Archive for the ‘Garden’ Category

It’s certainly safe to say that this year’s “end of school year” update differs significantly from previous ones.

You’d think that measuring “success” would be harder without tests and grading but actually, I think that it’s much easier. Instead of relying on a school book, a test, or a teacher to tell me, I can SEE the progress first-hand and that’s FAR better. I can watch Eliot get the answer to a sum quicker than I can (it’s happened once or twice this week, but I blame my brain having more to do than his!) and I can SEE Jake smile when he sees something he likes or watch him laugh when he plays with the dog or see the resolve in his face when he assures me things are going to get better.

That, to me, is better than a report card full of A’s any day of the week.

Eliot is stunning me with his progress. Clearly he’s ready to learn this stuff. Some of it is definitely below his age group but it’s stuff he didn’t have a clue how to do 2 months ago. According to the site stats on the website we use, his maths age has progressed 9 months in the 2 months we’ve been educating him at home and I can see the progress every single day. The mental stuff gets quicker; the times table sheet gets referred to less often; he’s learning stuff.

Praise be!

The English is coming on slowly. I’m trying not to sit and do it as one long session each day but we grab a worksheet and do “underline the nouns/verbs” or “their/there/they’re” or “It’s/its” practice. It’s the little and often approach but it is sinking in. It’s all alien to him and definitely a full lesson would just switch him right off.
It’s baby steps.

And while we have extra time to spare, we can investigate how a 3D printer works…

The newly-acquired 3D printer

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Or practise shapes and space, in the tent, with Blokus.

Or make a Lego holiday home!


Or sneak off on the motorbike while the sun shines!

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Or to Blyton Raceway to watch Supercars (there were Lambos, Porches, Audis and even a Maclaren on track but the boys have photos of those!)

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Or study the friction of the different tyre types on Playmobile vehicles!
(Yes, I lost!)

So yeah. What with kids and school and work (and an impending VAT return due), it’s been pretty busy.

On the non-work side, we did get the garden pretty much finished. Gravel is all done, shed is built and in position, greenhouse is moved etc. We need to sort the decking out really but that’ll probably wait until next Spring now, I think. It’s “possible” the oil tank may be leaving us so that’ll free up another area of the garden which we can use somehow. We’re just waiting to see how that all pans out before doing anything much else.

Meantime though, I think it’s looking pretty good 🙂

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What else have we done?

Well, we’ve booked a trip back to visit Portugal in October. It’s just Nik, Eliot and I (Jake is being juggled amongst family members back here) but it’ll be great to get back for a trip. Eliot is super-excited about re-connecting with his school friends and Nik is just glad to be making a(nother) trip back.
Me? Yeh, it’ll be nice. But I’m OK anyway. Hopefully the weather will hold out. It’s before half term (when it usually rains) so fingers crossed.

Something else Eliot is super-excited about: it’s his birthday tomorrow!

My baby will be 12.

My baby who gives me this…


and this…


and this…


He’s smart and opinionated, passionate and enthusiastic, utterly, utterly bonkers and drives me totally crazy, but we love him anyway!

So I’ll just finished with a Happy 12th Birthday to my boy.



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If I thought for one minute that things would be back to ‘normal’ when we came back to England, how completely deluded I was.

I suppose, it depends on your definition of ‘normal’, but ours (well, mine) was working from home, kids at school, same old same old just with fewer sunshine and beer breaks (booooo!)

I guess I was partly right.
I was also dead wrong!

After a shaky start with Jake in (or not in) school, we settled into something that works for us for now. Jake does 2 hours (ish!) of Maths in the morning and then 2 hours currently learning coding or 3D design in the afternoon. He’s signed up to a great Maths website that he seems to be getting on with OK (after trialling several) and he’s working his way to starting GCSE Maths study, alongside English next year or soon after.

