31 December 2008


So what did 2008 bring then? Lot's of flowers obviously, here in the garden, in the wormery, on the allotment, from John's gardens, peeking over walls, at the seaside, from the market, on my favourite skirts. Favourites? Even though I love my sunflowers and dahlias it may be the furcraea longaeva because it was so spectacular. Or perhaps the more modest yellow horned poppy or white foxglove.

Lots of vegetables too, despite a slow start and such rubbish soil to grow them in. Still yielding even in these cold days - romanesco, mizuna and rocket in the top right hand corner were snapped just a couple of days ago. Hard choice for fave - maybe the six tomatoes for Emma's fabulous Emsworth Village Show. Or perhaps the yellow sunburst courgettes because they are so sassy.

There were many trips to the seaside too. And walks along the river and canals. I notice my new black shoes got in on the act; and plenty more shoes - lost and found - appeared on the pages here through the year (obsessive?). There was an archaeological dig, museums and art galleries visited, books read, tentative steps towards knitting and sewing again, inspired by you.

Then of course there was the baking, the marmalade making, the scrumping, the stock stirring, the colcannon fetish, the hundreds of rock cakes for the WI.

And there seemed to be a great deal of beer drinking (Shepherd Neame) and champagne and various cocktails. Cats lost and found ( not this one, who just happened to get in on the act here). There were three funerals to get through, two weddings, and a new baby to celebrate. A Masters to work on which demanded thirst quenching and chocolate eating, walks in the garden to admire the spiders, towels wrapped round heads and plenty of sleep. A celebration will follow another day.

There were trees growing in unlikely places, concrete pavements, autumn leaves, limestone and granite, bollards and groynes. Walks in the countryside, in parks, in back streets and empty corners of London.

So here's to an inspiring 2009, lots more to do and celebrate.

24 December 2008


I've been wondering how to handle the final door of the advent calendar. Should it be the donkey? It might have been, but they were tucked up in their stable when I went to the farm. Or perhaps the Christmas Cake topped off with fruit - to cover the scorching (yes, despite my efforts). I need not have worried about it, because as often happens, the solution presents itself.

We are not a family prone to traditions, though I would be the first to admit that I envy those mothers who are consistent enough to maintain or create new ones for their families - the sprinkling of fairy dust, each child choosing a new bauble each year for the tree, being allowed to open just one present - which is always new pyjamas - before going to bed on Christmas Eve. If you don't count the chaotic running around for cream for the pudding, we have only one consistent tradition - the lighting of the Christmas candle by the youngest in the house and putting it in the window for everyone to see.

And here it is. With thanks to you all for the gift of your comments, for sharing your stories and work, your pictures and sounds. And with all good wishes for your Christmas.
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23 December 2008

case for an angel

Here is part of Antony Gormley's Case for an Angel I,, currently to be found at the British Museum.

I went to my uncle's funeral and also met for the first time his beautiful baby grandson, so it seems to be just right for today.

22 December 2008


Almost entirely home grown - ring made of prunings from the fig tree tied together with that tarry string, which gives it a lovely scent as you brush against the door; ivy taken from the garden; achillea cut in the autumn from one of John's school gardens.

His work, not mine. He's also decked the halls with boughs of ivy. Fa la la, fa la la...

21 December 2008


I was determined to have a robin post before Christmas. We knew that we might find one at the allotment and we discussed whether we might tempt them with a worm reward, but how could I sacrifice my backyard wriggly wrigglers when they have been so good to me? So we went down to the plot, turned over some soil and left a spade for them to come and pose, all part of a robin's job description as any gardener will know.

There were hundreds of magpies and pigeons but not a robin in site. It was getting cold, so we packed up and started back.

Then we heard him, up in a tree.

Singing his head off.

You might even be able to hear him on this.(No idea how to get this to turn the right way up),

It's amazing how such a little thing can make you so happy.

20 December 2008

warm front

It has been almost warm here to day. Good thing that today's snowman is made of wool. Courtesy of Prick Your Finger, our lovely local wool shop and haberdashers where I did some Christmas shopping yesterday. Absolutely brilliant.

Come 'dasher...

19 December 2008

dulce domum

Having set myself the task of creating an advent calendar, I've been thinking about what you might find in a traditional one and I seem to remember things like drums, soldiers and rocking horses. As I started to organise the cleaning up the house, the sweeping, washing and tidying, it brought to mind the toys that I loved as a child - a small broom, dustpan and brush painted blue, a washing machine that worked with a kind of wind up mechanism that agitated the wate; there may even have been a sewing machine. There was definitely a small doll's house one year - toys all designed to prepare me for wifehood and domesticity (failed on at least one count, then). I wanted to try to capture some of this so I dropped into the V&A's Museum of Childhood when I was out shopping, hoping to see the collection of doll's houses. Today, I was waylaid by the childsized ironing boards, cookers, pots and pans and tea sets and a small exhibition of children's clothes. Oh, the pleasure of procrastinatory activity.

