28 September 2008

sea air

To the seaside, then. I've been paying virtual visits to Mersea here and wanted to go back again. Friends own this little green gabled house and we stayed there for a week or so for a couple of summers when my son was young. You could walk along the beach then and get a cup of tea and a bag of sweets at the other little house here, more a shed really and now closed up.

It's always a bit of risk going back to places when you have fond memories of them. Apart from some rather smarter places to eat, little had changed. We sat down with a bacon baguette and a cup of coffee from the cafe down by The Hard and watched kids catching crabs off the jetty, which brought back memories of "crab derbies" when my boy and his mates released the captives from their buckets to scuttle back down the ramp into the water. We strolled across the walkway over the town marsh and snacked on samphire . We bought a small apuntia from a stall at the gate of a house in Seaview Avenue - some of the other plants bought there years ago are now enormous. And a bag of cooking apples from another stall for something puddingy when it gets cooler and wetter later this week.

We finished our day walking across the marshes as the sun started to go down and the damp drew in. And though we didn't really want to, we came home to bed and tried not to be too covetous of that little green gabled seaside house.

27 September 2008

isostatic readjustment

It went yesterday. The dissertation that is, the finished object, the monkey that has been perching on my back since May. But to my surprise, instead of feeling the expected elation, I felt rather subdued, as if something was not quite right, a little bit low even. So this weekend I expect a little bit of isostasy, a rebalancing. No big celebrations. Just enjoying the morning mist and the sunny afternoons. Some fresh air, seaside, allotment. That'll do.

24 September 2008

forever summer

When I was walking through Jermyn Streeet a few weeks ago I stopped to admire - and snap - the straw hats in the window of Bates. It was a miserable wet afternoon and it was as much the display of optimism as headwear that caught my eye. (Or was it British stoicism that attracted me?)

I was up that way again today, and looked to see whether Bates had rearranged their shop window to show a different, more seasonal, collection of hats. But no. There they were - a window full of panamas. Maybe there was a fedora or two, but not so's you'd notice particularly. Then I realised that maybe one of the reasons why Bates is still trading is because people can rely on getting their panamas here no matter what the season, customers who are taking them back home to places where it is warm and sunny when it is cold and damp here. And that in this hat shop it's forever summer one way or another.

22 September 2008


Sometimes it's hard to untangle all the pictures and ideas that come together in a single week. Take last week. On Tuesday, we went along to an open evening at the archaeological dig in Prescot Street (read about the evening and the leaden goat here). As a child I would walk past what was then a bombed ruin and was always rather curious - do I remember looking down into the cellars or am I just remembering pictures I have seen? Whatever.

Beneath the cellars is another layer of history - a large Roman cemetery which stood to the east of the old City walls. It's astonishing how far below current ground level the graves are. All that dirt and dust and detritus building up over the years. Roman orderliness was still apparent, the unearthed graves aligned east- west or north- south, just like the roads. The archaeologists showed us how they too divided the site into grids to document their finds in a structured way, to build up a picture of what was going on referring back to old maps to track changes.

Oh, those grids. I've been obsessed by them all week. I came home and asked John to hunt out the catalogue of an exhibition we saw a few years ago of the work of Linda Karshan. She draws lines and grids, counting out the time between moving her crayon or pen and turning it 90 degrees after a count of 2 or4 or 6 or 8. I remember finding the works satisfyingly soothing. So all week - my visit to Cambridge on Friday, Open House in London on Saturday, the seaside on Sunday, I have been on the look out for grids. On the street. On windows.

On ceilings.

Marked by shadows.

And scaffold poles.

I suspect I must have been craving the orderliness, rhythm and space. Even so, I'd better stop now while there's still time.

21 September 2008

fruits de mer

Every now and then I have to get down to the sea. The call might manifest itself by something as simple as a salty scent or paddling in the bath. Sometimes it happens when I'm standing at the fish stall and get the urge to stick my nose into a basket of Mr Downey's oysters or mussels. (He is very tolerant and indulges me because I am one of his better customers. ) But there is only one cure, to get down there, and quickly, while the sun is still warm enough to leave your cheeks slightly scorched and the stones on the beach have just enough heat in them to massage your back.

The cockle shell chippings make you want to build patterns and patchworks

and pavements and paths (I lust after cockle shell paths for my allotment).

You can sneak along the alleys and peep into backyards.

Have lunch and a cup of coffee in your favourite cafe.

Find pioneering poppies on reconstructed flood defences,

and collect seaweed for your asparagus without drawing too much attention to yourself.

