31 October 2009


I can't quite make my mind up about this fellow that John dug him up in our garden a couple of weeks ago. He's made of alabaster, quite weighty, and has something of the Lewis chess men about him. John thinks he might be a leftover from an old garden rockery. Or maybe just something discarded in the garden years ago. Very curious. And a little bit spooky.

27 October 2009


I just love it when Tower Bridge goes up and you have to wait for the boat to go through before you can continue your journey. Pedestrians are excited at seeing the boat go under; and the cyclists and bikers who have crept their way to the front of the waiting queue completely ignore the traffic controller's instruction to wait for the lights to turn green and as soon as the gates open they all bomb away across the bridge.

When it happens at night you have the added pleasure of seeing the city sing along while you wait to cross.

It makes the best excuse for being late.

26 October 2009

the comfort of apples

You know how it is when you have a notion in your head, suddenly it will appear in all sorts of places. Like...

: :: on the bookshelves in a charity shop ,the one that caught my eye was Comfort me with Apples, a wonderful title if ever there was one. Towards the end of the book, Ruth Reichl explains that it comes from the Song of Songs. And there it is in various translations - strengthen me with raisins, refresh me with apples. Much as I love the Song of Songs, all I could think of was wanting ( and making) a baked apple with raisins and butter and brown sugar.

: :: lots of other apply food too. Celeriac and apple soup with ginger (homemade recipe). Gravy with cider with our Sunday supper.

: :: walking through Greenwich market after a long walk through the park, across the heath and back again, a stall with six apples for a £1. I had the last six russets and ate one on the way home on the Docklands Light Railway.

: :: coming across Cranach's Adam and Eve on Saturday in the Courtauld,, such a surprise.

: :: on Sunday, a tree on the cliff tops on the Isle of Sheppey with just a few apples - the one I ate was surprisingly good. Then tracking down the cider maker on Sheppey and bringing a few pints home .

: :: still wondering if I'll ever taste a Shoreditch White or a London Pearmain. Or whether I can fit just one tree onto my allotment.

: :: looking forward to setting off to Essex in search of a D'Arcy Spice later this week.

I've enjoyed my immersion in apples, a virtual apple bobbing. Thanks for all your comments and contributions. Now it just remains to tell you that the winner of the Apple Source Book, chosen at random by John earlier this evening, is ... Kristina.

Congratulations! If you send me your address, I'll pop it in the post either this week or next, depending on Royal Mail.

22 October 2009

sea apple

Apples seem to like the seaside. I remember I found a tree by the estuary when I visited the Isle of Grain. This one is growing at the bottom of the sea wall on the Seasalter Road on the way to Whitstable. Love it.

21 October 2009

the sheep's nose

The Sheep's Nose is a culinary apple with a "sub-acid taste" according to the National Fruit Collection website. The name comes, apparently, from the shape of the apple. It would be just wonderful if these grew on Sheppey.

20 October 2009

new pig on the block

We have a new neighbour on the allotment. The ginger Tamworth has moved out and a big boar Gloucester Old Spot has moved in. They are good foragers and used to get on well in the west country orchards, a proper smallholders pig.

It is said that the spots derive from the bruises made by the windfall apples. Such a handsome pig, though if I was him I would stay away from apple sauce as long as possible.

19 October 2009

island of sheep

It was only three weeks ago that we visited the Isle of Sheppey on one of those days that were hot in the sun and cool in the shade, the first early days of autumn. In my quest to visit the eastern isles (forgive me Messrs Johnson and Boswell), I could not miss out Sheppey, site of chalet holidays with kind aunties when I was a child, an island where you get three isles for the price of one courtesy of the marshy creeks, the Saxon island of sheep.

You reach the Isle of Harty at the south of Sheppey via a long, worn out road across the flat sheep filled fields. There must have been a ferry at one point across the estuary to Faversham or Whitstable, now at the end of the road only the Ferry Inn remains.

We wanted to walk across to the sea wall north of Shellness and went via footpaths that occasionally disappeared. We didn't know quite what to expect - the best part of any new walk when you come across surprising places and spaces that didn't quite look so good on the map. In the small trees at the corners where the footpaths crossed from one field to another there were wild plums to eat and steal (and bring home to make two pans of jam).

There were a few houses along the way, some abandoned, and a sense of being well off the beaten track.