I was disapointed not to be able to snap any of the doll's houses, but then later on in the day I came across a small display of buildings made by children as part of one of the museum's outreach projects - there was a Canary Wharf and a Gherkin and this imaginative confection here, acting as a reminder of both domestic duty and the indulgence of Christmas.

If you are familiar with Kenneth Graham's Wind in the Willows, you'll remember the chapter where Mole is in the woods with Ratty and catches the scent of his home. He has been away for a while and is overwhelmed with longing to find it. When they finally enter, it is dusty and neglected and Mole is discouraged and embarassed but after a while they find a bottle of beer, carol singers arrive and food is prepared. Sentimental? Yes, a little, and the best bit of the book.
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18 December 2008


These lovely oxen are Irish Moiled, a rare breed, found on Mudchute Farm. Perfect for our Advent Calendar

When I was trying to find out some more about the breed, I also discovered that to moil is to slave or toil. I am pleased to say that my moiling is over for a while and I'm on holiday.

Hoo-bloomin - rah.
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17 December 2008

strung out

I know that the tradition is for bows and shiny ribbon at this time of year, but surely no self respecting gardener could resist a ball of string behind the door of their advent calendar? This is very finest tarred garden twine, so you can satisfy two addictions at once if you are both a string and a tar lover.

Wrap up your presents (maybe with something a little less smelly). Plan out your bean rows. Start to relax.

16 December 2008


Those who have been opening the doors on this Advent Calendar since the beginning of December may recognise this shelf. Yes, the reclaimed recycled shelves are still waiting in the kitchen to go down to the cellar. Not only are they still there, but young John populated them with a heap of stuff that had no permanent home. They'll still be there next Christmas at this rate.

Back to the calendar. Today's offering is a trio of Christmas cacti, bought at Columbia Road Flower Market this Sunday - modest little succulents with the added excitement of not knowing whether they will flower or not in time for the holiday.

It may happen, it may not. And it's been a bit like that here for the last couple of weeks. There is not a present bought, a card sent, a floor hoovered, a decoration put in place. Other things have taken precedence. And to try to get back on a more even keel, I've just been at "An Evening of Music and Readings for the Festive Season" with the Giltspur Singers, an amateur choir of impressive accomplishment. Now I feel a little less prickly, ready to tackle the challenge of putting my house in order. I just need a good night's sleep, or two, a plan of action and I'll be away. Preferably not in a manger or a straightjacket.

15 December 2008

orange essence

Can you put a scent in an Advent Calendar? I distinctly remember birthday cards that smelt of roses when I was a child, so I suppose you can. In which case I am going to put in essence of organges - the quintessential scent of a warm kitchen in winter.

I can smell it now and with the kitchen door open it will rise up the stairs and fill the whole house. Maigret is on the radio and I'm torn between a glass of dry oloroso and a glass of whiskey just to add to the indulgence.

Tomorrow the grate will be full of ash and there will be even more dust on the mantelpiece but when it smells as lovely as this, well, quite frankly, who cares.

14 December 2008

under my nose

I've been hoping that I might find a reindeer, but didn't think I'd manage to find one so close to home. Blur due to galloping.

Reindeer illumination, around the corner, Mile End.
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13 December 2008

the fragrance of excellent women

Well, I did rouse myself this morning but did not have much time for a full bakefest. My contribution to the East End WI tea stall today was a small tray of chocolate nut fudge, recipe courtesy of Nigella - I used the walnuts I had in the cupboard instead of pistachios. Very quick, very easy, very very chocolatey.

After a frazzling week, a little bit of melting, mixing and moulding was incredibly soothing. And I have clearly missed my vocation as a tea-rista because I find the chat, the stirring and the serving behind the counter such a contrast to my normal working days that it is utterly absorbing and relaxing - even though today I managed a spectacular fall down the stairs, sending a plate of Welsh cakes flying with such a crash it brought the church hall to a standstill. That the women who come along manage to find the time to make cakes, hold down jobs, raise families, organise the caravan of urns and plates and teabags and come up with creative ideas for communal get-togethers never ceases to amaze me.

So behind the door of the calendar today, some lovely baking and the fragrance of excellent women.

12 December 2008

russians in urbis

I am so tired today that I am almost incoherent. I did something that I have never done before - I bought and cooked pre-prepared microwaveable vegetables from M&S . I cannot believe it. And I could not even get my act together to find something new for the calendar. So here we have my recycled russians in urbis hitting the tourist trail.

Taking in some culture at the Tate.