Exams weren’t in our initial plan, but then Jake decided he wants to do plumbing. That’s all well and good but he’s going to need him some GCSE Maths and English passes to get into college and so that’s what we’re working towards now. Whether it’ll be next summer or after that, I don’t know, but it’s a target and, much more importantly, an ambition. That’s quite huge for us actually. It’s certainly not even in the ballpark of what we’d have expected Jake to show an interest in, but hey, world needs plumbers!

So we have a sort of plan for Jake. That’s good.

And so on to Eliot.

He settled in well at school. He’s a social sort and made plenty of friends. And that’s all well and good but… it’s difficult to know how to get down how things went in my head but I think it boiled down to two words: Parents’ Evening.

Eliot was excited for us to come and especially so because the first teacher we were seeing was the dance teacher and he was loving dance, having been asked to join the lunchtime dance group. So we trotted along to see her and that’s about where it all started to unravel. The one thing she had to say, which seemed to take up her EVERY last word about Eliot and dance, was homework.

I mean, honestly. Homework??
Now, I have a beef with homework at the best of times, but seriously? In Dance class?

I expected to hear the same from every teacher but didn’t really. Lots of how Eliot is a ‘very sociable and popular child’ but he ‘needs to focus more’, is ‘very easily distracted’ and should ‘concentrate in class’ and blah blah blah yada yada.

Quite honestly, what they want is for Eliot not to be Eliot but to be some good little worker bee to line up with the rest of the hive and enable them to churn out one more obedient sheep at the end of year 11.

No. Thank. You!

Eliot has never been the best in school. Anyone who knows him will know this, but he’s not stupid. Not by a long shot, and school was making him seem that way. It made him feel incapable and dumb and, coupled with the fact that he was so very clearly 4 years behind in the important parts of Maths and English from being in Portuguese school, it didn’t bode well for the long-term.

He may not be academically gifted but the boy is clever and he needs to see it. We needed to get back to basics and school wasn’t doing it.

My brain coped with about one more week of school and then it spontaneously combusted and, after a long heart to heart with Eliot (who was very mature in his reasoning for staying in school as well as being out of it) we de-registered him too.

It’s been a rocky start but we now have some sort of thing going. We found an absolutely awesomely fantastic maths website called Maths Whizz which is perfect for Eliot. It assesses as it goes and has been brilliant at filling in some really fundamental gaps in his knowledge. We’ve lots more to do but the fact that I’m even managing to get him to do an hour each morning on it during school half term speaks for itself!

It’s quite ingenious really.

If I could find an equivalent site for English, that’d be even better! Currently, we’ve worked on Nouns and used the free Grammaropolis Nouns section as an aid. It was a bit of fun but rather too childish really. Not quite what we’re looking for and I’m undecided whether we’ll pay to use the rest of the site. It worked, I suppose, but I’m still looking.

Meantime we’re still bouncing back to nouns every once in a while and I’m tackling his spelling (which is , quite honestly, atrocious. Partly due to not being educated in English for 5 years and partly due to the only reading/writing he had done in that time being picked up from chatting online: definitely NOT the place to learn!)

So anyway, it’s an hour of Maths, 15 minute break and 30-45 mins of English each morning – the important academic stuff – and a less structured couple of hours in the afternoon doing science or something more fun! He’s doing well with it so far and I’ve been amazed at how quickly he’s responding to learning this way. I can see huge progress already and, perhaps as importantly, HE can see real progress and achievement. It’s measurable in his Maths and it’s lovely to see.

That’s huge too.

So, I’m juggling my days with helping Eliot in the mornings and fitting work in before that, during the boys’ lunch break and after 3 when they’re both finished. It’s tricky sometimes but it’s working and it’s definitely beneficial.

What else?

That’s all so big that not a lot else has gone on really. Nik went back to Portugal for a week for the Jerez MotoGP (the git – we all went last year) and I had a very long weekend away at Wendy’s when we both went to Nottingham for 3 days to see John Barrowman Live. It was great!

