02 December 2014

not just for dogs

This makes me laugh all year round as I cycle up the canal- you learn quickly to ignore the rest of the graffitti. It seems a shame that the message has been overwritten by a danger sign, but on the other hand perhaps it adds a very relevant cautionary note for the time of year.

01 December 2014

defence against the dark

December, at last, possibly even the arrival of winter. Three weeks until the solstice, a few days more until Christmas, dark mornings, long nights. More time indoors with the radio on, listening or half-listening, depending on what else I'm up to.

There have been some sparkly little gems tucked away on that radio recently: the last reading from Margaret Forster's "My Life in Houses",  Jarvis Cocker's exaltation to us baby boomers to join in Molly Malone at the end of the nostalgic Singing Together programme (I couldn't because of a lump in the throat); throwaway words of wisdom here and there. Ruth Padel particularly caught my ear this morning on Start the Week when she said that making is our defence against the dark. How very perceptive.

Here then is a double offering to start this week, the season, and Advent. I stirred them up at the weekend but, unlike plum pudding, these were not for storing on top of the kitchen cupboard until Christmas day. First up, a pear and chocolate upside down cake. Very easy to assemble, some delicious bowl-licking, a bit more difficult to get the timing and texture exactly right. I left it to cool in the tin overnight - too long! - it was slightly soggy by morning. It tasted ok though I'd be inclined to add some spices to pep it up a bit. The second was an anglicised version of Smitten Kitchen's recipe. Well sort of. I made a crumble with no pie base, and added apples and dried apricots with the cranberries to temper the tartness adding no more than light sprinkling of sugar to the fruit.  I tend generally to be quite puritan with my crumble toppings but I've been converted by this one - butter, nuts, sugar, the lot. It's possibly the best I have ever tasted after years of searching.

I made double the quantity and there's some left in the fridge. I like to think of it as a defence against the dark. Deferred gratification can wait until another day, don't you think?

28 November 2014


District Line train going east at Three Mills
We have a small history of outings in the dark. The moon has been a spur, like the time we grabbed our toddler son in his PJs and a blanket and drove away eastwards to see a full harvest moon over Hadleigh Castle only to have to abandon a broken down car and take the train home like a family of raggle taggles. This time it was a mist  that drew us out . Nothing too spectacular, but enough to envelop and muffle and make you imagine that you're much further away from the Blackwall Tunnel Approach road than you are.

Three Mills at night
Somehow it wouldn't be too surprising if a ghost-horse-drawn something or other rolled over the cobbles.

Round the corner, the canal goes south towards the A11, the Olympic Park and the lights of the new builds.

You can just about see the shadows of construction site cranes topped by the red warning light. The mist somehow transforms the space into something mysterious and subsdued after the clanging daytime hubbub.

Climb up the ramp off the canal and turn right and you're back in the real world. A giant supermarket, a car park, late night shopping.

We wondered whether that might be magically transformed by the mist too. It wasn't, so perhaps we can just pretend for a moment or two that it wasn't there.

23 November 2014

the house of good intentions

In the house of good intentions mirrors lean against walls waiting to be painted and given a permanent home. A collection of window blinds is propped against a dresser while naked bodies flit swiftly in the half-light lest passers-by should look up rather than down at the uneven pavements. Receipts are carelessly bundled in bulldog clips waiting for monies to be claimed for the not inconsiderable expenses incurred providing tens, possibly scores, of cakes to cake stalls. Elsewhere, a canvas laundry bag lies collapsed in its stand as it overflows with clothes awaiting minor adjustments - a zip here, a hem there, a tweaking of princess seams, a toe to be darned. 

In the house of good intentions odd buttons collect in saucers and candle holders waiting to be sewn on to dresses and shirts. Dress patterns are tucked into cloth bags waiting to be laid out on the table once it is cleared of unread sections of the weekend newspapers or the long read. Unaired shirts are strewn over wooden frames until, too late, they become bone dry and too creased to smooth easily. Inside cupboards, balls of wool are tucked into ziplock bags for so long that the plans that prompted their purchase are entirely mislaid or forgotten. 