And some sea air.

I'd quite forgotten what fun we had.

I'm supposed to be making some cakes for the WI cake stall tomorrow - is it too late to go back to M&S do you think?

11 December 2008

baa humbug

It is probably a bit early to be posting sheep, but I've been thinking about them because, well, we have to have sheep in the advent calendar, don't we. This lady comes from Mudchute Farm. I just love the bits of dried grass and moss in her fleece -and that stoical look on her face. That fleece looks so enticing too. My son used to sleep on a lambskin as a baby - I used to be able to put him down on it and it would work like magic, soothing him into sleep.

A new baby boy arrived in the family today and we are all delighted to have the good news.

Baby boys and sheep. You can't really get more Chrstmassy than that.
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10 December 2008

british warm

The biggest surpise today is that it has taken as long as this to post some beer in the advent calendar.

Strong, sweet, the equivalent of a cup of British Warm. Just what we need tonight.
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09 December 2008

one turtle dove

All through the days leading up to Christmas there are carol singers in Trafalgar Square. I stopped off on my way home and it was the turn of the National Deaf Children's Society. This choir was a little different because they were signing to pre-recorded carols, so it was very lively, especially one very enthusiastic child in the front row, full of zest. The twelve days of Christmas was particularly energetic, as you might imagine.

Here we have one turtle dove, courtesy of my work colleague, Tim, who can sign - and has taught me one or two things.

If you have never seen a signing choir, I'd recommend you look out for one. Poetry in motion.

08 December 2008

whitechapel bells

We've been spending quite a lot of time this weekend at the London Hospital taking turns to sit with a very poorly uncle. I felt like giving up on the advent calendar - there were not many opportunities for happy snapping. But I did come across this substantial bell standing on a shelf in the lobby. There is no clapper inside and nothing as far as I could see explaining where it comes from, though John tells me that it comes from the original 18th C hospital.

Perhaps the bell came from the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, a couple of hundred yards along the road to the east. Some very grand bells including Big Ben and the original Liberty Bell were made there as well as some of the bells from "Oranges and Lemons" - the bells of Stepney (St Dunstan's) and the great bells of (St Mary-Le) Bow.

Do the bells really ring out for Christmas Day? I'll be checking this year.

07 December 2008

stirred up and steamed

I did manage to stir up the fruit and spices with the brandy last weekend. It's been stirred up a few times this week. The smell is lovely. Cardamom - up there with nutmeg in the strictly come spicing stakes as far as I'm concerned. I love it.

Here is the recipe - fat free Christmas Pudding, courtesy of Frances Bissell.

Mix, steep, add remaining ingredients, pile into an oiled 3 pint pudding basin, cover in oiled greaseproof paper, steam for three hours.

Tie up in clean paper. Look forward to Christmas Day.

06 December 2008


I thought it might be too early for holly but I've just read in Grigson's Englishman's Flora that "no doubt a function of holly inside the house was to deal with house goblins, the Robin Goodfellow, the Brownie, the Hobthrust etc and keep them down in the Christmas season." Can't say that I've noticed any around but as our decorations won't be going up for a while yet, perhaps a little sprig might be in order.

Picture taken at St Patrick's Cemetery, Leytonstone.

05 December 2008


We keep asking each other what the funny smell is, then remember that the paperwhites are blooming in the kitchen.

They are among the many things that my mum "doesn't agree with " - these include camping holidays for unmarried couples, caesarian sections and credit cards. Her views on paperwhites have something to do with daffodils belonging to spring. She has not seen these yet, but if she does, I'll be waiting for her to comment.

Sorry, Mrs B. We like paperwhites in winter in this house. And they're officially in my Advent calendar.

04 December 2008

spruced up

It's been busy in Trafalgar Square this week. I noticed this on Monday morning.

Lorries , men in high-viz jackets and cranes.

And by lunchtime this lonely looking tree.

Tonight on my way home, the square was dark but filled with people, a band playing somewhere in the corner, the crowd joining in Good King Wenceslas. The sound of trumpets - or was it cornets? - announced speeches from grand people, mayors and the like. We heard that this was the 62nd tree of friendship from the people of the City of Oslo to the citizens of London, lit up on the first Thursday of December. A present for me and millions of others from the forests of Oslo.

I've never knowingly met a Norwegian before, but the lady next to me in the crowd told me she was from Oslo. She had lived here for years but this was the first time that she and her daughter had come to see the lighting of the tree. Me too. She talked about hiking in the forests and the way that they only had white lights on their Christmas trees in Norway. We both urged them to get on with the speeches as our feet were cold and wet.

As the lights went on and the crowd cheered, we both found ourselves rather moved and a little tearful. We shook hands as we parted and wished each other a Happy Christmas.

