirk

When we got to the other side we instantly got lost, we hadn’t got the map out and ended up on a motorway heading to Belgium. Andi had glued the compass to the tank of the bike and was trying to drive in a south east direction, we ended up in a town (maybe Dunkirk). We decided to regroup a bit, ordered some tea and found a tourist information who gave use a map (getting anything out of the bag was a pain as it was strapped on). He still maintains that he would have found Greece even without my directions! We got a system going, I tapped his waist for left and right and straight on. We eventually found a campsite and had dinner. All on budget.

Dunkirk is a weird place to visit if you know anything about World War II. We stayed in a campsite, next to the beach which used the old ramparts as walls. It felt like an eerie place with a washed out tourist attraction style seafront. Europe is weirdly scarred by WWII, the further we headed into it the more you notice little things which just hint at the past, especially along the French/German border.

All Change

Tonight I had a brain wave of inspiration to write again. It’s been a while, and quite rightly so. A lot has happened to me since my last post, for one it’s now 2014, and for the rest here goes.

1) Sometime around March last year I left Manfriend, I left our house, our furniture and my beloved garden behind in the search for someone who would love me the way I deserved to be loved. I am not completely without fault in this, but I can truly say I tried my hardest to make our relationship work. This was really sad, but read on, it gets much better.

2) I finished my undergraduate degree. I am now Ruby Lee BEng MIET 🙂 And readers I will tell you know I got a 1st, and came in the top 10 of my class and I don’t care who knows it, I worked really hard for that piece of paper! I decided against the MEng as I felt like a need for change and I wasn’t particularly struck by my course options.

3) Shortly after completing my degree I ran off with a man called Andi. We motorcycled to Greece from England and back again all in time for graduation.

4) I definitely had run out of money by about August. So I began the hunt for my graduate job. Turned out I didn’t need to hunt, I was being hunted already, for PhD’s and graduate electronics jobs.

5) After choosing from a selection of offers, I got a job, and moved to Bournemouth on the south coast of England. No chance of getting rickets here! I now work in the nuclear industry but as I’ve signed the official secrets act I can’t actually divulge what I do. That still sounds too cool, even after 4 months of working there!

6) I became very very happy.

But who’s friends with the carrots? Crop rotation for beginners…

Crop rotation is really essential for distributing the nutrients in your patch. All plants require different ratios of nutrients. The main players in the nutrient game are NPK, which is nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. Most farming relies on fertilisers which are expensive, and can lead to eutrophication which isn’t very nice! Eutrophication is when too many nutrients go into rivers and streams; increasing the amount of algae and thus reducing the light levels in the river or stream, killing everything that needs light and oxygen to live. So based on the expense and potential environmental damage our garden is going to distribute the nutrients using crop rotation.

Different plants don’t just use different nutrients they also exude different nutrients. For example by putting the brassicas (cabbages etc) where the beans were the year before they will absorb the nutrients left behind by the beans. There are also different rules associated with different types of veggies living in harmony near each other. For example you should put carrots and onions in the same bed but keep the potatoes away from the beans. I spent a long time reading possibly the best book on self sufficiency the “Self Sufficient-ish Bible – Andy & Dave Hamliton” and made this little diagram to sort my crop rotation out.

Who goes with who – Crop Rotation for Beginners…

The age old topic of crop rotation has been a big subject this year, having never actually done the rotation plan myself I’m feeling very nervous about where to place my veggies! We planted in June, which meant we were pretty limited to what we could plant. I planted the beans first and this led to putting the veg in the order Legumes, Potato family, Carrots and Onions, and Brassicas. Which thus far has served us well. I’m hoping that after 4 rotations (4 years!) the ground will be full of all the right nutrients.

The Self Sufficient-ish Bible has a brilliant section on how best to rotate your crop over 4 years. As long as you start out in an order which matches the diagram  I drew you’ll always be putting things in the right place if you cycle through that rotation.

For example my 4 year rotation plan looks like this:

Year 1: Legumes, Potato Family, Carrots and Onions and Brassicas.

Year 2: Potato Family, Carrots and Onions, Brassicas and Legumes.

Year 3: Carrots and Onions, Brassicas, Legumes and Potato Family.

Year 4: Brassicas, Legumes, Potato Family and Carrots and Onions.

You can kind of see how you rotate from that. You never end up with enemy veg next to each other e.g. onions and legumes.

I’m no expert, but the book “Self Sufficient-ish Bible” is great and can be found in all good book shops. Also check out http://www.selfsufficientish.com where all manner of things can be found. It’s run by Andy+Dave Hamilton the authors of the Self Sufficient-ish Bible, so you know it’s good!

Digging up the Patch

When you begin a vegetable garden it’s hard work, and you normally do it at the beginning of spring, end of February time. We moved into our house in June/July of this year. Not exactly the right time to start your vegetable patch, unless it’s something quick growing you’ve not much chance. But I had no intention of waiting. The patch digging had to begin!