In the house of good intentions, unused seeds are poked into a tin at the bottom of the kitchen dresser until they are sorted in the spring when someone suddenly realises that it's warm enough to sow squashes or whatever.  On the top shelf of the kitchen cupboard, just above the section of cookery books that are used once or twice a year, a pile of yellowing clippings is poked inside a scrap book waiting to be sorted and glued while the kitchen range houses a stack of limp giveaway magazines awaiting their turn for the chop.

In the house of good intentions, flip chart paper is rolled and labelled, and booklets and pens tumble out of scrappy cardboard boxes until the imminent arrival of the school holidays signals the end of another round of entirely satisfying but tiring and time consuming volunteering. Someone drops hints about the hand-sewn Grayson Perry handkerchief he's still waiting for, and another wonders whether a pair of trousers can be mended.

While all this was going on, things were rather different outside the house of good intentions. Summer lingered on and on until the leaves finally started dropping from exhaustion after lighting up the streets and parks and fields night and day. Snails multiplied and got fat on brassicas in the balmy afternoons, the ivy flowers enticed bees in the sunshine, and exhausted blackbirds and robins sang confusedly. Nearly a million poppies appeared at the Tower and a woodcock (! yes, in Mile End) waited lazily in the road as I came home from seeing them at dawn. 

Constable's clouds fed an obsession with the sky, Mr Turner made me long for more and light and marshes and sea. Good intentions sent me off at dawn to walk through the streets, the park, along the canal, before breakfast. I discovered solitary men tucked away in quiet corners, packing away their space blankets into rucksacks, a woman in a remote and misty corner of the park standing along and singing aloud until she'd got it right, then walking off briskly.  I was captivated by the morning light from the Green Bridge, turned round, tripped into a hole and hobbled home with a sprained ankle. 

There she goes
We went to Sweden and found huge skies alive with red kites and buzzards, tidy plains and houses, a lazy sea. Back home, we bought apples and pears at Brogdale's Apple Day, then more and more again, stored potatoes of all shapes and colours, relished beetroot soup and sourdough. 

We watched the re-shaping of Wallasea Island being raised with Crossrail-excavated London clay, sand and gravel, brought by ship and by Hell Drivers across the land . And we discovered Oare Marshes, then Rye Harbour. 

Rye Harbour at dusk
We walked and walked while the weather was on our side and once the clocks turned back and the nights drew in we took advantage of good coffee and films at our local indie cinema, a good book, a good talk, inspiring learning opportunities. 

Back at the house of good intentions, the dust has shifted, the fire is laid, the list of good intentions has been mentally audited; some have been laid to rest. New good intentions are creeping in: today I'm thinking of a woolen plaid something after seeing The Homesman. And a blog post has at long last been written (with special thanks to Denise for her very kind prompt: yes, busy in a good way.)

02 September 2014

home and away: berries, birds, sun, cloud

This is how it goes in our house at the weekend: "The weather forecast says sunny intervals. There's a bit of a breeze, but it's not from the north east so it won't be cold. Where shall we go?" Our options are the tedium of the A12, or the chanciness of the Blackwall Tunnel. The latter normally wins out. Schlepping across London to go westward is not even under consideration. So within the hour, sensibly shod, and with a bottle of water, a bag of bananas, a cardi and an ordnance survey map on the back seat, we turned off onto the road to the Isle of Grain. But much as I'm drawn to Egypt Bay and Yantlet Creek, not least for the romance of the names, the lure of berries and raptors wins out and we turn off towards Cooling and Northward Hill. I know there will be berries there and this year more berries than I have ever seen. Plenty for the birds, plenty for us, even if it means more work on top of all those courgettes. It's greed that drives me on and after picking away, wandering randomly from patch to patch, there is something of Lady Macbeth about my stained hands. Not a good look.

It was one of those perfectly English days - warm enough to go sleeveless, cloudy enough not to get hot. We sat in a hide and look out across the marshes watching a small group of godwits, climbed the hills towards the woods, stopped to look out across the Thames towards the shiny industrial sites at the river's edge and, in the distant haze, the skyscrapers of London.

We walked through the woods and saw an oak and ash intertwined, a perfect union. Out in the open again, still high up, we spotted a pair of marsh harriers high in the sky, then another and two more - five in the sky together, then a sparrowhawk sped across a little lower. Back on the marshland trail we passed a planting of sunflowers left to dry, smaller birds were singing, warblers perhaps, and there were scatterings of small puffballs on the paths, and on the edge of paths giant brown (unidentified) funghi.