We passed a tiny church, St Thomas the Apostle, still filled with flowers (a recent harvest festival perhaps) and decorated with the prettiest stained glass celebrating the local countryside. Jars of jam and pickles were for sale, pencils and small cookery books.

Walking on across the marshes, we could see the white cockleshell beach of Shellness distance. It was really noticeable that the sounds were different here - the rustling of a row of poplars, and the reeds, and birds in the distance. The path seemed to twist and turn so that you thought you were close one minute and further away a bit later on. I pretended I was in a foreign country.

At the end of the path we turned north, modestly passing the nudist beach, and on to tea at a friend's place before we made out way back round on a different path before the light went.

If you are wondering what the apple connection is, this is it.

The Ferry Inn serves cider from the Isle of Sheppey and we had a couple of pints. Very fine it was too. I forgot to ask where it came from - there was not much evidence of apple orchards around. I found a Sheppey based cider maker, Paul Johnson, in this list of Kentish cider makers and that may be the source. I'm thinking now that I may have to go back to check in person.

18 October 2009


This week there will be a little apple celebration here, one way or the other, to mark Apple Day on 21st October. We started off at the Brogdale, home of the National Fruit Collection, at their Apple Festival - and this is my modest attempt to mimic their fabulous apple display with the ones we bought while we were there. Even before we tried the cider, there was a point when we were sampling so many different varieties that I wondered whether we would end up like the inebriated horse, drunk on fermented apples. I kept my senses enough to make a note of the apples we finally bought - from bottom to top: Sunrise, Norfolk Royal, Blue Pearmain, Aromatic Russet, Queen Cox and Ball's Pippin.

The sheer variety of apples is overwhelming - and the shapes, colours and tastes inspiring. While the info on the NFC website is good, what it doesn't give you is the collective beauty of the apples. These Sunrise, for example, do a pretty good impression of the real thing.

For prettiness, my vote went to the Blue Pearmains with their apply dapply skins

It was the Norfolk Royal though that won me over for its taste and lovely russety colours, slightly reminscent of a drunken bloom.

There will be more appleliciousness during the week. Oh yeah, and I have a copy of the Apple Source Book (say it out loud) to give away. I've been dipping into my copy for the last few weeks and it is just too good not to share - a mixture of recipes and information on British Apples, with lots of information on where to buy them, what to use the for and how to celebrate. Just leave a comment between now and Saturday 24th October on any of this week's apple posts - and do share the apple love.

17 October 2009

miss cahill's curtains and other stories

If you read this, you will remember that I came home with stuff from my mum's stash to make some bags. I've spent today at an autumn bazaar selling them along with a pile of remnant agaves of various sizes ( odd combination, I know). Our family has a long association with this annual event. My Uncle Bill was the master of the Wheel of Fortune and my mum and aunts used to prepare for it through the early autumn knitting baby clothes, sewing aprons and making dolls clothes. I now find myself carrying on the family tradition. Not that this is a chore for someone moderately addicted to the British jumble sale, summer fete and sale of goods. And while there are inevitably certain frustrations associated with the chaos of any volunteer-organised activities, these are balanced out by the pleasure of the satisfied customer and a job well done.

Take the remnants from Miss Cahill's curtains. The late Miss C used to teach at my primary school and worked there with my aunt and my mum. She asked my mum to make some curtains for her and it was the offcuts from these my mum gave me back in August. The two bags I made from them were bought today by Miss B who plans to give them to Miss C's nieces. The journey of this fabric and its happy ending has a pleasing circularity.

Other bags also left in safe and satisfied hands. The piece of denim from my mum's stash was only big enough to make one bag. This was bought by Zoe (10 years old, her gran lives a few doors away from my mum). She walked around with it carelessly perched on her shoulder, checking it out now and then to make sure it still looked OK. The barge roses made two bags, one bought by by Julie from Antrim, the other to a lady who used to live in a house on the site of the school building we were in. The two ikat-patterned bags have gone off to America. The faded chintz bag, one of my favourites and bought by my brother for his wife, will live round the corner. Georgie P (used to be in my class at school) bought another for his wife.

I can now rest easy - or almost. Because part of the deal of selling at these events is that you will reciprocate by buying. Our household goods have now increased to include one wind-up radio, a new soap dish, a vase, a dozen new books, not all for us, and our tombola winnings.

Any bids for a tin of Tesco's broccoli and stilton soup?

PS If you are interested in the pattern I used for the bags, you can find it here.

