21 September 2009

welcome to canvey

We thought it would be nice to have a walk and a cup of tea at the Labworth Cafe on Canvey Island looking across the estuary to the Isle Of Grain. Sitting at the eastern end of the Thames, they are geographical twins - flat, marshy, their sea walls offering some shelter against the risk of flooding, home to oil refineries or power stations. Up against it a bit.

A handwritten notice taped to the boarded windows said the cafe was closed until Tuesday. Somehow it was not a surprise.

North of the sea wall, Canvey was desolate. Stones commemorating the planting of trees which have long since disappeared, half-hearted municipal landscaping, desolate amusement arcades. I doubt whether even the most dedicated guerilla gardeners would be able to bring some greenness to the place.

South of the sea wall was more uplifting... as long as you kept a watchful eye out for the dog dirt. That lovely estuarine light, some sort of succulent growing out of cracks in the wall, abstract patterns from rusty rivets and patching, evidence of hot days in the lava-like patterns on the bitumen. A little cafe selling buckets and spades, children crabbing.

And less offensive evidence of dogs.

At the end of the walkway where the sea wall curved north and fisherman waited, you could follow a foot path onto the marshes.

We found herons and egrets against the backdrop of the high rises of Southend to the east. Then the footpath disappeared into the rising tide.

We'd been hoping to bring home a couple of bags of seaweed, but the tide was even higher on the way back and we could not wait for it to go out again.

Poor Canvey. I don't mind a bit of decay, actually I like it, but it seemed very unloved. Maybe it's never recovered from the 1953 floods when 58 people drowned, the beginning of the end of its reign as a seaside resort. Maybe it's brighter in the summer. Or maybe people don't mind that nobody minds.

At least the stylish benches provided some respite before we moved on to St Margaret's at Bowers Gifford to visit the woodpeckers, pick some sloes and cut some ivy.

20 September 2009


Picture the scene.

He picks up a few berries and puts them in his mouth. "Are these for blueberry muffins tomorrow?"

"No. Sloe gin"

His mouth should come back to normal in a few days.


To say thanks for your encouraging comments and emails.

17 September 2009

on work

This is a portrait of me, done by my son about a dozen years ago. Note the grim set of the mouth and the eyebrows set in a frown (they don't really meet in the middle a la Frida Kahlo) and the dark roots where I neglected touching up my highlights. This harsh portrait sits in a prominent position as a reminder of what it means to juggle family, home and a career outside home, and the price you sometimes have to pay. Did my boy really find me such a stressed out harpie?

The Masters I completed last year - remember that? - considered the support that is available for women who want to develop their careers. It was a very practical piece of research, relevant to the job I was doing at the time. I spoke to lots of women about their aspirations, what help they received, who they turned to. Some younger women talked about their plans for having children, some with children said how their attitude to work had changed and how hard it had been coming back to work, others about the sacrifices and compromises they had made to do so. The cycle of women's working loves differs to that of men, and that women need different types of support at different times in their working lives was backed up by my reading of other research.

I now find myself at a point in the cycle that has come as rather a surprise. At a hiatus between one organisation and another, I opted to apply for what is euphemistically called voluntary early release. I was shocked to be, I offered it. When the news arrived I spent my lunchtime walking round in a daze and made my decision quickly. Here was an opportunity that I would never have again to start something new with some of the financial risk covered. I accepted the offer and felt a weight lifted. And yet, during the weeks that followed, I found myself feeling a real sense of loss and sadness, doubts about my own value and trepidation about what the future held. None of the professional advisers offered by my employer had touched on this and my work colleagues for the most part just did not get it at all.

Support came from unexpected quarters. My three month stint working in the Parks was a life saver and I have loved working there. I also went along to one of our WI coffee mornings on a day off and mentioned how I was feeling about leaving work and this small group of women offered a wealth of wise words, kindness and support, both for me and another younger woman who had lost her job in rather harsher circumstances. Those same women still check on me when I meet them. And sharing experiences with fellow blogger 60 going on 16 when we met for lunch yesterday, helped too.