See how close we were?! Second row!

We ate lots, drank lots and loved the show! Music was great and John is a great entertainer (and very, very funny!)

It was a fab weekend!

Oh, other news. We’re having solar panels fitted to the house. Slight irony really that we’re having them fitted here after living nearly 5 years in a country with a zillion hours more sun, but we were looking at financially viable ways to provide us with more economical power and this is the first step.

Our oil central heating (we’re off mains gas here) is not cheap to run. We went through 500 litres of oil (about £350-400) in less than 6 weeks when we first moved back in and that was with the heating on 6-10am and 6-10.30 pm. So we were STILL freezing in the office all day! We had to bump the heating down to 2 hours morning and evening instead (did that while it was still cold: mid March, I think) and so now we’re even colder in the office all day but we’re not using so much oil. We’re hoping that, with the solar PV panels, we can run any excess into a storage heater for the office (usual approach is to run it to the immersion, and we may or may not use that option instead) but either way the money we save/earn on electric, we can use towards our oil.

We’ve gone with WeRSolarUK by personal recommendation. We noticed that one of our nearby neighbours had panels fitted (last summer) and he’s said the benefits have been very good. He recommended the company and, even though we did shop around and get another local quote, we were certainly impressed with what WeRSolarUK could offer for the money. I’ll report back with an update at a later date!

We’re also looking at getting out oil boiler replaced with a more efficient one and sorting out our whole hot water system which is horribly inefficient at present.

It’s all a work in progress but it should result in a nicer, warmer workplace without increase in overall cost beyond our initial loan payback. We’ve borrowed over 4 years, but the system should pay for itself in around 6-7 (based on our home in particular) and carries on paying out from the Feed-in-Tariff for 20 years in total giving an overall return on investment of a considerable amount higher than having it sat in the bank!

It’s been a big step for us: borrowing from the bank. Mortgages aside, it isn’t something we’ve ever done. We’ve never had a personal loan as a couple (Nik had one before we met) so it’s been actually quite nice to know that we’re still credit-worthy!

We’ve been spending some time working on the garden here too now that the weather has improved. We had a huge (approx 70ft) Christmas Tree removed that had been in the garden for over 40 years and was causing a nuisance both our side of the boundary and next door. The needles made the garden a mess and the thing was enormous! We got it cut down and spent some considerable time clearing away branches and needles.

Under the tree : Before

You can see how big the job was! The debris filled the garden!

Oh the needles. We have gravel directly beneath where the tree stood and 10 years of needles (since we put the gravel down) had fallen in amongst the stone, making it squashy, dirty and grow weeds! (in the needle mulch itself)

After the tree and branches had all been cleared from the garden (luckily, our garden is very long itself), we set to sieving the gravel. We sieved about 10 square meters of gravel and it’s so much better now. We certainly cleared a LOT of needles! I’d guess about 6-8 big green garden wheelie bins worth! Back-breaking and time-consuming work but it looks SO much better for it.

While the tree itself didn’t shade us from the sun (it did next door though!), it did, of course, cast shadow and significantly obscure the skyline. The difference now it’s gone is amazing! The garden feels even bigger and lighter and much less claustrophobic for having it gone.

Now we’ve got that sorted, we’ve replaced the shed (building new one afforded us both the opportunity to get sunburnt on Saturday!)  and just need to clear the old one and shift the greenhouse off the decking and into its final place next to the new shed.

It’s getting there.

Anyways, that’s probably enough waffle for now.

Suffice to stay we’re still here, and we’re hoping for many more sunshiny days like Saturday!

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Yep yep. It’s that time of year already.

The boys have been off school for nearly 4 weeks already and, boy, don’t I know it?!

We made the decision not to send Eliot to the Kids Club which he has been going to in the summer for the past two years, mostly because we just can’t afford it. It’s lovely that the kids get to do so many great things there, but it’s a trek across to Luz twice a day and it’s money we don’t have.

