Hostel Hub

We have moved to Perthshire and are busy with Hostel Hub, our social enterprise that grew out of our work in Orkney.
We are helping communities create and run exceptional hostels, by designing and writing business plans, training staff and creating amazing interiors – the amalgamation of 25 years in tourism, from running tours to running hostels and being forever concerned with how to make the world better.

New post for 2013

I think it is time to reactivate this blog!

I have been busy posting stories and pictures on the Facebook Page for Five Senses – there just hasn’t been enough time in the day to do both – but now our two year old is more self reliant I’d like to reclaim this blog – for all of you who don’t use Facebook!

Watch this space! No I have remembered my log in password, nothing can stop me posting more here!

Simplifying my web posts

I have a headache: I have too many sites on the internet that need maintaining, hence why this once active blog is being neglected. So there is going to be some serious pruning.

First there is the Five Senses website, which needs a dedicated blog, not this P2S blog.

Second there is the Touchwood Project new website.

Then there are the spin offs – Power Off, Ravelry and Squidoo, Couchsurfing and their Twitter feeds –  and finally, there is Facebook. Shit. I have pages, groups and god only knows what on Facebook too, and I’m not going to bore you with all the other smaller networking sites.

You are already bored, right?

Suffice to say, I need to rationalise all this and get back to writing good content for the web – starting with my specialist subject of Navigation.

I’ll link it all up so serious followers can find it – and the spam can get lost.

🙂 Cheers!

A lot has happened

I have been a bit busy – and this blog has been neglected. To catch up, we have:

  • A new baby boy, called Gilbert
  • A new home, in East Mainland, Orkney
  • New tours of Orkney for Explore
  • New Natural Navigation courses
  • Fire kits back in production
You want pictures, you say? Well, here goes:
The New House, from May 2011

Father and son, out walking

Playing with grass

Path making through young trees in Orkney, farm building beyond


Teaching outdoor skills

Friction fire making

Neolithic Stones on the Explore Tour

Navigation at the Ring of Brodgar

Seaweed fuelled fires!

I have been experimenting with local fuels, here in the Orkney Islands where trees are rare.

The obvious potential fuels include: Driftwood, peat, grass, animal dung, heather and seaweeds. Land sources of scrap wood are not discussed here.

Driftwood used to be plentiful with lots of shipwrecked sailing ships and the abundant native woods of the Americas floating over on the North Atlantic Drift. Nowadays we get plastics washed up on the shore.

Sporadic bits of wood can be found, especially in bays, but this is mostly fast burning pallets and rarely bits of boats. These can supplement and slow down the burn but are insufficient for a winter supply.

Animal dung is not easy to collect and dry for domestic use, so I’ll leave that for methane digesters.

Peat is effectively made up of dead but not rotted heather, grass and sphagnum mosses. When dried this has been a a major fuel in Scotland and Ireland, in the absence of wood (for the poorer folks).

Spagnum moss is protected, it’s environment being endangered.

Grass is hard to collect in large enough quantities, burns with an acrid smell and has to be tied into faggots to slow down the burn. Faggots are bundles of small fuel made up usually by poor people who were forced to scavenge on the woodland floors owned by their overlords.

Heather goes up like rocket fuel, giving a hot and rapid flame with a lot of sizzling and a beautiful smell. But it too is now scarce and it’s environment needed for wildlife habitat.

Seaweeds are often very wet. The thick Kelp used to be dried by being draped over stone walls until it had dried in wind and sun (like peat) and was much reduced in size and weight. If gathered at the right time of year, large quantities can be harvested from the strand line when sun dried and reasonably crisp.

Wrack seaweeds cover the inter-tidal zone here beside our house and are the main weed of the strandline, useful for improving soil fertility. When dry they burn well too.

When a few days of dry weather follow a storm it is possible to fork good quantities of relatively light seaweed up to the house, where it needs to be stored dry. The wracks don’t really shrink much, just forming near black tangles of crispy weed. (Tang or Tangles are the local names for the traditional kelp fuel).

Most precious find on the shore forage is white coils of birch bark, rich in oil and traditional fire lighting magic. The fewer the trees, the less there is of this great material. Reforest folks, please.

What are most other people burning to heat their houses and cook food? Imported coal, oil, gas and electricity dominate, with imported peat and wood also on the market. Some electricity is generated locally on the islands, so this is the bulk local fuel, coming from wind and wave / tide.

How to best use these meagre local fuels? They all burn differently, with their own characteristics, flame colours and smells (lovely).

On a bed of dry wrack set a tiny piece of birch bark and lay over this bundles of dry heather tops. Add to this the thicker stems of the heather. Around this place the blocks of peat, with smaller pieces on top of the heather so that as it burns this collapses slowly, avoiding it bridging.

More seaweed can be added above the peat, to help weigh down and also dry it in preparation for burning.

