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The Aquarium


I didn't really write about the aquarium as I set it up- partially in case it all went horribly wrong! But I've had it running for over a year now and it has developed into a very stable ecosystem that is very easy to look after.

Tank setup
I had a tank specially made to my odd size requirements, so that it fit on the kitchen worktop in the alcove made by removing a chimney breast. It is 900mm long, 40mm deep and a very tall 600mm in height. This is a double-height tank, made from 10mm glass and with bracing round the top. I looked into making my own, but quotes for a custom tank were the same price as I could buy the glass for.

Before installing the tank I finished the wall of the alcove- there's dense rockwall insulation that is sound insulation as the other side of that chimney breast is next doors house, then a sheet of ply. I ran pipes from above the height of my fish tank to down below the kitchen worktop- cutting holes in the wall I didn't mind, but I didn't want to put holes in the worktop. I also put two sockets in, one behind the kitchen units for the pump, and one above the fish tank for lights. This gave me lots of choice! Most people don't reorganise their homes around the fish tank, but I'm not most people!

The ply walls were painted in waterproof kitchen paint, and the pipes run behind the wall- I used 15mm plastic plumbing pipe with pushfit fittings.

It was to be a Walstad style tank so I started off by buying a bag of ordinary topsoil. This was put into a bucket and rinsed with tap water several times- the organic matter floats and can be tipped off. I spread the topsoil out on a tarp and left it there for a few days, alternatively it was rained on and soaked, then dried out in the sun. This was mostly because I was lazy, but it also serves to remove further potential floating particles from the soil, and gives time for organic matter in the soil to convert to stable humus (as happens in compost).

The following weekend the tank was put in place on a sheet of styrofoam in my kitchen, and the topsoil added. Lots of washed small gravel followed. The tank was partially filled with tap water, then siphoned out again to take all the cloudiness from the gravel out- it doesn't matter how well I wash gravel, there's always some dust remaining.

Some more water was added, and then the plants - it is much easier to add plants to a tank with only a small amount of water in, versus a full tank (especially when the tank is deeper than your arm is long). All my plants were donated and I can't name any of them. I plated the tall stem ones at the back, and the other shorter looking ones in the midground. I tried to leave the front clear for ease of cleaning, but my tank isn't very deep from front to back. I added some bogwood (purchased from an aquarium store) and rocks from the garden. This was all left to settle whilst I sorted out the plumbing.

I have a massive external canister filter (JBL 901 Cristolprofi) that lives underneath the kitchen worktop in a cupboard, plugged into it's own socket in the back of the cupboard. It has push-on fittings for 16mm (13mm internal) aquarium tubing, which fits perfectly into the Toolstation push-fit plumbing fittings (meant for 15mm pipe). So I could interface directly between the two types of pipe using only standard plumbing fittings. The fittings for inside the tank were a problem as they all assume that your pipe needs to go over the side of the tank and down- but mine doesn't, it needs to go up to the plumbing point on the wall! So I ended up with big loops of flexible tubing, which I still haven't replaced and fixed.

The water went out of the tank through a grill-fitting, and then through the plumbing fittings to the filter. On the return from the filter I put an inline heater (200W Hydor), then through the plumbing pipe to the top of the tank, where I fitted a spray bar.

The tank was filled with water and the filter turned on. Everything at this point was chlorinated tap water so I left it running at room temperature for a few days to offgas, then added some prepackaged aquarium bacteria to seed the filter and turned on the lights.

The tank wasn't the full height of the alcove in the kitchen- partly to enable ease of cleaning and because any taller a tank would need massively thick glass and be prohibitively expensive. Instead to use up the space I hung perforated pond-style plant pots to the glass at the back of the tank, and planted some tropical looking houseplants. The tank provides brilliant tropical conditions, humidity and plentiful water, and the fish and shrimp live in the roots. This makes my tank more paludarium than just aquarium.

The lights have a post of their own. I couldn't find any aquarium lights that I liked and that would play nicely with the electronics already in the house (such as the Raspberry Pi that controls the heating and things). The nicest light was the Kessil, but they're extortionately expensive. Many LED lights didn't seem to want to tell you the Kelvin temperature (ie colour) of the lighting, or the PAR or lumens produced by the light fixture. So I decided to make my own.

After running the tank for about six weeks and letting the filter bacteria settle in I purchased my first fish! The ubiquitous neon tetra, and some peppered corydoras. I left these for a fortnight- checking water quality often, before adding more fish over the period of a few months, to give the filter plenty of time to catch up with the increased bioload.

I now have 5 neon tetras, 6 glowlight danios, 3 five-band barbs, 5 bronze corydoras, 4 peppered corydoras, 8 galaxy rasboras, 3 otocinclus and a billion red cherry shrimps. Also snails, but at least two species of snails came free with my plants. The barbs are the shyest, despite being the biggest fish. The neons are certainly the bravest and hang out at the front of the tank. I see quite a lot of the rasboras too- they're tiny fish but have brilliant coloration. The corydoras are the little bulldozers of the tank- leaving all the gravel in mounds after cleaning it isn't a problem as the corys will soon smooth it all out.