So here I am. At the end of September I shall be moving on from a well paid, secure job into a new life. I look at that portrait and wonder whether I should have changed paths a long time ago. Regrets - I've had a few, but it really does not help to dwell on them. My new plan is to have no plan, to go with the flow, enjoy some of the things I don't have enough time for now, try out some new things, practice living on less money, spend some time paying back past good deeds. And make the most of the support that comes from good people until I find my groove.

15 September 2009

lavender and the elephant

The first day back in the office after my holiday did not get off to a good start with grey, grey skies and rain, rain, rain. Who would have thought the park could change so much in just a week. The sound of the wind in the trees is different , with the leaves starting to dry off, and the rain lashes against the windows. Inside, the cosiest office I have experienced for a long time - four of us, a blast of heat under V's desk and some low lighting.

I arrived home, only moderately damp, with just enough time to cook up some of the harvest - onion, leaf chard and brown rice stir fried with the juice of a lemon, lots of black pepper and a few slices of goat cheese - before dashing off to the EEWI meeting. A pile of finished Morsbags, cake and wine. And the Guerrilla Gardener, Richard Reynolds, in person, with tales of imagination, action and transformation on orphaned land. Hollyhock filled tree pits in Zurich. Sunflowers in south London. And the lavender field of the Elephant and Castle. So when Mr R put out some lavender bags to sell - at London prices, let's say, and leave it at that - I just had to have one, knowing that the proceeds would fund more seeds, more plants for another barren spot.

It may have been the wine or the balminess of the after-rain damp streets as I walked home. Or it may just be the scent of south London lavender that is filling my bedroom as I write this. But tonight I am in love with London and wouldn't swap it for Provence for any price.

14 September 2009

what was the harvest today?

Despite the most appalling neglect (I never quite get round to pinching out), confusion about provenance, and patchy blight around the plot, our cherry tomatoes are prolific. We much have picked about 4 or 5 lbs today from the scrappiest looking plants. Leaf chard, flat leaf parsley, a small cabbage and overgrown courgettes, possibly the last of the season, made up the harvest.

And some rogue amaranth and autumn hued sunflowers. With thanks to John for the sacrifice.

Now I'm wondering what Nigel Slater would make of that lot.

13 September 2009

what will the harvest be?

The answer is I am not quite sure because I did not manage to get along to Abbey Gardens yesterday to see what was cooking. We did visit at the end of August at the tail end of their Flowers - 4 - U event and the gardens were stunning. Joan mentioned the gardens in a comment here a while back, and then Lydia from East End WI suggested I get along and take a look. It took a couple of forays before we actually found it - my fault, I knew vaguely where it was, but missed the turning. (I will be writing at some point about planning, lack thereof, risks and consequences.)

Do take a look at the website and blog. The gardens have a fascinating provenance and their latest incarnation has been realised with imagination, skill and garden love. The next event is a seed swap, soup and social on 10th October. I'm going to try to get along then - planning skills permitting.

12 September 2009

another country

My friend has been visiting from Australia and he wanted to visit another European country, one he had not seen before. We settled on Wales. It entailed a fair amount of driving and dashing about to satiate his bean-counter's instinct to tick off as much of the rough guide as we could in three days.

It's a long time since I have been to Wales and I was taken aback by how very green it was. As soon as you reach Monmouthshire, the colours and shape of the countryside hit you - black cattle and white sheep sharp against the backdrop of small, walled fields. As you move further away from the borders, you become much more conscious that this really is another country, the language, geography, history, people. We had muggy showers and early autumn sun,
stretches of beach,and cliff paths, and piers...

lakes and drowned valleys where people made their own electricity.

We negotiated. We would not do the Dylan Thomas thing but he could visit one more castle ...