Back on the road, we stopped in Rochester for a cup of tea and a scone, bought a workshirt in a charity shop waiting to close, briefly enjoyed the architectural charms of the high street. Nearly home, we  squeezed in a visit to the allotment. The sun was lower but warm and we cropped sweetcorn, a late rush of runner beans, some half ripe tomatoes to add to the pile, a couple of cucumbers, and mercifully few courgettes.  Supper was sorted.

Officially it was the last day of summer. Unofficially it was a most  perfect day and I need to remember it.

01 September 2014

home and away: the kitchen table

Any allotment holder will know that as little as a week away from your plot in the summer months can cause havoc. Given the right conditions those female courgette flowers metamorphose into giant fruits that exhaust the plant and leave it barren for the rest of the season. It happened to us while we were away and we're still playing catch-up. As I sat at the free corner of the kitchen table I surveyed the bounty amid the ephemera of everyday life:

- the radio and lamp
- two glass bowls of ripened and ripening plum tomatoes, variety unknown as they were bought from a market stall, the slugs having eaten all of my plantlets
- four fat cucumbers
- a heap of giant courgettes, only slightly diminished in size by their inclusion in the four jars of plum chutney sitting in another corner of the table, and immobilised by the engineering efforts of a spider that comes out at night to examine the contents of the enormous web that stretches from table to chair to window frame to a short rope hanging from the kitchen cupboard (don't ask)
- a bowl of defrosted Seville oranges, evicted from the freezer that really must be defrosted to make space for an epic bakeathon coming up at the end of the month
- a glass jar, flowerless
- a sad looking bowl of fruit
- two teapot stands and one teapot
- two jars of sourdough starter, a flour shaker, and a very decent home made loaf
- a small pile of fluorescent post-it notes, some scribbled dates on the top one to transfer to my diary
- a pile of unread Guardian reviews, copies of the Cook supplement, Dan Lepard's Short and Sweet and my cookery scrap books. My intentions are good at least.
- a paper bag that contained some fat quarters of fabric, now washed, and destined for another quilt that will come in second place to the baby it's destined for; plus a rag of fabric that has to go into the cupboard with the rest of the shoe cleaning cloths
- two mortars containing pepper and sea salt

Surrounded by all this stuff, I resolve to tidy up, well at least enough to make some more space for for us to sit and eat. But the big clear-up has to wait until I've managed to squeeze in a few more outings to make the most of these last, lovely days of warmth and sunshine...before I go on holiday again.

The spider doesn't seem to mind.

12 August 2014

things about the seaside

We've spent a week at the seaside, and I'm missing it.  Missing the sky and the clouds.

All things stripey. The seaside is clearly the place that stripes belong. A stripey dress or t- shirt just doesn't have the same cachet at home.

Missing the light in the morning, and the promise of a dip in the sea in the afternoon. Those delicious first steps when you wonder whether you really want to cool down quite so much, and then after a few minutes that delicious feeling of moving water all round you.

Missing the promise of adventure, even if we did nothing about it.

Missing dog spotting and people spotting. This year we were looking out for men in pink shorts (score 5) and trousers (score 10); any shade of pink from strawberry to raspberry to rhubarb crumble. Missing the quick crossword on the beach and a game of Linkee in the evening; keeping cool with Arctic Chill and Hypothermia and Christmas Pudding ice cream.

Don't get me wrong. It's nice to be home, at least once the bags have been unpacked, the cats fed and the allotment watered. But that spending time somewhere completely different, creating short term comforting routines that will only last a week with people you want to spend time with is so very, very refreshing - and one of the best birthday gifts ever.

25 July 2014

slow bread, fast cakes

A certain fondness has developed between me and my sourdough starters. Four jars, each with varying degrees of acidity, are still alive and kicking. Just like babies, they each smell slightly different and I'm not averse to a quick sniff just for the pleasure of catching the scent. It's all quite addictive in a slow, relaxed way. I've yet to perfect the technique though. My first attempts using Dan Lepard's method (his book Short and Sweet is more detailed) made a chewy crumb with a pronounced flavour, but would not rise very much and hardened up very quickly. My latest trial, using Hugh Fearnley-Whitenstall's "sponge" method" but Dan Lepard's "folding" technique is much softer, less strongly flavoured, but a better keeping loaf - and a little burnt. Waiting for the sponge to bubble and the dough to rise and re-prove takes up the best part of a day - making a good sourdough it seems is as much about the pleasure of deferred gratification as it is about the all round sensual experience of delivering a tasty loaf. I can't help thinking it's good for the soul. And when it happens, all in good time, my perfect loaf will be bigger, crustier, with a slightly waxy, open texture. Patience, patience.

