26 January 2010

diary addendum

A link to the Diary of a Victorian Clerk, Nathaniel Bryceson, popped into my inbox this afternoon, from the City of Westminster. The entry for 22nd January made me laugh, as does his interest in clothes.

passing the time of day:: two

I have been enjoying the recent series of programmes on BBC 4 about diarists, the surprising choices made by the presenters, and the separate programme dedicated to Pepys. I pop in to see what he was up to every now and then and find myself consoled when I find that instead of "Up and to the office.." in his White Rabbitish style, I come across "Lay pretty long...". Even a man of Pepys energy and vigour had the seventeenth century equivalent of a duvet day now and then.

I very much admire anyone who manages to maintain a diary or, come to that, write a daily blog. John writes his diary everyday with a record of the weather, what he has planted, what's doing well, what went well. I've never quite managed to maintain that discipline, though I did keep a record in 1978 when we spent the winter on a farm in Herefordshire. The diary has a lot of weather talk, food talk, work talk, radio talk, an obsession with laundry, all the things that took precedence in the middle of nowehere where there was a long walk across the fields to post a letter or buy a bag of sweets.

This is how this week in January looked:
  • 23rd Jan: A wild rainy morning, Very good string winding. Felt very tired after work but still went to post letter to P and send card to C. Irritated to find wireless broken. Interesting tea of pigeon casserole - pigeons given to John by man at Yarkhill. Did pile of washing before having a good scrub myself.
  • 24th Jan: Rainy night but a mild morning. Turned windy but by three o'clock wind has dropped leaving a very sunny afternoon - washing quite well dried. Many mishaps with the tea, which was depressing. PS Chickens beginning to lay again.
  • 25th Jan: A lovely mild sunny day. John went into Hereford and bought himself a new pair of hobnails and a cast iron kettle for £2. A quite satisfactory day.
  • 26th Jan: John went to town again to buy his wood. Slight snow storm in the afternoon. Discovered that kettle had holes in the spout.
And so it goes on full of the trivia of living out in the sticks. Hardly Pepsyian, but funny to look back on and puzzle about some of the entries. Whatever mishaps could have happened with the tea? What was that wood for? Who was the man who gave us the pigeons?

By the way, the kettle spout was mended, it appears, on the 28th. Thank goodness for that.

25 January 2010

passing the time of day

One of the things I am enjoying about not being gainfully employed is the freedom to do things at times of the day when I would once have been confined inside. Last Friday, for example, I went with some friends to the Matthew Smith exhibition at the Guildhall Gallery behind Cheapside and had the time and space to enjoy the boldness of his paintings without having to rush off somewhere else. In fact, the whole of the gallery is locked into a time capsule of gentle consideration - the guard on the door actually remembered me from a visit I made back in October. Way below in the depths of the art gallery are the preserved remains of London's Roman Amphitheatre; and out in the square you can trace its arc in the paving tiles.

On the other side of the square, inside the Guildhall Library building, is the curious little Clockmaker's Museum. It charts the history of clockmaking in the city, describes how prominent London was, led by the Guild, and the achievements of all the men involved. Yet even though the achievements of these clockmakers were impressive and influential, I could not get too excited about the clocks and watches on display, their showiness. I am not a lover of watches. A couple of things caught my imagination - an old sun dial, a little frame of watch hands, delicately arranged; some "toy" watches; and some of the intricate and beautiful springs and balances. And the sound of the carriage clocks clustered at one end of the room, tocking discreetly, slightly out of time with each other. (They were most definitely tocking and not ticking.)

On the way out, I noticed that the museum is occasionally closed to allow for rewinding. Which is, I think, what I've doing for the past few months, though not entirely without glitches.

I'll come back to that later.

Entry to the art gallery is free on Fridays. Entry to the Clockmaker's Museum is free.