When we arrived the garden had been left to it’s own devices for a few months the grass was knee high and we have the smallest flymo known to man. It fits in a standard sized bin bag, so it’s not that hungry for grass. We cut the grass down to ankle-ish height with some really blunt garden shears and then mowed it. It took absolutely forever, like a whole week of mowing and cutting. It’s still not completely done and it’s nearly October (I bought a too short extension lead so the end of the garden is a meadow still, but we wont talk about that).

Before and during the meadow to patch renovation including the smallest flymo known to man…

After the trauma (mostly for the force fed flymo) of cutting the grass had ended we found a rather good sized space for the vegetable patch. I thought ah at least the hard work is over, digging this over is going to be nice and easy. I’ve dug over a few gardens in my time and wasn’t expecting what happened next. Our house is a new build, less than 5 years old and like all new builds it’s been fitted with roll out turf. Little did we know that normally it takes 10 years for the carpet (for want of a better word) the grass is grown on to fully degrade. As it had just been laid everywhere (no idea why they didn’t just put seeds down) the whole garden was covered in grass growing on carpet.

To get at the dirt we had to slice through the carpet with the spade and then cut out squares of turf. It took forever, instead of turning the grass over and shaking the dirt off we had to lift each square and carry it to the suddenly made compost heap. Not an easy job.

After all that we had the patch, which we were both very, very proud of, sweat and blood had gone into it. Just seeds and a good raking over was required. Vegetables ahoy!

Fixtures…

A fixture is something that holds the object you’re working on in place, while you work. Now it may involve clamps but the simplest fixtures (like the one I use) are held by locking the object in place using a corner. This locking allows you to steady the work with one hand whilst working on the object with the other hand. A fixture of this kind is especially useful if you’re muscularly challenged like myself. Your strength isn’t being used to hold the object in place giving your other arm some spare power to complete the task! This method is brilliant for drilling metal plates, boxes and also very small pieces that would otherwise spin out. It also saves you hours, as you don’t need to be unclamping and reclamping all the time. It will also always provide you with a suitable surface to drill on, so long as you don’t go through it!

Fixture viewed from the top.

To make this fixture you need to purchase some wood. You should be able to get all the parts for this in B&Q. You will need a flat sheet of about just over 15″ by 15″, I chose this size as it was about the maximum size metal plate I’d have to drill, you may want bigger or smaller. It needs to be less than your arm length from your chest to your wrist, you don’t want to be leaning too far over your work. But it’s personal preference, just remember it’s going to sit against the edge of the desk. Next take 1 piece of flat wood strip, you want this to be able to cover 2 edges of the flat wood. It should also be >50mm thick so as to make a good enough lip.

Side View of Fixture showing the rear lip which holds it snug against the desk.

For the rear lip that sits against the desk you will want to use a larger thickness so as to give more support. Now using a battery drill screw the smaller pieces as I have done onto the flat sheet. For the left handers out there, you’ll need to change the rectangle so you hold the piece in the corner using your right hand not your left.

Once you’ve done all that your fixture is ready to be used! All you need to do now is mind your fingers.

Self Sufficiency: Finding What Has Been Lost…

Finding the Patch

When I was small my granddad had a vegetable garden, and I have such vivid memories of the smell of tomatoes growing in the greenhouse, and plaiting onions together to store them. There was something so honest in that way of life and something so simple. When the vegetable patch had to be dug over in the early spring you’d come home sweaty but pleased that summer was on it’s way again.

My granddad passed away when I was 17 but that hasn’t stopped me keeping up the tradition of growing on the same patch as him. When I moved away to university I grew tomatoes and cucumbers on my window sill and then brought them home to put in the greenhouse; the interim period in my window caused a small investigation into whether I was growing weed or not, I had to prove the tomatoes weren’t stuck on, but that’s a story for another day.

I want to find the skills that we’ve lost along the road to modern life. There is always such a surge of self satisfaction that comes with producing anything yourself, much greater than any exam, or job I have ever done. I enjoy my work in engineering, it’s interesting but underlyingly I want to be outside smelling vegetables (they smell so good when they grow!), and inside making my own clothes. I think everything in the past has always been pointing at this moment, and I guess the final straw was moving into a house with Manfriend.

The house is small but airy, has just the right sized garden and isn’t near a main road. As soon as we moved in we started on the garden, deciding dinner was more important than furniture and unpacking the boxes that later became coffee tables. I had a eureka moment, when I had finished mowing the lawn/meadow, that self sufficiency is what I want to do with my life.