14 October 2009

queensland blues

My favourite winter squash has to be the Queensland Blue, with its deliciously dense flesh and beautiful colouring. I managed to crop just three this year along with one small Crown Prince. Some years they are really steely blue - these ones have not quite reached that point.

I want to do better than this next year. I still have not quite got to grips with the soil at Mudchute, what with the aminopyralid and the magnesium deficiency and the general lack of organic matter. So we have been working in sharp sand and adding seaweed and will be adding some flowers of sulphur and lots of leaf mould and compost over the winter. And as soon as the clocks go back, there will be some serious planning going on...

12 October 2009

not disneyland

The last 10 days have been strange, getting used to a new rhythm to life, exploring what exactly it is that I want to explore. The lack of a familiar structure to my day has been difficult to deal with. It reminded me of those first months of being at home with a new baby when I didn't seem to be able to get out of the house before midday. At least I had an excuse back then. Now I feel like there is some spell on me, distracted by the washing-up and dust, and somehow unable to get the better of it all. Yet.

That's not to say that there have not been some interesting moments. I spent a substantial amount of the first week in A&E and the fracture clinic keeping young John company while he waited to have his broken wrist fixed. While we were waiting, an elderly couple came in, the woman nursing her arm in a sling and her husband solicitously trying to make her comfortable. It was not another broken arm though. John overheard her telling the nurse what had happened. " I had a Mars bar and though he might like a little bit. The squirrel. But he wanted the lot and bit me. Now I'm going to have a rabies shot and god knows what. I don't know what I was thinking of - I mean he hadn't come out of Bambi, had he. It's not bloody Disneyland."

I thought of this when I was in St James Park on Thursday,. Walking around the lake, I came across a stunning view that somehow looked more like a European city than London. A tourist asked me to take a photo of him against the backdrop. We chatted briefly and I asked him which was his favourite park - "Oh, this one. Look at the view. It's like Disneyland." But when I saw a woman feeding the squirrels, one running along her arm to get at the nuts she was holding, I remembered the old lady and I wanted to remind her that it wasn't Disneyland after all.

If only it was. I seem to remember that the squirrels in Bambi were pretty good at washing up, weren't they?

04 October 2009

bryk place

A little while ago, pre Booker frenzy, I read a piece by Hilary Mantel in the Guardian about how novelists unlock the emotion embedded in the past, in this particular case triggered by the traces found in the bricks of the house where Ralph Sadler lived. It's worth reading the full article because she writes so well about what it is like to be a novelist, but if you haven't the time, this is what she said about the bricks and what they held:

"But down in the cellar are the real traces of the past, like the building's flesh and blood: Tudor bricks, small rosy bricks, made right on the building site from the earth near Hackney Brook. This is Ralph's house in process, in the spring of 1535, when the soft bricks were tipped from their wooden moulds on to straw and left to dry before firing in a kiln. The workmen have marked some bricks with an X, to show that they are the 10th, or maybe the 100th. There are other marks, dots and whorls; they could be crude signatures, or good luck charms. In one of the bricks a blade of grass, blown on a spring breeze, is caught in outline like a fossil. Another brick, still wet, was trampled on by a dog."

I rode over to Sadler's house - Bryk Place as it was then, now Sutton House - to see them myself. Maybe those telltale bricks were there last time I visited. If they were I didn't notice them because I was too taken with the linenfold panelling at the time. Although I cannot claim to have felt the same depth of emotion as Ms Mantel, there was certainly something moving about the marks on the bricks and the notion that they were made locally. But somehow, what I find it easiest to see in my mind's eye is the lolloping, grinning dog, joining in, making a nuisance of itself walking in the wet clay, and a hard done by workman cursing it to high heaven. And that rather tickles me.

02 October 2009


The jargon may have changed now, but a few years ago the concept of "sunsetting" was frequently discussed where I worked. It was about putting a stop to work that was no longer needed, work whose day was over.

I thought about this as I walked home on Wednesday. I had had a very good day - put the final touches to the report I had been working on, went to buy party food, and was served a lovely cup of tea - with teapot - by a colleague. We had cakes and fizzy wine, a very short goodbye speech and best wishes passed on. I was the last one out. I switched on the "out of office", closed the front door and walked to Marble Arch through the park. An early moon was just showing through the clouds as the daylight faded. Sunsetted.

Quite a good feeling after all.