31 March 2008

paigle post

Here are some paigles, or cowslips, from the Ackroyd Drive Nature Reserve, a small slice of land which runs along the side of the Fenchurch Street -Southend railway line where it crosses Burdett Road. They look incongruous and resilient in their corner plot.

According to Jocasta Innes in my very early edition of the Pauper's Cookbook, you can use them to make Paigle Fry, a flower infused pancake. It's probably against the law now. Just as well.

There were some grape hyacinths too, but my battery expired before I could capture them. Here are some from home instead, to welcome in British Summer Time.

29 March 2008

wild and woolly

I have a cold, a very noisy cold, one with loud sneezes and sniffs which leaves your head feeling like cotton wool, but not yet so bad as to require confinement. I managed to get out to inspect the good work that has been going on this week . In the garden greenhouse, seeds are starting to come up, not many given how cold it has been, but a start. Down on the allotment, we are starting to progress beyond the construction stage. The late-planted daffodils are flowering. A modest start, but uplifting nevertheless on a cold, grey day.

Behind the shed, aspidistra and wild garlic have been planted in the damp and shade. Like everything else, they need a bit of time. They should like it, provided that the slugs and snails don't get the better of them. And by sheer coincidence, there were some recipes from Hugh F-W today for wild garlic in the weekend Guardian- scrambled eggs, wild welsh rarebit, nettle and wild garlic soup and skordalia. Next year maybe.

Beyond the back of the shed, we have not made much horticultural progress. I shall be putting my onions and chitted potatoes in as soon as the weather and my cold improve. In the meantime, I have had to look for floral pleasures elsewhere. Displays of a more woolly kind...

And shelter from the wild and wet elements.

I know, I know. So predictable. But I am little poorly, you know.


As if by magic, the boy at work in the garden, albeit somewhat noisily.

Rus and urbis meet in harmony.

27 March 2008

town boots, country boots

Every gardener needs good boots. I heard Bunny Guiness say on Gardeners Questiontime that well-made wellingtons should be seen as an investment not a luxury. Reader, I blushed. I had just lashed out £3.99 at Lidl for a pair which would allow me to walk through the manure puddle at Mudchute. Very cheap and nasty, but then I have never been fond of wellingtons. Although I admire the beautiful brown lace ups worn by Vita Sackville West ( you can see them if you visit Sissinghurst), I am much more of the Gertrude Jekyll persuasion myself. As you can see.

Then I noticed these in the kitchen the other day, abandoned no doubt just before dawn after a night at Slimes by my son. Perhaps he'll realise one day what he is missing and they too will become garden wear.

26 March 2008

evidence of study

I finally got around to doing some studying today. Before I could do anything serious I had to tidy my writing table of at least a month's accumulated paper (not helped by the cats running riot over it and knocking stuff on the floor on a regular basis). That included tidying the pens, index markers, notebooks, envelopes, hole punches, seed catalogues, CDs. No doubt I would have sharpened all of my pencils to killer points as a further distraction had I thought of it.

I was reminded of Colette's father, probably because the Woman's Hour story this week is Cheri. After his death, she discovered that the beautifully bound books purporting to contain tales of his escapades as a zouave captain were, in fact, completely empty. He clearly enjoyed the rituals of writing, rather than the fact. I know the feeling.

My own pretence took other directions. I looked at the Seeds of Italy catalogue and made a note, for the second time, of the radicchio, beans and squashes I wanted.

I admired the tidiness of my table over a cup of tea or two.

I kept watch over the street, with a cat for company.

Then, as it got dark, I thought that soon the evenings would be lighter and warmer, so I should remind myself of how nice it is to have a night indoors in the warm before I finally settled down to some serious database mining. And writing this.

23 March 2008

easter greetings

This equinoctial weather is playing havoc with the holidays. There is a half-hearted dusting of snow on the rooftops, nothing serious, but enough for the cats to peek out of the door and turn back again.

I am celebrating with some 78% chocolate with cocoa nibs and will get back out of bed when the house warms up a little. This indulgence (excuse?) does at least give me some time to tell you about yesterday. After we had done our shopping at Globe town market - Easter flowers from Joannes, scallops from the Downeys, fruit from Leslie Herbert, veg from Patrick Goggins,- we visited St John at Bethnal Green. I've walked past the church hundreds of times and yet never looked inside. It is one of three London churches designed by Sir John Soane, austere and beautiful, flagstone floors, peeling paint, dark wooden pews, with empty nameplates leftover from the days when you could pay for a private pew. Yesterday it was a buzz of activity with excellent women of the parish busy getting ready for the easter celebration. Dustpans and brooms stood around in corners with buckets of flowers waiting for expert hands to arrange them. And there were visitors, like us, who had come to see Chris Gollon's Stations of the Cross, a project which had taken eight years. The last painting, the Crucifixion, had been finished just a few days before and put up with the paint still drying. It was fascinating to see how the work had progressed. The earlier paintings were full of cartoonish noisy grotesques, the same kind of faces you see in hectic towns anywhere if you look closely. The later ones were much starker, elegiac. Together they were incredibly affecting and moving. You can see them all here, you can read what other people have said about them here or you can buy his work here. Even if you don't normally follow links, do take a look. If you want to get the full effect, you will have to go and see them yourself. In situ.