And taste the sea again when you get home.

No need to say anything clever really, is there?

17 September 2008

urban art

A pavement garden outside my front door, a gift from my young neighbours Clemency and Daisy.

Such a nice surprise.

13 September 2008

on the web

There is a large garden spider living just outside my backdoor, an ambitious spider. She has engineered her web to cross the wide expanse between the dividing wall and a bush in our garden, quite a risky approach given that at any time our cats might leap up and damage the construction. Most days you will see her sitting in the middle of the web waiting for some unsuspecting insects to fly by.

It's a good place for catching flies because it is a couple of feet away from the wormery, so every time we put something in there a little cloud of fruit flies billows up and one or two get stuck in the web. Young John has been watching her too and thinks she is getting bigger and bigger from harvesting her prey.

I watched her this afternoon doing some maintenance work. She worked her way slowly round the inner circle of the web. Look at her leg and you can see a silky thread. She skims across the struts with her silk, joining them up, keeping up a good pace, nimble and focused. No stopping for snacks I noticed.

Round and round and round. I went in and had a cup of tea and came out again to see how far she had got. Round and round again.

When she had done enough, she worked her way back to the middle and darned that. Then she waited. I thought she deserved a reward after all that hard work so I opened up a bag of fruit and veg waste, wafted the fruit flies towards the web and watched as she ran towards the biggest ones and took them back to the centre of her web to eat.

I have two weeks to go until my dissertation is submitted. I should be finishing my conclusion right now instead of writing this.

Think focus, think finish, think spider.

You can click on the snapshots to see the detail. If you want to see the spider and her work in all its glory, that is.

12 September 2008


I can't help feeling that beetroots would be better loved if they had a more romantic name. It was not ever thus. Gerard - he of the great herbal - was very appreciative of a simple beetroot salad with an oil and vinegar dressing, describing it as "delightful to the eye". I must agree with him - they look lovely. Unless they're roasted, in which case they look gnarled and scorched and just taste exquisite.

Spaghetti rossi is a big favourite here. It's made the same way as a risotto but using beetroot puree (three medium sized beetroot, mashed) and broken spaghetti (instead of rice). Just saute the onion, put in the spaghetti, then the puree. Top up slowly with boiling chicken stock until the spaghetti is cooked. Throw in a handful of hard white cheese (the recipe specifies lancashire but we normally use feta). Eat.

Coincidentally, lots of beetroot recipes appeared elsewhere this week. Allegra's beetroot pickled eggs and Sophie Grigson's beetroot curry. And this tucked away in my recipe scrapbook, a handwritten recipe that I've had for years, from a dear friend in Cornwall .

Need I say more?

08 September 2008

q is for...

...Queen of Quirkiness, it seems.

I was tagged by Liz and asked to list six quirky yet boring, unspectacular details about myself. It's taken me nearly a week to think of any. But once I started...

Number one, I don't care for the letter V, never have. It's the letter most likely to give you a poke. And it's right there at the front of some nasty words - vicious, violent, vexing. But where we would be without it? No love, no vegetables.

I do like the letter s, and the sound of sh. Hush. Plush. Seashore. Which takes me to quirk number two. When I get in the bath, I like to stand for a few minutes splashing my feet in the water, pretending that I'm paddling in the sea.

Number three. I am fastidious about few things, but I do like to look after my shoes. I have a collection of shoe trees and boot trees. I have suede protector and saddle soap and a box full of proper polish, and I use it.

Number four - I like to feel the earth between my fingers. I only wear gardening gloves when I'm dealing with manure, which explains my unbeautiful, arthritic hands.

Quirk number five - numbers patterns (John reminded me of this). I get excited (moderately) when the mileometer has a nice number pattern or the time is in double figures on a digital clock.

But despite this attention to digital timepieces, I have trouble actually arriving on time. This is because - quirk number six - I do not like being early. I don't plan to be late, but I like get to a place on time, exactly on time, not early or late. Not easy.

So there we are. The pictures used to illustrate these idiosyncrasies, come from the alphabet scrapbook I made for my son when he was a wain. Looking back at it after all these years, I can see that the poor boy was propagandised with the things that I liked, even then. The same things that turn up here. I may have a quirk or two but I'm consistent, at least.

PS I'm supposed to tag five other people, but I'm not sure that I'm up to that. Over to you.