So, both boys are home for the 3 months of summer. Yikes!


Fortunately, the Hand family (well, the males!) have a new hobby: Archery!

Jake with his compound bow

Since the last update, after Eliot and Nik had a taster session, they have found themselves a more local archery club and our home is now full of equipment. The club itself, Archery Fun, also has guest bows so our visitors have been enjoying a bit of archery too!

Wendy and Rod on their recent visit

Which reminds me, I recently celebrated a… let’s say “significant” birthday and my family flew over to surprise me! I had no idea that this had been planned for months and months. Wendy just turned up at the door on the Friday and Mum and Rod appeared on the Saturday morning!! (They had all flown over together but Wendy was staying with us – cue me running around making the bed and tidying up – and Mum and Rod were staying nearby)

I was in shock for at least 48 hours and then I got old. Such is life!

It was a wonderful surprise though.

Anyway, back to the archery.
Both boys – actually all THREE boys – are loving their new hobby. The club is open 3 evenings during the week and both Saturday and Sunday mornings, and usually, they go to each session. The kids don’t go to every session but Nik usually does (with one or both kids, depending on who wants to go)

They are all doing really well at it. And anything that gets Jake out of the house cannot be a bad thing, can it?


And so to the school updates.

This year was a tricky one. I think I mentioned earlier in the year that Jake was not doing well at the end of his first term in year 8. He failed a lot of subjects, and it was a huge reality check for us all. We had no idea he was slipping so badly, and I think he had just presumed he could coast by on the level of work he had always done.

Not so, buddy!

One thing we did discover, and this could have a lot to do with his shocking result, is that he had been moved into a more ‘mainstream’ class.
Since he started school here 3 years ago, he has been in very mixed classes with a wide range of ages (he’s usually been the youngest) and with the more ‘challenging’ children (something his head-of-year let slip last year). There may have been allowances made, in his grades, for this.

Now, I can understand why they did this when he first started but clearly, at the end of year 7, they decided that his ability was such that he could join the ‘normal’ ranks and his class this year was made up of his own age group and clearly more able students.

This turned out to be a bit of a disadvantage for my ‘coaster’, until he was rudely awakened by failing 6 subjects by the end of term 1!

So, we introduced blackmail and bribery (as every good parent should, right?) and he had picked up 3 of those grades by the end of term 2. Kudos to Jake! Study paid off!

He is still below par in those same 3 (History, Geography and Science) at the end of term 3 but, because both his Maths and Portuguese (which he still studies as a foreigner rather than alongside the ‘natives’) were good enough, it was still enough to pass year 8.

Well done, Jake. It was definitely hit and miss for a while but he did it.


Congratulations to both of our boys

Eliot, who was held back in year 3 last year, also passed this year and so he moves into year 4. It will be an incredibly difficult year for him and I think we shall have to come up with some blackmail and bribery techniques for him also. Year 4 is a big exam year (they have to pass exams to move into year 5 which is a change of school) and Eliot’s reading in Portuguese is still very below par. Speaking – he can do until the cows come home (and the cows would probably stay away just for the peace and quiet!) but his reading and spelling is poor. We may have to consider a tutor for him, now he’s a little bit older.

Year 9 is also a big exam year for Jake. It’s the final year of their stage of schooling, after which they move to Portuguese secondary (years 10, 11 and 12) which is the equivalent of A-levels. He seems WAYYYY too young for this stage of life!

So both boys will have to work hard in the coming school year. I foresee many tears and tantrums and not enough study.

Still, at least we have summer to enjoy first.

View from The Lighthouse bar at the Marina

And speaking of summer and holidays, Nik and I have a trip to Florence at the end of this month. Yes, just US!
We are visiting, well, I am visiting for a Buffy and Angel convention – Slayer ItaCon – and so we took the excuse to go as a couple and Pat (Nik’s mum) is coming to babysit the boys for a week.