I could tell you more about the day. The visit to the Tate to see the Camden Town painters (interesting, in parts, especially the faces of bored, proud Londoners and the move of the city to the country) and Drawn from the Collection (see the Tacita Dean blackboard); or the visit to my aunts; or how quietly pleased my mum was with her big bunch of lusciously pink tulips; how irritated I was to have forgotten to take my camera out with me; how delicious the scallops were when we had them for tea; how good the barley wine tasted; or how I am unashamed to have had the bed warmed by a hot water bottle.

I shall be studying for the rest of this week, so I'm secretly hoping that the weather will stay cold as otherwise I shall want to be out having fun. In the meantime, I'll leave you with these easter flowers from one of John's school gardens that I have been saving for you - enjoy your holidays.

21 March 2008

good good friday

I do not have fond memories of Good Friday. When I was a child, it was a day of disruption and disturbance as my mother, at work the rest of the time, cleaned the house ready for Easter. Curtains would be taken down, windows flung open to clean and let in the cold air, floors washed. It was chilly and miserable. So what do I do now on Good Friday? Why, I clean of course. Windows are washed, floors scrubbed and, if we're lucky, buns baked.

I couldn't find the yeast, so the cupboard was tidied .

John scrubbed the floor.

I cleaned the windows until they sparkled (almost).

But the buns never got baked because we had a visitor, showing off her first pair of shoes.

18 March 2008


We undererestimate the community power of the office. After we visited Bede House last month we wanted to show a little solidarity and support for the people we spent the day with, hence - roll of drums - cakearama. It was amazing. With the energy of the newly converted (in this case to baking) Alison organised us to bake cakes to raise some funds for Bede. This is the kind of fundraisng I like. No sweat, no punishing months of training, just an evening in relaxing over a Kenwood mixer and running a greedy finger around the bowl to test the products . Voila, beautiful, delicious cake. OK, so there was a bit of washing up to do, but well worth the deferred gratification, not just from eating, but the pleasure everyone got from showing off their efforts and joining in a feast.

And after an afternoon of being caked -out, it was good to share the burdens of the office with the two Johns. The uncharacteristically gentlemanly young John...

who had been cooking himself and provided home-made pizza for tea. And his more earthy father.

in the green

There is a great scene in Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle where the heroine's bohemian artist stepmother dyes everything green. I can't quite rememebr why. Something to do with being poor and bored, I think. My Aunt Mary used to tell me that when she was a little girl her own grandmother used to do the same - dye her blouses green - probably around the same time as the novel is set. But in the case of my great grandmother Boyd, she was preparing for St Patrick's Day. And probably looking forward to a glass or two of Guiness at the pub at the top of Chigwell Hill in Wapping.

The tradition of wearing the green, even though it may have been several generations since anyone in the family was born in Eire, held on when I was young too. If we had no green frocks to wear, we at least wore a green, white and gold emblem or some shamrock. Old habits die hard, so no surprise then that I'm still called to dress up for the day on 17th March.

And although this was hardly party wear, I did want to be dressed in the right colours for a celebratory Irish Stew and Guiness with friends at Ms McKibbin's later that night. The flower stall at Embankment had no green flowers to offer for a little gift my friend, but these budding hyacinths at least were the right tone.

And artlessly displayed by a true lady artist.

16 March 2008

grand designs 2

Some mornings the top of Canary Wharf is shrouded in a Trollenberg Terror type cloud like it was on Saturday. I’m not quite sure why I like it when that happens, because it normally means that we are going to have rain all day. But by the time I came out from my stretch, soak and sauna I was surprised to see that the clouds had gone. And even more surprised when I arrived at the allotment to find that John had spent the morning laying the last of the York stone slabs outside the shed to make somewhere for us to sit, eat and admire. It was amazingly warm when the sun came out briefly, perfect for testing whether the new pavement was large enough to accommodate a deck chair and a table.

