30 July 2009


I have been making redcurrant jelly. I couldn't resist the beautiful berries and bought a punnet at the market, then could not decide what to do with them. So jelly it was. Very simple. A pound of sugar to a pint of sieved juice and pulp. Boil for around 5 minutes and put in jars. Is it cheating to use preserving sugar? I've never used it before but I had some in the cupboard from January when I was dreaming of marmalade and it made life simple.

Now I'm thinking about those mulberries. Nell Heaton's Calendar of Country Receipts (1950) includes one for mulberry and apple jam. I love reading this book. Divided into weeks of the year, with additional advice on what to do on "odd days", it is designed to keep the pantry and still room (surely you have one?) packed to the gunnels. This particular recipe starts " Mulberries are all too often wasted nowadays. Take 5lb of apples, 6lb mulberries...". On the same pages for the third week of August we have Tomato and Melon Jam, Cake That Will Keep a Year, Sage Tea for Sunburn, Damson Wine, and Prunes Made at Home. So enticing that I found myself thinking that at last I might have a home for the wild plums at the allotment. Get too carried away and there is even a recipe for Harvester's Embrocation (vinegar, turpentine, powdered camphor and an egg if you are interested.)

I'd love to be messing about with all this stuff, but the truth is I can just about manage to keep my head above water with the basics, and some of those are neglected. I want the freshly baked bread and I know how relaxing and satisfying it is to knead dough but it's all a bit beyond my powers of organisation. The dream holds me though, and after much hesitation and weighing up, I succumbed and bought a bread machine. I could not stand the idea of having what is after all a large and expensive piece of equipment for it to end up not being used. So I'm pleased that it has been a success. After a couple of months, we don't buy bread any longer, nor do we waste any. I doubt whether it will last as long as the old Kenwood Mixer I inherited but it's doing a good job and I've stopped feeling guilty.

I'm glad I've got that off my chest.

28 July 2009

yantlet creek

We were back at Yantlet Creek last weekend, home of the laughing marsh frogs. The day was perfect for walking along the sea wall,, sunny but cloudy, a slight wind, almost empty apart from a few birdwatchers. Serious birdwatchers. John got excited when he saw an egret. That was before we met Trevor and his wife who were out there counting sightings of visiting birds. He offered to let John use his giant telescope so he could see the 23 egrets sitting out on the marshes, preening, and the hundreds of bar-tailed godwits sitting on the beach. Trevor's wife confessed to being the person responsible from bringing marsh frog tadpoles home from Romney Marsh for their garden pond. The frogs, as we now know,were rather more ambitious.

We tried to limit our ecological impact and picked only enough marsh samphire to provide a helping each for tea with some smoked fish.

The sharp salt taste of a sunny but cloudy day on the marshes.

26 July 2009

first figs

There are less than a dozen figs on our tree this year and the rain we have been having is making them swell and burst. So we had to eat them, didn't we?

We've also started to collect the mulberries that fall from the tree next door - because the tree is so tall, we have laid a sheet down on the ground, wait for them to fall, then gather them up in the evening. (I was despairing at the waste when I got this idea from Jane Grigson's Fruit Book. Yes, it was a doh! moment for me.) Mrs Grigson recommends using mulberries as you would blackberries, but they are much, much sweeter, softer and are very like those Meltis Newberry Fruit sweets that were always left over at Christmas.

Recipes most welcome.

22 July 2009

birthday surprises

I've had a few days off, mostly to celebrate my birthday. So I called Caroline and we met at the seaside. We've been friends since we were at school and no matter how long it is since we've seen each other, what triumphs, catastrophes, births deaths or marriages have taken place, whenever I see her freckled face all I can still see is the girl who used to hide a mirror in her geography atlas and pull faces at me sitting in the desk behind her.

We lazed on the beach, we paddled, we had tea and cake at our favourite cafe. Then we went off to the next seaside town and had ice cream at Macari's Ice Cream Parlour while we watched the people passing by - four unfeasibly low slung beagles and their minders, a crocodile line of English language students, holiday makers distinguished by their gaudy new tee -shirts stopping by for ices. We chatted and giggled and borrowed each other's specs so we didn't miss anything. And managed to eat a concoction of ice cream that would give you a heart attack if you read the ingredients out loud. Terry's Chocolate Orange and white chocolate for me; malibu, white chocolate and god knows what else for her. We promenaded through the spruced-up gardens and ended up on the slopes overlooking the sea watching the sun go down.

My boys were very understanding when I arrived home late. They left my cake in the fridge. And stacked up the birthday cards that had arrived while I'd truanted.

I reckon the biggest surprise though is how the fe*k I got to be this old without noticing it.

20 July 2009

the dalston mill

Just off Dalston Lane in Hackney, there is a little patch of old railway land, wedged between the shopping centre and the main road, in which a small wheat field has been planted. It's scrubby land, most of which had already been colonised by buddleia and brambles, and no doubt a share of discarded junk. It's just the sort of corner that catches my eye, reminscent of the bombed ruins that I thought of as countryside when I was a child.

Towering above the wheatfield is a windmill and when the wheat is ready to harvest in a couple of weeks time, bread will be made from a little milling machine.

This is the Dalston Mill, part of the Barbican's Radical Nature exhibition where I suffered such a severe bout of shed envy. Like Agnes Denes' Wheatfield, it provides a reminder that even the smallest slice of land, seemingly abandoned, can be fruitful.