Then off we all went.

I give you the most famous Christmas Tree in the world (probably).

03 December 2008

three hot bottles

I have just watched the BBC weather forecast. Have you ever noticed how excited the weather people get when extreme (for us) weather is forecast? The weatherman looked positively gleeful when reporting temperatures just above freezing, possible fog, frost and snow in the north. He waved his arms theatrically across the map almost conjuring up a spell of snowy storms. "This year we are finally having a proper winter" he smiled, somewhat maniacally.

I'm not unsympathetic. I love a bit of weather. Unfortunately, though I hate being cold. When I get home, I take my outdoor coat off and put on my indoor jacket. And sometimes a scarf too, until my temperature rises. I also like to have my bed warmed before I get in. And while I would very much like to be the owner of a cashmere hot water bottle warmer, I can't help feeling that only the truly tough can deal with the raw rubbery ridges of a naked HWB.

A few nights ago, I pulled back the covers to put in my HWB and found that John had already put in two HWBs so I ended up with three. Now, who could fail to be delighted by such treasures discovered behind the covers of their bed or the door of their advent calendar on a cold winter's night?

02 December 2008

three white bottles

It may seem rather odd to have three bottles of milk in an Advent calendar, but I think they merit some attention. I was lying in bed wondering what the time was. It was dark. There was a single blackbird singing. A train went by. Then the familiar sound of the milkman's float, the creak of the gate and the clunking of glass on the doorstep. So I knew that despite the dark, morning had arrived.

We're lucky that we still have a milkman, even if he only comes every other day (Sundays off). I know we could go to the corner shop or the supermarket and it would probably be cheaper, but I like the idea of someone being around in the early morning, seeing what is going on.

Anyway, I like milk bottles, and those bottle shaped sweets, so they're in .

01 December 2008


I thought I'd try to warm myself up for Christmas, set myself a little project to create a pictorial Advent calendar. I thought it might make me focus a little more. So here we have day one - the Pandoro and the hazelnut stars. All of which are waiting on this set of shelves to go down into storage in the cellar. So are the shelves.

You see, I noticed that my neighbour had put these out for recycling and I thought they would go very nicely in my cellar and would encourage me to tidy it out and throw some stuff out. Except there's no room in the cellar until we do actually throw some stuff out. Get the picture? So now we have the shelves waiting in the kitchen by the door, a holding bay for all the things that are meant to go downstairs. And instead of hiding my Christmas supplies away, they are now on display with anything else that needs to be taken its proper resting place. Of course, the temptation is too much. Which is why there used to be a full box of hazelnut stars and now there is only one left. And I am going to eat that as soon as I finish writing this.

This just won't do at all.

27 November 2008

lightening up

November is never an easy month and this year it seems to have been long and gloomy and more redolent of loss and decay than it normally is. So here is something a little lighter. It comes from the window of a little newsagent /stationers shop that I rather like in Greenwich.

I love reading home made adverts,. They range from the mundane to the oblique and totally outrageous. You never know what treasures you are going to find there. These are just two of the spoofs posted by a local comedian/ artist. There was also a great "luxury caravan" holiday ad with accompanying polaroid of a 60's brown and buff caravan ( which actually I would have been very happy to spend a holiday in). But the fountain pen ad tickles me most of all. As well it might.

Oh, and I've started buying (and having a glass of) sherry, which is always a sign that Christmas is on its way.

25 November 2008

kitchen dreams

I unearthed this book in my cupboards in one of my recent purges. It was probably the first hardback cookery book that I ever bought. She writes well, Jane Grigson. History, provenance, poetry are woven together with lovely words like "inasmuch" and "hugger-mugger". Looking back at it now, you can see how much has changed. So many more varieties of vegetables are available. When she lists potato varieties, she suggests that you will have to grow your own to get hold of anything other than three or four commercially grown varieties. How things have changed.

And how some things have not. You see, the other thing that I loved about this book was the cover - a painting called "Cuisine Provencale" by Antoine Raspal, It was the leafy chard, cabbage and artichokes that fired by allotment ambitions. I wanted baskets full of vegetables, stripy cushions with cats on them, copper pans and cast iron pots, earthenware jugs, a wooden table, the rosy cheeks. I did not even mind the idea of washing drying. It all seemed like a tall order at the time.

I got them in the end - the pots and pans and shady kitchen

I grew the veg. The cats arrived. The cushions were sewn. Fires were lit. Soups were stirred. Washing hung to dry indoors for months on end.

It's been the same for years. No agonising over colour schemes, it's just painted over in the same shades. Some of it needs repair - the drafts from the cracks in the floorboards and the broken draining board need fixing and the chairs need re-rushing. Manana, manana.

I'm very grateful to Mrs Grigson for the inspiration.