Cleaning a fish tank involves siphoning out 25% of so of the water every week or so and replacing with fresh, appropriate temperature dechlorinated water. Initially this involved a lot of pipes and buckets, but I soon got bored of that. The current water-change job involves siphoning out 40 litres or so- using a bulb siphon with a pipe on the end that goes directly to the waste pipe, I do this manually to have a good dig around the gravel and clean it out. The gravel cleaner has a grill on so I can't suck up any fish of shrimp. Water being refilled into the tank goes from a fitting plumbed in behind the nearby dishwasher, through a large sediment and carbon filter to remove pollutants and chlorine, into the return line of the external filter- so the cooler water goes into the inline heater and is heated to a reasonable temperature. The water enter the tank through a spray bar, which helps remove compressed gas in the water as it has been under pressure. The whole system has a 3.8 litre per minute flow limiter on, so even in winter I don't overwhelm the heater and over-cool the tank. So for a clean I siphon some water out, then turn on a tap and wait for the tank to fill up sufficiently- it takes a few hours but doesn't require any intervention (though I do tend to sit and watch it). Every few months I undo the filter and clean out the media by swishing it around in siphoned-out aquarium water, and scrub the algae from the cobbles. The front glass is cleaned using a magnetic scrubber, but the back and side glass I leave to the otocinclus.

Problems in the last year
The water being too hard. The tank didn't have a lid initially, because then the plants couldn't grow out of the top. This meant water evaporated, concentrating the salts in the remaining water. This was easy to fix with a lid- and coincided with the time I got additional animals in the household, so a lid was necessary anyway. The lid is made from sheets of 6mm acrylic, with sections cut out for the above-tank plants. The plants grow through egg-crate mesh to there isn't anywhere that excited kittens could get into the water.

Bluegreen algae- the tank chemistry rippled at some point, leading to an outbreak of hair and bluegreen algae. These both fixed themselves after I turned the lights on for fewer hours- the plants under the bright lights were powering through all the carbon dioxide available in the tank, causing the pH to go up during the day. Once out of CO2 the plants stopped photosynthesizing and the algae could get a hold. Reducing the number of bright-light hours so that the lights were off in the middle of the day (when I wasn't in to see the fish tank anyway) to even out the carbon dioxide and oxygen production worked very quickly and the offending algae was outcompeted.

Shrimp living in the filter- red cherry shrimp breed prolifically, and especially enjoyed living and breeding in the external filter. Whilst this made for great shrimp numbers and a brilliant cleanup crew for the tank, it made cleaning the filter take hours- as I had to recuse lots of teeny tiny baby shrimp from it before I could clean it. I fixed this by putting a coarse sponge over the filter intake pipe so the shrimp could no longer get in. I still have plenty of shrimp so they still breed in the tank. This also works for stopping the snails getting into the filter and breeding, and means I can clean the filter way less often (but I do have to clean the intake sponge every week).

Note: aquariums are really hard to get decent photos of.

Cheese Making at Hartingtons, Bakewell.


An introduction to soft cheese making with Phil Heler.
The venue of Hartington’s is really cool, it is an upstairs loft room of an old renovated mill- with views out over Bakewell and the Peak District. The room has been set up with the best kitchen you've ever seen- loads of space, several sinks and induction hobs all with plenty of room around.

We made the most time consuming recipe first- a camembert. Followed by a simple lemon soft cheese. All equipment and ingredients were provided- to the extent that you were given an apron to wear and didn't even have to do your own washing up! Once used your implements were whisked away to be cleaned and sterilised by the staff, leaving you to do the important bits like stirring your cheese curds. All instructions were clear and easy to follow, and sprinkled with a wealth of knowledge regarding industrial cheese processing and the history of cheese around the world.

Then it was time for lunch- a locally sourced meal of bread, ham, smoked salmon and salad, and of course cheese! I particularly liked the mushroom pate.

After lunch we finished off the lemon cheese and made a cows-milk mozzarella. Less success with this one as it is really hard to make mozzarella stretchy! It still tastes good though.

The camembert cheese is maturing- it takes about 4 weeks. The mozzarella went onto pizza the very same evening and was swiftly eaten.

And to round the day off we had a cheese tasting, again all of locally sourced. They included quite a few I'd never tried before- such as a very tangy Red Leicester (Which is usually a very bland and unassuming cheese in supermarkets) from Long Clawson Dairy, Peakland Blue from the Hartington Creamery near Buxton (very local!), a Cheshire cheese, a Lancashire cheese, and many more. When I say I like cheese, what I really mean is that I like cheddar. Red Leicester and Cheshire and Lancashire cheeses are also good, but my favourite is cheddar. I don't really like blue cheeses. I can tell you all about different kinds of cheddar though! The more mature the better.

Cheese making at Hartington’s was a relatively expensive course compared to my usual ones, and I umm-ed and ahh-ed over whether to go for ages. However it works out far cheaper to do the more costly course locally, than to drive for several hours and need accommodation.

I would do more courses at Hartington’s, I've got my eye on a charcuterie course.

More wildlife


The problem with having a wildlife friendly garden is that it sometimes it is the kind of wildlife you rather you didn't have.

I'm usually lazy and leave the food out all night, as 'nothing can get in the run'. However, with an impressive amount of tunnelling- they've obviously gotten in!

Tonight they may find that suddenly the cats can get in too! And that the food has gone!