I only wish cake making was quite as fulfilling just now, for we are in cake stall season and this means hygiene, volume, efficiency. The joy of making cakes is fading fast for I find I am in a baking rut, relying on the old favourites that I know I can bake in batches and rely on very time - rock cakes for big hands, fairy cakes for little ones, banana bread or carrot cake for those who see these as the healthy option, cup cakes for those with a sweet tooth, apple cake for the fruity. It has to be quick, able to travel well, easy to cut, cream-free, affordable for those who can't pay Broadway Market prices because cakes for all is our motto. So Delia is my bible, Nigella my comfort, Rachel Allen a distraction, Mary Berry my penance, and inspiration my prayer.

I'm reaching the point that I can't look at let alone eat a cake for pleasure. Help is clearly required.

24 July 2014


The vis insita, or innate force of matter, is a power of resisting by which every body, as much as in it lies, endeavours to preserve its present state, whether it be of rest or of moving uniformly forward in a straight line. (Isaac Newton, Principia Mathematica)

For those of you who may have paid attention during physics or applied maths lessons, this is a description of intertia, with thanks to Sir Isaac.

I don't quite know how it happened. It's something I'd been conscious of for a while, but this time it just sort of crept up - an inability to get going, a positive desire to lay low, an avoidance of commitment of any sort whatsoever. And in this case there was even very little moving forward in a straight line unless you include getting out of bed in the morning and eating porridge for breakfast, made by someone else.

Then the stars moved into a different alignment, or something like that, and things started to shift. My quiz-team chum offered two spare tickets for Glastonbury late on the Friday afternoon - would my son like them? Well, yes, but how would he get there in such short order? Bucket lists were mentioned - I don't have one - maybe I should. I had never, ever been to a "festival" other than those in the local parks. Yes, I said. let's go.

The road to Glastonbury, at least  once you get past the Hammersmith Flyover, the M4 and M5, is a pleasure. That first glimpse of Stonehenge is magic. And the red kite swooping down to feast on some roadkill at close range was rather amazing. Then you twist and turn around A road this and A road that sans satnav and it's all a delightful adventure. And that's how, once we arrived, I got to fall over a guy rope into the mud about 5 minutes after arriving while looking up at the buzzards circling the site, walk for miles, and see Dolly.

And things have been on the up ever since, albeit in a modest mid-lifeish way. But that's another story or two.

07 June 2014


We've had a run of lovely fine weather these last few days and, perversely, it's been a bit of a strain. Firstly because there always seems to be an obligation to be out and about when it's fine, at least in my mind; I put that down to having to catch up after working indoors for too many years. But secondly, and more currently, because the blackbirds have built a nest in our holly tree. Maybe it's because each of our three cats are black that the birds hadn't cottoned on to the fact that there were three potential killers around. So it has been totally nerve wracking  with the constant and exhausting alarm call of the male bird each time one of the cats goes out, adding to his burden of having to find food for the nestlings. Apart from some initial curiosity, including a half hearted and failed attempt to climb into the holly tree by one cat (ha, ha! it wasn't a bad choice on that score then), the cats have ignored the racket. The Mitten Cat continued to pursue her inexorable search for the perfect warm spot in the garden, mostly on next door's polished black granite slabs, and the Fluffy one just stretched out on the baked asphalt roofing of the other side's garage, as per usual. The little cat just slept indoors all day, recovering I think from a luffing by the look of her eye. None of this stopped the blackbird getting into a parental frenzy that put my nerves on edge so much that I had to seize the creatures and lock them indoors to be driven mad instead by their mewling to be released.

Just listening to the rain this morning has been, then, an interlude of great peace. It's stopped now, and so I think have the alarm calls. The fledgelings must have moved on to a neighbouring space.

Paws crossed.