I also managed to plant some garlic. For years I used to plant “Christo”, originally bought in an old fashioned seed merchants in Dublin about seven years ago. None planted last year, so no Christo. These fat cloves are Printanor organic garlic from Tuckers. I'm optimistic.

The soil is still wet and cold, so we’ve been turning the manure in to try and lighten it, though it still does not look too welcoming to me. We’ve also been preparing the bed for the asparagus by raking in sharp sand to lighten the clagginess of the heavy soil (grateful thanks are due to our kind neighbour Sally for her generous gift!). And to these neighbours too for theirs.

And getting ready for the vernal equinox, the daffodil bulbs we transplanted a few weeks ago seem to have survived. Hardly comparable to the swards which have appeared all over the borough in the last few weeks, but a start. But only one stick of rhubarb under the forcer, not enough for a feast yet.

And today, the rain has been a good excuse for staying at home and catching up. I managed to assemble a little temporary greenhouse to house some seed trays of tomatoes, aubergine and peppers. I’ve also put in some lettuce and leeks to transplant later when the soil warms up. Rather an elegant little construction, I think…

13 March 2008

the sound of water

It amazes me how many tourists visit Trafalgar Square. There is not much to recommend it - it's not pretty, the view to Westminster is unremarkable and the monuments little more than monumental (at least for the moment). Cars and buses and bikes charge past going north through Charing Cross or east towards the Strand. Commuters criss cross from Charing Cross station. It's bustling and busy on all the pavements. But when I cut aross the south side in the morning to get to my office, if I listen hard I can isolate the sound of the water cascading from the fountains into the pools. I don't even have to stop, just concentrate. And it is absolutely lovely, just long enough, the time it takes to walk from one side to the other.

Then tonight walking home in the lamplit half darkness, the patter of the drizzly rain on my new, taut brolly was soft and gently comforting, like being inside a tent.

No pictures,today - I could not catch it. You'll have to close your eyes and listen if it's raining where you are. Or use your imagination.

10 March 2008

nature raw

Nature asserted itself today with high winds and rain blowing down trees, turning umbrellas inside out and making my hair curl. In Trafalgar Square, hawks were paraded to scare off the pigeons. But in Cable Street, nature was working more subtly. The street runs east to west, more or less following the railway line from Limehouse to Tower Hill and Fenchurch Street. It featured as a location in "Children of Men" in a scene showing the desolation of London in an infertile future (no props needed, that made us laugh). And in this not particularly inspiring street, nature has insinuated itself, tagged along to the trains coming from Southend and Tilbury to seed a long bank of alexanders on a strip of empty land.

These tall umbelliferous plants are lush and glossy. They are ususally found in damp places, by ditches, in leafy lanes. I'm told that they are edible and used to be eaten as greens at the end of winter to see people through to the time when more appetising vegetables would be available, so fitting that they are here to see us through the last days of winter.

Down at the other end of Cable Street you can see a rather more exotic planting if you look out of the train window. These agaves were brought home from West Mersea WI in nine inch pots some while ago. Here in London, they are perfect for growing in the brick filled aggregate that passes for soil in a south facing school garden - and perfect for keeping rowdy school girls on the path to righteousness rather than running riot through the plants.

It just helps to know they're there when you're insulted on the District Line for being unhappy about intrusive personal stereos, trying not to throw back insults, trying to remind yourself that it isn't as bad as it seems.

08 March 2008

the unexpected

A day full of surprises.

10.30 - looking north, Mile End Park, approach to the Green Bridge which crosses the A11. So many daffodils being buffetted about by the wind.

12.36 - another treat on the way to the Museum of Childhood at Bethnal Green, a jumble sale in a church hall. Booty: two books and a little galvanised watering can for an apprentice gardener.

13. 15 - and for John, a piece of home made bread pudding and a cup of tea. I abstained because...

15.30 ...I had tea and tart at Patisserie Valerie. The birthday ranunculus (ranunculi?) I bought my friend were an unexpected match for her embroidered coat.

20:00 - Outside the Tate Modern, Prouve's Maison Tropicale, a kit building for the tropics, on the banks of the chilly Thames. And inside, Duchamp, interested in shirts and sheets blowing on lines (moving sculptures) too.

21:45 Walking home from Mile End station, a young woman in front of us leapt with a small scream. A frog on the pavement - safely placed over a garden wall by our local hero.

Biggest surprise - that I am still awake.

red haired girl in the park

Today is International Women's Day. Red haired girl in the park is a painting from the fabulous Government Art Collection to celebrate the day. For wonderful women and girls everywhere, but especially my favourites with red hair.