07 September 2008

sunburst and showers

You may be thinking that you have not seen the sun for weeks, but there was a gap in the showers yesterday morning just long enough to get to the allotment and carry out a mini-harvest. The beans are still going strong. The tomatoes are a bit the worse for wear after the wind and rain. But glinting away like hidden treasure are the Sunburst patty pan squash, weaving their way across the plot getting ready for take off. If it doesn't get too cold, they may even last into October.

The rain didn't quite hold off all day which was a shame because it was BowStock, otherwise known as the St Barnabas Community Fete. It was a lovely local local affair, with plenty of stalls and the very best local talent on stage - we even had the Blockheads on the bill. Such a shame it was not sunny because the wind played havoc with the bunting.

But the sedate and unflappable women's cohort of the East End WI under the direction of Ms Le Var were there to cope with the crowds sheltering from the rain, offering warmth and sweetness with a nice cup of tea and..tada.. a hundred bags of biscuits, beautifully and lovingly wrapped.

Delighted to report that the choc chip cookies along with all the other specialities were a sell out.

05 September 2008


I sneaked off of work early on Friday afternoon, legitimately I might add, but even so I felt as if I was playing truant. I wanted to see the Hammershoi exhibition before it finished. So off I went in the rain, up Lower Regent Street, along Jermyn Street, past Bates the Hatter, on to Piccadilly and into the gentile and hallowed halls of the Royal Academy. It was packed of course, as I thought it would be, as it always is on the last few days before the end of the exhibition. Elderly lady artists with pearly white hair; lunch hour visitors; mothers educating their daughters before they went back to school. But even among all of those people, peering and interrogating, the paintings managed to create a sense of calm and space. There were landscapes and cityscapes, the streets empty of people. And uncluttered domestic roomscapes, so beautifully composed that they made me want to sit down and breathe slowly to take them in. Which is what I did. I was left wondering though how easy a man VH was to live with - that orderliness and erasure of signs of life, both controlled and, I suspect but don't know, controlling. I read that Ida, his wife, used to have fits of temper. I'm not surprised, somehow.

When I came out of the RA, it was raining and I went and had a cup of coffee to mull over what I had seen. On the way home, I was still so spaced I managed to miss the interchange at Holborn and had to double back. Which was a bit annoying because I had to make a hundred choc chip cookies for the WI tea stall today (more of which later).

It was lovely to have the rest of the afternoon on my own, baking and listening to a ghost story on the radio. My own space. But those cookies drove me mad. I tried two different recipes (here and here) and ended up with a blister from chopping up the chocolate. As for getting them to come out the same size ...what a nightmare.

They were fine in the end, though like Hammershoi, I cropped the picture to cut out the chaos and leave the semblance of a little bit of domestic bliss. Which, with or without the mess, it was. Honestly.

PS If you have a better choc chip cookie recipe, I'd be interested. I thought these were going to be a failure but then I realised that you have to leave them a good while for the chocolate to harden after baking. The H F-W recipe gave the better texture but was too sweet, though the boys in this house liked them; the MS cookies (chewy choc chip) were a little "flatter", but more chocolatey.

03 September 2008

daily dahlias no 3

This was my choice at the weekend. The biggest, brightest bunch, starting to look a little tired now. Take a look too at the card on the right. It's a reproduction of a 1936 Jacob Epstein painting, an old birthday card that is only usurped at Christmas for a while before it finds its way back. I checked out the painting and found that it's at the Tate. Apparently, the colours of the flowers were so infectious that having been commissioned to produce only 20 paintings, Epstein carried on to produce hundreds.

I can understand that. As I walked through St James Park today, I noticed the dahlias in the Christopher Lloyd inspired borders. It had been cool in the morning . I'd struggled to find the right clothes to wear for work and felt slightly depressed at the thought of having to put my summer clothes away and find clothes that were more sober and warm.

I just hope we have a few more weeks of percussive dahlias before the nights draw in and the frosts put paid to their over-the-top dress up showiness. And mine.


02 September 2008

daily dahlia no 2

I bought this skirt in a sale a few weeks ago. When I got home I checked the tag and the style was called "dahlia".

A good omen, I thought, for a dahlia lover.

01 September 2008

daily dahlia no 1

Brace yourself for three days of dahlia posts. Do Bear with me. It will help to flush my devotion to the humble dahlia, surely the signature flower of allotments, out of my system. These were seen for sale at my local florist. I have not asked but I suspect that they come from Meath Garden allotments round the corner from the shop - where else would such a collection come from?

It's also the feast day of St Fiacre , patron saint of gardeners, on 1st September (in Ireland, and various other days elsewhere). Check out the job description.