December 3, 2020

Make cheese or shoes? Five unusual skills learned in lockdown

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Media captionWas that a moo or a boo? Cows give their verdict on pilot-turned-trumpeter’s music

The surge in home baking during lockdown was apparent to anyone who went to a supermarket, where flour was often hard to find.

But what of the other, more unusual hobbies, people took up when confined to their homes?


Image copyright Rob Marchant
Image caption Rob Marchant and his daughter Chloe learned to make halloumi

Robert Marchant, a professor of tropical ecology at the University of York, and his vegetarian daughter Chloe decided to try their hand at making halloumi cheese when she ended up living back at home.

During the pandemic, Prof Marchant has continued his job leading research into environmental and social change in East Africa but made time to learn the art of cheesemaking to replenish the “halloumi mountain” which was being consumed in his house.

He said: “A rainy weekend combined with a great source of full-fat milk from a local farm that sells direct from an on-farm vending machine got me and my youngest daughter, Chloe, making halloumi.

He said their cheese went “from cow to griddle pan in less than 24 hours” and was “a surprising success and very tasty – and much softer than the shop-bought stuff”.


Image copyright Connor Butler
Image caption Connor Butler had hoped to learn a new skill but had not planned on trying taxidermy

When ecologist Connor Butler was offered a box of dead moles to study, including one with ginger fur, he thought it would be a unique opportunity to try his hand at taxidermy.

Mr Butler, a PhD student at the University of Southampton, should have been leading an expedition to survey amphibians in the Malaysian Peninsula but instead found himself in lockdown at his parents’ home in Oxfordshire.

He said: “I thought I’d learn a new skill. I’ll admit, I didn’t think that taxidermy would be that skill, but when you get offered a box of dead moles you don’t turn it down.”

Image copyright Connor Butler
Image caption The unusual-coloured mole was given to him by a friend

Mr Butler, who rarely eats meat and has only ever dissected animals at school, learned the process by following online tutorials.

“It really wasn’t quite as gruesome as you’d expect,” he said.

“The great thing about trying to taxidermy a mole is that no-one really knows what a mole looks like so they can’t judge how rubbish your attempt is.

“I’m glad I’ve got a new skill and a stuffed mole as some evidence for lockdown productivity, though I’m not sure exactly how much I’ll use this skill in the future.

“Saying that, I’ve still got two moles in the freezer next to the ice cream, tucked away for a rainy day.”


Image copyright James Lee
Image caption James Lee had never held a trumpet before April

During the summer months, flying instructor James Lee should be soaring the skies above Europe, helping private pilots build their confidence and experience of flying outside the UK.

Instead, he has been playing concerts to herds of cows with his new trumpet – an instrument he picked up for the first time two months ago.

Mr Lee, whose business Buddy’s Aviation operates out of Stapleford Aerodrome in Essex and Rochester, Kent, said being out of work had been “really tough”, however, he’d “always fancied being able to play” the trumpet but never got around to it.

He said: “I play the guitar and I did play the bass in a pub band many years back so I do have an understanding of music which has helped. Before the 26th of April I had never ever held a trumpet in my hands before.”

After learning the basics, he tried out his new skills in the wider world, quickly gaining a loyal following of cows. The local sheep, however, were harder to impress.

He said: “I’ve used YouTube for most of the instruction from just being able to blow a note to learning new songs. I can only really play in blocks of 10 minutes otherwise my lips go numb and the playing goes downhill.

“I’ve had no complaints from the neighbours yet and my partner has been very understanding, especially in the early days of just noise.”


Image copyright Jake Rowland
Image caption Jake Rowland has been hand-weaving fishing nets and carving axes

Archaeologist and PhD student Jake Rowland said he had always had a fascination for hunter-gatherer techniques so when he found himself in lockdown in Southampton, he decided to try his hand at hand weaving fishing nets, making axes from antlers and carving spoons using traditional methods.

Jake, who is a St John Ambulance volunteer, said: “I’ve had an interest in traditional crafts and wilderness living skills, particularly those used by hunter-gatherer groups around the globe, for as long as I can remember.

“I have always wanted to learn how to make a net, carve a spoon and make simple fishing hooks and lockdown has given me the time to learn those new things.”

Image copyright Jake Rowland
Image caption Jake Rowland also carved his own netting needles and weaved cord out of brambles (bottom right)

Mr Rowland said he learned the skills from YouTube and even fashioned his own traditional tools, including a netting needle carved from a piece of hazel.

“There are no plans to try out the nets or fishing hooks yet,” he said, “although the spoon has been put to work in the kitchen.”


Image copyright Denise Palmer
Image caption School teacher Denise Palmer had experimented with shoemaking before

High school teacher Denise Palmer filled her time at home by learning to hand make leather and fabric shoes.

Mrs Palmer continued to teach her design and technology pupils at St Modans in Stirling with the help of Google Classroom and wanted something to do that did not involve a computer screen.

She said: “I have spent most evenings and weekends making and remaking various types of shoes and I’m glad that I now have developed techniques which work.

“I’ve bought books, watched YouTube videos and practised, practised, practised. Like everything – the more you make, the better you become.”

Image copyright Denise Palmer
Image caption Denise Palmer has made shoes for friends and family

Mrs Palmer has already made shoes for her sister, daughter and friend. “I have a long list of requests to work through over summer,” she said.

“One day I’d like to teach others how to make their own shoes, maybe teach brides how to make shoes for their wedding.”