...as long as I could visit the National Botanical Gardens.

We argued - why did the English use so many complicated words when more simple ones would do? (This about the word crag!) We agreed that one Welsh Breakfast is the equivalent of only half a full English. We burnt rubber (actually I did) when I started to roll backwards up a 20 degree incline when I was distracted by the sheep in the rock salt bins.

We congratulated ourselves on walking up Table Mountain.

And down again.

I think - and it's hard to tell with my friend - that he had a good time. I guess I won't see him again for a few years. By which time I hope to have recovered.

06 September 2009

emsworth village show

I missed the deadline for the Emsworth Village Show. And I had six tomatoes.

A miniature garden ( remember this?)

And jam.

I would have put Mario Panzer in for the best (honorary) chicken. But I can't upload any pictures because I've not quite figured it out and I can't take any new ones because he keeps escaping to the garden next door and hides under the ivy.

Ah well. No prizes there then.

and sow to grow

I'm not quite sure how it happened but John was persuaded to get involved with a local project to encourage people to use their back gardens and balconies and window boxes to grow vegetables. With only a couple of weeks to get something together, those involved managed to get together piles of free seeds and a pretty little stall under the trees at St Barnabas Community Fete on Wennington Green.

Now I am exhausted to the point of not being able to sleep. Working on the stall was a small reminder of the power of the imagination of people, small community projects and the generosity of local people. I can't tell you how lovely, and tiring, it was speaking to people all day long, and seeing their eyes light up at the prospect of growing their own. There were people who just wanted to talk - the Buddhist monk with manic depression (he told me about it), the woman who talked non stop for 15 minutes about her flat, her battle with a mouse and what she had managed to grow - but what was so exciting to see was the sheer enthusiasm of everyone, keen to learn, some of them a little shy and others itching to get started, young people, old people, children. Watching them walk away clutching their free pots and planning their planting was wonderful.

We were next door to a stall displaying produce that people had already grown on their allotments or in their back garden and came home with three of the apples Anoushka had contributed. From Zealand Road to my kitchen, and the possibility of something else a little lovely.

01 September 2009

so and sew and sow

So. I had to buy a new laptop. The old one was declared dead, but I have not quite worked out how to transfer the data on to the new one, or open several webpages at once so I can add links, or loads of other things that I need a month of tutorials to master. If it is possible at all, that is. And I had lots of virtual entries for the Emsworth Village Show that I may well be too late to out in now.

All of which does not mean that I have not been busy. There has been lots of sewing, with a frenzy of Morsbag making, which has proved to be rather addictive, as well as lots of repairing and remodelling of allotment wear - I now realise that I have a complete collection of flowery frocks that built up while I was not paying attention, and I am rather enjoying the slight eccentricity of them all. They are also perfect for wearing when making and eating jam, for I finally got round to making some Rhubarb Recherche Jam. I modified a recipe I found online, using 2lbs rhubarb, 2lbs preserving sugar, 1lb dried figs, 1lb dried apricots and a cooking apple I found in the basket, with juice of two lemons and a quarter pint of the water used to soak the fruits in. It takes a while to set but the wait is worthwhile. Even though it is not the most photogenic of jams - and I did try - it tastes delectably of winter rather than summer, so for once in my life I am a step ahead - or, perish the thought, behind,.

The excitement of the jam making was, however, surpassed by the arrival of a package of New Mexican Hollyhocks, prophetically disguised as sequins, and destined to decorate the garden in front of the allotment shed. Heartfelt thanks to PureJuice from the Rancho Atomico. The bees will love them as much as me. Pure pleasure in a brown paper envelope.

And so to Sow to Grow. John has volunteered, sort of, to run a stall at St Barnabas Community Fete encouraging people to sow easy grow veg and bee loving plants on their back and front balconies and gardens. Much bee-thought has been going into this while I have been planning what biscuits to bake.

Oh yes - busy bees, busy bees.