A lot of ash is produced, so keep a good airflow.

Oh, I should point out, the smells of these fires are wonderful, with peat, seaweed and wood being very distinctive. Imagine walking home in the dark, being guided by the familiar smell of your own hearth, different from your neighbours.



My diary from the Power Off weekend in March

Here are my notes, scribbled first on paper during the last weekend, when we had no electricity for the March Spring Equinox and Power Off Weekend II – please excuse it jumping from past to present tense, this is how I wrote it:

Friday …

Worked like crazy to get the new Five Senses website ok – to go live by 11pm Friday (the official start time of POW, when the whole electricity supply is turned off for 48 hours, at the flick of a switch). Totally mad – but we did it. Brain a bit frazzled though so we opted to come down gently by turning off the lights and watching the film “9” until just past midnight, then we powered off to bed by candle light. A box of matches symbolically placed by the bed ‘just in case’. The second POW had begun. I smiled and slept deep.

Saturday …

Sunshine and light very early, warm too – not like the December Power Off (the first we shared with other folks). Walked around the house naked – no hurry, no biting cold. First desire was for hot water, to make tea and porridge. Stood in the kitchen I awoke to remember there was to be no electricity. Used the camping gas burner. Easy, if slow. Looked around as water warmed slowly, thought the floor could use a vacuum – dusty – then realised I should brush it instead but I couldn’t be arsed.

After breakfast I set off up the drive to meet the walkers for my Hidden Gems of Orkney walk (second Saturday in the month – introducing them to unknown and wonderful parts of Orkney). From 9.30 – 13.30 I was out on the beach (scoured by the recent storm), in the Hall of Clestrain (exploring ruins) and building temporary stepping stones for the group to cross streams. Larger versions of childhood games. A cool breeze but sunny.

Returned home. Rachel looked very happy and relaxed. We drank tea in the conservatory, soaking up the faint warmth from the sun. (All this tea brewing was made easier by three thermos flasks which we keep filled whenever there is a fire). Profound sense of relaxation. R relaxed and yet energised (excited) by the ambiance – after overcoming the automatic choices of computer / film / music / iplayer (we have no TV) she had instead settled upon thinking. So had spent the morning contemplating. It seemed to have been time well spent.

After this rest my mind starts to think ‘food’ which means cooking … need to do washing up from last night’s marathon website writing session … needs hot water … needs fire … needs fuel … must saw up wood, so I needed to get moving as nothing would happen instantly, at the flick of a switch. However, it all seemed so much easier than the December POW when it was freezing and I had to burn all the driftwood to keep one room warm. This time was far more relaxed. The sun gave enough warmth. A good reminder that it was the Equinox.

Sunshine on the pages of my book making me smile with joy – sunlight so appreciated – feeling of great happiness, love, alive!

Sun close to setting. Yet another lovely day for a POW. I’m sure we are lucky but also more appreciative of the sun, it’s light, warmth, presence, life. Now is the equinox, sun is out west over Hoy Sound, dropping behind clouds over Stromness, directly west of here. Simple, profound relationships of time and seasons and directions, with the Sun and a spinning Earth.

Tried to use a sun dial to tell the time but it was out of sync with human time by 40 minutes. Nice to realise I don’t need to know the time today – in ‘holiday mode’, not knowing or worrying what time it is. No visible clocks or watches in the house … unless I dig into my rucksack or look at the mobile phone (which I did earlier when playing with the sun dial). The sun is starting to set time again, dusk is falling, TV schedules, even the rugby results can all wait.

Vacuum flasks are very good – working well – good supply of hot water and means I don’t need to tend the fire constantly (driftwood and peat) unlike December! A wood buring stove would be so good though. Note to everyone, get a stove, with a flat top. That with a good pipe to vent should be a basic of all houses, so even if not used much it is there for emergencies like power cuts. Much more fuel efficient and burns paper bricks, driftwood, garden cuttings, anything if push comes to shove.

Light fading but too early to light candles – sit right by the window like in times of old, to the last possible minute reading by sunlight, book facing flat out to west like a solar panel or flower for maximum light. Room is calm without electricity. People are naive to think we burn lots of candles to replace electric light (low energy bulbs of course) because in the most part we are enjoying sunlight, the flickering flames of a real fire and I am quite delighted by my navigational prowess in negotiating rooms in the dark:

Choosing tea by smell in stead of lighting up, using my sense of touch often, and listening for when a kettle is coming to boil or when a hot water bottle is near full with the hot water I’m pouring. Sounds, smells, textures all coming to prominence in the gentler light. You must try it to feel it.

Light a candle. Put white sheet of paper behind it to reflect light into room. So simple but effective.

So peaceful in the house – sound of wood crackling in the fire, birds twittering outside.