I’m super-excited to be meeting James Marsters and  Nicholas Brendon and hearing James and his son, Sullivan, two-fifths of Ghost of the Robot, play live – I’m a big GOTR and James Marsters fan – and we are both giddy about the prospect of an entire week in Florence on our own!

It’s going to be an amazing summer!

Hopefully, we won’t all fry to a crisp beforehand. The temperature during the day is well up in the high 30s, early 40s and even overnight is nudging 30. It’s seriously brain-frying.

I did have a week off from it when I visited Wendy in her new (yes, again!) home in Sleaford a couple of weeks ago though. It was pleasant there, warm and mostly sunny, and we did a few outdoorsy things on the days Wendy had off work – visited Belton House and did some gardening.

Belton House Orangery and Church – The sun is even shining in the UK right now!

The Lake House at Belton House

And perhaps we stopped from cream tea!

Cream Tea at Belton House

Of course, we also had a BBQ and a few… well, OK, lots of homemade Mojitos!

Homemade Mojitos

It was a good week actually. I enjoyed it.

The boys didn’t suffer too much without me. Nik’s sister was in Portugal for the week so they spent several days around the pool and being sociable with the in-laws here in the sun.

It was nice to get back to a bit of normality though. Until the next trip…

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It occurred to me that it’s been a while since I posted our initial “balcony garden” photos and I’ve not updated since. Shame on me!

The garden (I’ll continue to call it just that) has been looking great lately. The mixture of warmth, sunshine and rain (yes, in Portugal, we’ve had rain for our gardens!) has been brilliant for it and it’s all leafy, green and flourishing.

Balcony Garden 3rd May 2011

Before we went camping, we invested a bit of time (and money!) preparing the garden for self-watering while we’re away. It had a trial run during our camping trip and worked really well so it’ll be ideal for our England trip in July when it really will need the watering!
This is what we bought. Gardena Holiday Watering Kit (didn’t pay that much for it though!)

The lemon tree’s flowers died down and have started to turn into little baby lemons awwwww! There are new flowers starting too so we should get a good stagger of fruit.

Lemon tree flowers dying down ready for fruiting

Lemon tree flowers dying down ready for fruiting

The orange tree was, I think, very recently pruned when we bought it so it has had a lot of catching up to do in comparison to the lemon tree.
However, it has been showing lots of fresh growth and its very recent buds have just started to open. The smell is heavenly!

Blossoming orange flowers with a fabulous scent

Just a little further along from our trees are our vegetables. 3 sacks of potatoes and 2 carrots sacks.

The potatoes seem to grow at an amazing rate.  Eliot loves examining them every day and they do look impressive. I can’t wait to see these festooned with flowers!

3 sacks of potato plants

The carrots have certainly struggle a little more. One sack is doing fairly well (although I must thin it out a bit. It was planted from a seed strip so doesn’t need a huge amount of thinning but I think it does need a little bit of attention) but the other sack has struggled. It’s possible that, in the early seed life, it has been overwatered (or underwatered?) as the sacks aren’t as good as the potato ones, in my opinion.
I might buy a second pack of seeds and plant a few more.

The carrots

In addition to carrots, one of these sacks has a handful of green bean seeds. The first planted ones of these did not germinate at all so I planted another half a dozen about 10 days ago. 2 of these have now sprouted and are growing rapidly, which is great to see (although not visible in these photos. Will take a pic of them in the next update)

All in all, I’m quite pleased with how the garden is doing. In England, we were lucky enough to have a big house with an even bigger garden in which we had a nice large vegetable plot. It’s nice to recreate a bit of that home-grown loveliness here in Portugal, even without the ‘proper’ garden 🙂

Who needs a garden when you have wraparound balconies, eh?

One last pic, just for fun. The balcony our garden is on is actually Eliot’s balcony so he takes great pride in it. Can you tell?

Eliot in his balcony garden

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