07 March 2008

spring and autumn planning event

I once had a job in finance where part of annual budget cycle included what we called spring and autumn planning events. Apart from our resident poet (more of him another day), it was the nearest to poetry we got. (Now I think of it, I also worked once with a spreadsheet designer who wrote for Amateur Gardener as an expert on delphiniums under a suitably imaginative earthy pseudonym.)

All of that management training has stood me in good stead. The good plot holder has the competence of the most skilled project manager, thinking not only about what to sow in spring, but what follows on afterwards and where it has to go; what needs sun and what can be sown in the shade of taller plants; what will be in and out quickly and what will stay; what the risks of frost are against the potential benefits of planting early. It's all in the planning. I've noticed, for example, that our next door neighbour has a vine which, while looking spartan in winter, will soon spread and grow to create a shady corridor on one side of our plot which will suit quick growing lettuces but be hopeless for courgettes. And that we can use our beans to create at least some privacy from passing wheelbarrow convoys.

We have just sown our selection of sunflowers this year, all shapes, all sizes. I know that they are not a particularly sophisticated choice, but I insist on growing them. They are simple, the sort of flower a child would draw. They look good on allotments and they make good cutting flowers to bring home. I am especially fond of the rich amber and dark velvet of the more modern types, hinting at the arrival of autumn (see, we have not even had spring yet and I'm thinking about autumn).

After great consideration (it was a toss between them and the dahlias) , we finally decided to cram as many as we could into the soon-to-be bed at the front of the shed. If we are lucky, we will have a gaudy garden full. And later on we can check to see, courtesy of our artist in residence, how successful our planning event has been.

06 March 2008

in praise of the cardigan

We have already discussed the consolation of brown. Let us move on to the cosiness of the cardigan, in the news yesterday as reclaimed by men as a fashion item. I cannot blame them. The cardigan can only compare with the tea cosy for its comforting qualities, its sheer practicality and its versatility. It can be prim and proper, literally conveying the buttoned up qualities of the truly severe. It can be silky and suggestive, especially helpful when you want to distract and surprise protagonists (ignore those style guides which suggest that cardigans are only worn by those who are powerless – not true). And of course, it comes in whatever textures, colours, shapes you want. It can exaggerate curves seductively or it can hide a multitude of sins, unbuttoned where necessary. I have cardigans that I wear when I need energy (tangerine) or feel predatory (leopardskin – forgive me Hadley) or sedate (oatmeal, cotton, Gap) or a bit femmy (lime green silk, and ruffled). I have worthy ones (teal blue merino wool), quirky ones (black and white striped, covered in buttons), sober ones (black boiled wool, my house cardigan), long ones (Betty Jackson (long, elegant with inside out seams) and short ones (crimson, flattering). And I have splashed out guiltily on cashmere (I confess - I have indulged in Brora).

So there you have it.

03 March 2008

perfect night in

Freezing temperatures are forecast. This is what I came home to this evening.

A warm fire.

A good book and a glass of Old Speckled Hen.

A well behaved, if somewhat aloof, cat...

…or two.

And a murder mystery on the radio. Bliss.

02 March 2008

bright and breezy

Bright and breezy was what the weather woman said. Even through the morning fug, my first thoughts were “good drying day then”. Drying laundry outside is second only to my obsession with the weather itself, to such an extent that even when I am at work I get slightly distressed if I don’t have any washing out on those perfect drying days. I’m not sure what started this obsession. I did not live in a house with a garden until I was nearly thirty, so the multi-sensorial pleasure of drying washing in my own garden – the scent of breeze dried sheets, the flapping of the washing, the satisfying smoothing of it as it comes off the line – were all pretty new to me when I moved here. I still love to look out of the window at the washing blowing.

I am, of course, pretty fussy about my washing – it has to be hung out properly, pleasing to the eye, no dissenting darks in the middle of the whites, although modest stripes are acceptable. The washing in this painting by my friend James passes muster.

My washing fascism does allow coloureds on the line, preferably co-ordinated. I used to have a peg bag, made from some second- hand fabric found in a ragbag, gaudy, spotted handkerchiefs - red and yellow and orange - hanging on a clothesline. It was so much admired by my sister-in-law Karla that I had to let her have it. She told me later that it had inspired her to learn fabric design. You can see one of her much laundered tea towels here with my Mother’s Day new blue teapot (with non-matching grey jug -is there colour blindness in the family?).

But my obsession stops once the washing is done. Ironing is rarely done in this house I relent occasionally, but only in the most exceptional circumstances, weddings, funerals, job interviews. Karla’s pressed shirt wrapping paper is lovely, but pure fantasy as far as I am concerned…