Ate bacon, eggs, mushrooms, bread and now next cup of tea … slight smoky taste, wonderful. Almost feels like bed time but still not fully dark. Fun 🙂

Crescent moon in the West, high above the ocean, casting light through this window. Went outside to pee, which is easier outside in the dark 🙂 Fantastic sky! All the main constellations very clear with a bright moon giving good light to see by and also hiding the smaller stars, leaving only the brightest. Leo, Gemini, Orion, Cassiopeia and the others all prominent. Moon pointing towards South quite nicely. Top night.

Happy reading. Kind of miss watching a film though.

Went to bed, time unknown, but too sleepy to read more. Fell asleep quickly.

Sunday …

Awoke in the night … stars … but not sleeping well … bad dream … so awaken in a low mood. Light gas, boil water, porridge, tea and then a bit of bacon and egg 🙂 Twice in 24 hours! Go wild.

Swept floor of conservatory and kitchen with dustpan and brush. Did some tidying, just the usual stuff but feels good. Did my daily poo inspection (shocking, I’ll skip the details). Makes me notice I’m feeling a bit off, weak, light headed. Opt to treat for dehydration. Head is fuzzy so finding talk and ideas hard to enjoy. Drinking water.

Thinking R is distracted then realise it is probably me. Walked outside barefoot onto the grass, opening my awareness. My book reading marathon has taken me away from R for too long. Need to play 🙂

We talk about how hard it is to relax, how hard it is to have weekends off work, especially when self employed and self motivated. How society is requiring people to work more, consume more, be forever active, no time to really rest. Even holidays have to be ‘earned’ by excessive hours before and afterwards, effectively eating into that rest time by being ever present, haunting.

So pleased to have the opportunity to contrast the two POWs, December and March. I’m keen to now do June, September and Dec again. This time there is so much more daylight, the air is warmer, the sun also providing warmth this time, even at 59 degrees North. Again it is so good to be aware of the sun’s journey across the sky, setting West, Equinox really means something. Not in a religious or spiritual way, as such but observational, scientific … this is reality, it does this whether you notice it or not. The world spins in orbit of the sun, the moon orbiting Earth, tides ebb and flow. Call me names if you like but this is what is going on and I like being aware of it. I love it! It is good to be aware of my place in the universe, I feel more self-confidence and happiness as a result.

Time to play Ticket to Ride. Set up in conservatory, where there is enough warmth from the sun, sheltered from the wind. Start to feel better, gradually.

Win the game. I go and make soup. Lentils been soaking overnight in the dirty pressure cooker – my idea to save washing up, so looks pretty ugly, with remains of venison stew (sorry my dear vegetarian friends). Cook over gas again because pressure cooker not good over naked flame, anyway it boils quickly and job is done with little fuel used. Cook veg including the defrosted peas and sweetcorn . Yummy. Feels super healthy, esp after the previous bacon fest and fat.

Pet watching – two cats, one mouse. Comical. I’m smiling again. Seals, ducks, calm water.

R is spinning in the conservatory, I’m gonna light the fire. Tidied the garage a wee bit earlier.

Took photos of the setting sun between 6 and 6.30pm together with the moon high in the South West. Beautiful light blue sky with powdery clouds like the end of an avalanche, covering the moon. Then she is back. Always she.

Cooked over wood fire – mashed potato with mackerel and cabbage, in the skillet. Simple but tasty. Wonderful time, light fading, again using all the remaining light, precious. I know we would normally have lights on now, if we were using electricity, like nearly everyone who has electric lights (or is it everyone?) but really it seems that is all about fear, fighting the dark, like it is bad, evil. Now it seems lovely and calming to be here as the sun fades and to welcome the night. I am safe in my own home after all. I have nothing to fear. The night is beautiful.

I lament the loss of darkness (by which I mean the gentle light of lamp and fire and candle) for a constant blaze of continual brightness, only ended when I close my eyes. How unnatural, limiting, sterile. It is hard if this is how you were brought up. Harder still if you were scared as a child with stories of monsters, evil, things unknown. Stories that contained and controlled people for so long seem to limit us now we have the technology to fill the night with reassuring light. Am I the only one to think this? I remember the street lights being switched off at night and the world sleeping, except the owls and foxes and their companions. This seemed as natural as the sun setting and switching off lights. But nowadays we live in perpetual light, whole towns lit, shops advertising, security cameras searching … fear on the one hand, commerce and consumption on the other. Convenience but at what price, I ask?

Monday …

Last night we felt very comfortable with the power off and so today we are in no hurry to switch back on.

Kitchen is tidy(ish). It was fun last night washing up with water boiled over the wood fire, in the kitchen with one candle, memories of Ferry Farm.

Flasks of water still nice and warm from last night too so I am quick on the porridge, green tea and juice situation.

Very happy with the house and delighted the day is grey, windy and damp – shows what a good weekend it was – sun, stars, low wind. Very lucky.