Madeleine Bunting wrote about it last week, referring to the way that the arts can raise awareness of climate change and sustainability, and suggesting that projects like this may have more success in reaching those unpersuaded by the science. That remains to be seen, I guess. As far as I am concerned, having a wheatfield up the road, even if it is transplanted from elsewhere, lifts me - especially after I see lovely corners of the city wantonly destroyed. (I didn't mention the weedkiller applied to the land on Cable Street with the carpets of violets, leaving it completely barren. Or the willow tree that grew from a cutting discarded on a piece of waste ground, now smashed down. It makes me want to weep.)

So more wheatfields. More weeds and wild flowers. I'll put up with the hay fever.

19 July 2009

park stories

Thanks so much for your park stories which were a delight. We all read them here and, er, couldn't agree on the winner. So I'm going to send one of the park stories to each of you - and one of you will end up with the signed copy, randomly allocated. All you have to do is email me with your address and then wait for a brown envelope to arrive on your doormat.

17 July 2009

knitting envy

When I was in the Temple Church last night to hear these people, the effigies of the Knights Templar with their stone chain mail put me in mind of knitting, especially these be-chained stockinged feet.

I love visiting blogs about knitting. Even though I attempt to knit now and again, I never quite see it through. Instead I get my pleasure vicariously from the beautiful work of more industrious and dedicated knitters, pleasure which derives not just from the artistry of the finished objects, but also from the naming of materials, techniques, textures, colours. All of these have the power to soothe, rather like rhythmic clicking of needles. As it was, I wanted to reach out and run my hands over the knittiness of the carvings.

I managed to contain myself for once.

13 July 2009

shed envy

I love this building. Inside, you ascend a spiral slope onto a raised area with London views.

Ancient and modern.

I reckon I could live here quite comfortably.

It's not on the market though.
Visit here and have hippy dreams.

12 July 2009

hollyhock envy

I wish there was enough room in our garden for hollyhocks. We might be able to fit in one or two, but they look their best when you can see them from a bit of a distance.

These are in one of John's school gardens, caught just before the monsoon rains we have had. I'm not sure how he managed to cultivate so many different colours without a greenhouse, but he did.


09 July 2009

park stories::3

I wanted to visit the memorial for the victims of the 7/7 bombing on Tuesday, so I asked a park colleague where I could find it. She sent me off in the direction of the Serpentine: west then south then east again to the other side of the water.

I followed her instructions. It started to rain. Damp joggers and tourists under umbrellas and plastic ponchos passed me by. I marched on looking out for the memorial. It was not bad weather for everyone - the deck chair attendant relaxed happily under a tree in a hammock like position between two deck chairs. The wildfowl -geese, coots, moorhens, pochards - preened and groomed in the drizzle. I marched on, back over the bridge to the north side of the Serpentine. No memorial. After a while I gave up looking and went back to work.

It was a wild goose chase - I had been misdirected and the memorial was in another part of the park altogether.

By mid afternoon, the predicted rains had started. Within a few minutes, there was thunder and lightning and hailstones and a pond on the rooftop outside my window. I waited as long as I could before leaving for home, weaving my way tentatively through the lusciously scented lime trees. Nobody mentioned that the rain would run off towards the Serpentine, the dammed river Westbourne, in such volume that I would have to leap and ford the water to reach the park gates.

My shoes were soaked by the time I reached Piccadilly but even I was not as bedraggled as the women making their way home from the Queen's garden party. Silly geese.

06 July 2009

park stories::2

Thank you so much for your park stories. They make poignant reading, with their sense of aloneness while being in a public space, an observation made by someone at the Adam Thorpe reading.

The fact is that even after just a week of walking daily through Hyde Park, you begin to notice that it is full of stories. On Friday morning, after the first Blur concert, I came across one young man, smart enough to be wearing proper black leather shoes, asleep under a tree with a blue sweater covering his head. What was his story? An early morning shower had freshened up the air after the heat of the day before and further along, where the paths criss-cross, people were walking more purposefully than they had been, even one weather worn gentleman of the road marched along with his orange carrier bag. I was curious -where to? By late afternoon the mood had changed again and the park was filling up with groups of people and their boozy picnics, waiting to hear the music. It was a good end to my first week.

Now my appetite is whetted, I want to see more park stories. Walking back through Mile End Park on Saturday with my shopping, there were more celebrations, Independence Day bunting, deck chairs, canal boats, coot chicks, young men punting, a pair of swans.

I snuck through the pathways cut through the long grass and eyed up the chicory. Very tempting, if you are a tortoise.

01 July 2009

park stories::1

You may have heard William Boyd on the radio this morning talking about the short stories set in the Royal Parks, written by him and others. I'm lucky enough to be working in Hyde Park for the next few months (this is very exciting fo) and this lunchtime I went to hear Adam Thorpe read his Hyde Park short story "Direct Hit" in the garden of Ranger's Lodge. It was a delight to sit under the trees having someone read you a story. I could have stayed there all afternoon.

I now have a copy of Direct Hit, signed by the author, to give away. It's a modest, but pretty little booklet and the story is very English. Uncharacteristically, I thought a competition was in order. All you have to do is write your own park story, mini-saga style, fifty words exactly if you can manage it but definitely no more than that. Post it on your own blog leaving a comment here with the link, or just post it in my comments box by 15th July. I'll find someone to judge.

Here is my park story from today.

Turning left, she walked past the sheep trough alongside the meadow, hugging the shade of the trees. It was late and she was unsure of the path, but people passing by were not speaking her language. Then, at last, she saw the sign, a gate, a staircase. The Central Line.