Now I’m not expecting miracles, it will be hard, especially in the modern world. I may be an Electronics Engineer but I can’t whip up an iPhone or free internet or a TV or a computer. This quest is to find a simpler way of life, in which we don’t have to eat food from the supermarket all the time, and we don’t have to work as hard to make ends meet. We’ll have the ends already done at home you see. This section of my blog is documenting our journey, and hopefully inspiring people out there that it is possible! We’ll be trying everything from making wine, making our clothes, growing our food, and keeping live-stock. I hope you enjoy it as much as we will.

Nanotechnology Vs Quantum Mechanics the Loosing Battle.

“I’m the pioneer of nanotechnology, and I don’t even bloody get it!”

It’s the month before I head back to university after a year away. I’m excited, nervous and looking forward to meeting some new people and seeing some old faces! I received my reading list the other day and slowly but surely I’m working through it. In the first semester I’ll be studying Radio Frequency and Microwave Fun-da-mentals (see what I did there?), Product Design and Nanotechnology.

There I was, in my deck chair, in my back garden beginning the daunting read of “Nanophysics and Nanotechnology: an introduction to modern concepts in nanoscience” by a certain Mr E Wolf, when I came across a statement which threw me into desperate hysterics. Mr E Wolf (hence forth known as Mr “Big Bad” Wolf) made a little statement regarding grasping the main concepts of nanotechnology. Now I am paraphrasing so apologies Mr “Big Bad” Wolf if this wasn’t exactly what you wanted to convey.

“To understand Nanotechnology you must first understand quantum mechanics” – Mr “Big Bad” Wolf

Now I somehow don’t hold much hope for my nanotechnology exam. Not just because it’s nanotechnology and the maths doesn’t just look like the Schrödinger equation, it is the Schrödinger equation. Mostly because Richard Feynman: Nobel Prize Winner, quantum mechanics genius, and the pioneer of quantum computing and nanotechnology, once said;

“If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.” – Richard Feynman  

I’m not discrediting Mr “Big Bad” Wolf’s book, it’s really interesting and he’s a genius for understanding it and putting it into understandable text. Which isn’t a mean feat for a book on nanotechnology, I opened another on my reading list to find it 400 pages long and contained equations punctuated with sporadic text. He’s done a good job.

But it does make you laugh! The pioneer of nanotechnology reckons he doesn’t understand it, how the hell am I going to understand it, let alone do a 2 hour exam in the subject.

I’ve contently decided I’ll leave the book closed to give my brain a rest before opening it again, it’s definitely time to hit the biscuits!

I moved to the old smoke and got Rickets..

OK so I didn’t actually get rickets, I’m not under 12 years old and my legs are straight, but rickets sounds snappier than severe vitamin D deficiency. I grew up on the Isle of Wight, in the sunniest town in the UK. I spent pretty much everyday outside, rain or shine. Since moving to Guildford and working in London, I’ve been spending hardly any time in the sun, mostly because I was leaving the house before dawn and coming home after dusk. Thanks to the whole lack of sunshine and weekend cloud cover (mother nature was not on my side this year) I developed a severe vitamin D deficiency. Most people in the UK tend to have a slight deficiency because of our latitude, some people are much better at naturally harvesting vitamin D from their food. I’m guessing that living outside in the sunniest place in the UK for 18 years didn’t really prepare my body for naturally harvesting vitamin D effectively.

Vitamin D is like the body’s basic element. It helps your bones, your immune system, and general reproduction of cells. During the year my hair and nails would split and feel brittle, I felt generally unwell, I felt depressed, my back ached, and I was so over tired that I couldn’t sleep. In the end I went to the doctors because I thought I had depression. They sent me for blood tests to see if there was any chemical reason, and they diagnosed a severe deficiency. Your normal levels are supposed to be 75ug a severe deficiency is classes as 25ug and my levels were 22ug. I got prescribed some high strength vitamin D tablets. And since taking my sunshine tablets I’m feeling much better. Not just physically having more energy, but mentally better. Although I do still have some back ache these days, I’m defiantly on the mend.

The whole time I had the deficiency my mental state was awful, I was really depressed, crying all the time and I mean ALL the time. I was in such a state that when I got turned away from Tesco for not having my I.D I cried at the cashier. I’m normally pretty level headed, able to get on with the inconveniences of forgetting my I.D. I even crashed the car twice in less than 20 minutes due to my super over tiredness, forward into a parked car and then backwards into a tree. It was the first and second time I’d ever crashed my car and luckily nothing was hurt except my bank balance.

I found out about my deficiency about a month before my contract at my placement was due to be extended. I decided it was better to finish work at the end of my contract rather than extending. I needed to get some rest and generally just chill out before going back to university in the autumn. It would be nice to not feel rushed into returning, and have time to work on my 4th year project, and get back to grips with studying engineering! So much maths! I’ve been finished from work for 2 weeks now and I already feel much better. I’m hoping to get some serious rest and sunshine and get back to my old self before going back to university.

Get outside people of Britain, it can seriously mess with your health if you don’t!