Rachel needs to rest because of the antibiotics, so I am encouraging a relaxed day for many reasons.

Finished book last night around midnight. Excellent stuff. But late to bed. Also a roof tile seems to have broken. Awoken by sound of flapping plastic (rapid tapping on roof driving us mad). Tried to ignore but just couldn’t sleep – ended up having to half crawl out onto roof to fix.

Still no power on. POW continues, day 3 🙂

Lit fire for warmth and mood … last bits of wood, not enough to last the day, maybe 3 hours at most. There is some outside I can go cut up, later. First to cook lunch – lots of vegetables for health. Somewhere over the weekend (Friday night I guess, we had mackerel and rice with vegetables. Now we are vegetarian until I next go shopping.

Little desire to turn electricity back on except to send out a SurveyMonkey for the post power off folks and to let the outside world know we are ok. They could reach by mobile phone (unused over weekend, so still charged) but is nice to let everyone know and to check nothing major has happened to them. All seems quiet. Notice good news re Healthcare in US (I assume it is good news, having missed the debate).

We recognise now the importance of the power being turned off completely (for us anyway) like having no chocolate or cigarettes I guess. The temptation when the power is back on to “just do …” is strongly ingrained in us. It is so much easier to relax when you know the power is off. We talk of the tendency to overdo things unless breaks are forced upon us (even by ourselves – hell, who else is going to help us if we are otherwise dumb enough to overwork?) – the compulsion to be doing things, socially productive things – so we talked about things like meditation, yoga, rest, weekends – and the struggle in today’s society to ‘do nothing’. Even when physically inactive we are under pressure to be doing things – thinking – or imputing data (reading or watching TV etc.)

I measure the temp in the fridge: 10 deg C, the same as elsewhere in the house, except this one room we live in, with the fire. It is 19 deg C in here. Still drafts as the fire sucks air from under the door and through cracks in the walls but comfortable. 🙂

Sun comes out as it rolls over Stromness. The room temp reaches 21 degrees. Too hot 🙂

We decide the best way to welcome electricity back into our lives (excepting the 30 minutes earlier today when I briefly powered up to send out the survey) is to watch rugby! So we start up the internet, there are beeps and the fridge grumbles into life, and we get the good old BBC iplayer going, watch Wales, then Scotland.

The stove remains off. This big dinosaur of a beast that consumes electricity like the antithesis of a power station. For now, we prefer to be cool and eating frugally. Some day a wind turbine will power it for ‘free’ but not now, not this day.

I think back to the sounds of the weekend … the kettle singing a rising scale to tell me when the water neared boiling, no electric kettle has ever sounded so beautiful with its impatient roar … I think of the sunlight changing throughout the day but mostly as it faded gradually at dusk, or the shadows moving as we walked to bed with candle in hand, and no house has felt alive like that beneath the constancy of electric light. Don’t get me wrong, electricity is amazing, truly astounding and near magical – and precious … but it is not everything and we can have so much more if we have both light and dark … and all the shades in between. We can have electric guitars and synthesisers but there is still beauty and joy in violin and drum, the chirping of a skylark or the sighing of the wind.

I ask you to consider it all.

The next Power Off weekend is in June 19-20. I hope some of you will join us. See the Facebook Group for details.

Power Off weekend, March 20-21st / Spring Equinox

Turn the power off for 48 hours and enjoy a mini holiday at home with friends, games and traditional entertainment, cooking over a fire maybe.

sausages cooking on the open fire

Prepare yourself for a sudden ‘crisis’ by enjoying one of these Power Off Weekends, be prepared, save money and reduce your carbon footprint, whilst having fun again.

You will love being free of the internet, electric gadgets, work, noise and chores and instead breath a sigh of relief. Some of it may be challenging but we love challenges, right? Especially when only for a weekend. Give it a go, this March 20-21st, which coincides with the Equinox, start of Spring.

Playing games by candle light - like being children again

See all the posts on our Touchwood Project blog about the Power Off weekends – the radio interview clips, photos, 101 things to do without electricity and some feedback from people who tried it. Click on the yellow Power Off logo:

48 hours without electricity - adventure in your own home!

To sign up for the event, see more pictures or just support us, even if you cannot do it this time around, it is best to go to the Facebook Events, Group and Page. Three separate places on Facebook, which confuses me but if you go to the Events page and RSPV to attend, your name will be counted and we will be able to include you in pre-weekend information, questionnaires and tips.

Power Off Event – Facebook

If you join the group on Facebook we will know you support the idea – as too if you become a ‘fan’ on the Power Off Weekends Page. Please do all three – and let us know you care.

Power Off Weekend Group – Facebook

Power Off Weekends Page – Facebook

One more picture, from the mid-winter Power Off weekend:

Reading by natural daylight, keeping warm, enjoying life - flow