24 January 2010


When there seems to be no respite from the grey skies, but you want to get out and walk, you might just as well embrace it and choose a place where the bleakness is a virtue. Prompted by Knit Nurse's post on the London Loop, we opted for the last section of the loop, the walk from Rainham to Purfleet, a walk that takes you from the outskirts of Rainham, under the A13 and through light industrial factories and yards to the riverside. After the first five minutes, you wonder what error of judgement brought you here. Roundabouts planted with sad, dead specimens, abandoned tyres, threatening signs warning of dogs in yards, razorwire bordered yards. Then an enormous fig tree on a scrap of land, catkins, lichen covered elders, odd decaying fragments of the estuary.

The shoreline here is covered in a monumental amount of detritus - plastic bottles, washed up bags, wood, old toys. After a while you reach an impressive fluvial graveyard of concrete barges, used in the World War Two D-day landings. A part from a distant hum, it is very quiet, just a couple of people pass on bikes, a couple walking. There is a faint smell of sulphur in the air and, further on, the scent of damp pine from a yard full of pallets watched over by a scarecrow and stone owl. The marshes seem to recede, or maybe they are just covered by the recycling plant with its huge pile of compost steaming away like some giant christmas pudding.

Further along, closer to Purfleet, there is more activity, a few more walkers and cyclists, then the first bird watchers with their giant telescopes. This is the boundary of the Rainham Marshes RSPB reserve, edged to the south by three ages of sea wall, the remains of the oldest medieval wall just about visible at low tide; the marshy flats lie to the north, old firing ranges visible from the days when it was used for training soldiers. We stopped for a cup of coffee at the RSPB centre (lovely, friendly volunteers) and were astonished to see that 95 different species of bird had been seen that day. (How I want to see a bearded tit, a woodcock, a peregrine too.)

There is something sad about this place. It's been inhabited for centuries, exploited and raked over, a marshy bleakness littered with fragments of beauty. At least it doesn't bother the birds.

You might notice a flaw in all of these pictures. I've obviously got a speck of dirt behind the lens; my other camera is similarly afflicted. Sorry!

21 January 2010

why I love EEWI

I love this photo. It may not be the most technically competent snap, but it captures a moment of sheer exuberant pleasure at the end of a singing workshop we had last night at our East End WI meeting. I don't recall any other event when I have seen so many of us smiling so widely.

It's not unusual for me to come home full of joy after one of our get-togethers. The tippling helps, of course, as does zipping home on the bike. It is, though, the sheer pleasure of meeting and mixing with a range of different women, mostly very local, but some travelling from further afield. I'd be the first to admit that it might not be to everyone's taste - one friend described it as a bit like brownies for grown-ups, another said she found it all a bit too worthy for her. It's probably also true that the personality of the branch, what you want to get out of it, and what you want to give back can change over time. But I would not have guessed a couple of years ago that through EEWI I'd be devising a dance performance with my mates and performing in public; chatting over supper with an elderly lady who'd been a Wren in the Forties; picnicking in the dark for Earth Hour; being counselled by wiser women; selling the joys of sowing and growing; making cakes by the hundred; making my own homeopathy remedies; designing a bee apron; sewing morsbags for England (or so it seemed); working with gifted women who aren't motivated by what's in it for them.

A few of us have been making jam for Imperial War Museum recently (described here and here). One of our group described her pleasure at one of the sessions at sharing something new as well as small chat about life in general, feeling part of a community and the sense of history and wondering whether this was how it used to be when the recipes were first used. Which just about sums it up beautifully for me.

And the singing.


If you have not yet decided how to contribute to the appeals for help, you might want to consider Shelterbox, a small, very practical charity that provides a full shelter kit for a family. With thanks to 60 Going on 16 for flagging this up.

20 January 2010

upstairs, downstairs

It was a Messy Tuesday. The grate needed cleaning and a fire laying. I could have ignored it, but there is something so particularly dusty and dirty and depressing about a dead fire. It made me think about what it was like for my mum and aunts when they were young women and the only source of heat was a coal fire, all that sweeping and cleaning and chopping.

I am adept at the laying of fires after years of practice; our domestic standard is one match only for the lighting, and definitely no firelighters. But mysterious things happen in the far end of the cellar under the coalhole. We used to have a neat little tool to chop wood, but it has disappeared. Now we have a mighty axe fit to create havoc with careless hands. It's beyond me. I scrabble around picking up leftover splinters of wood and breaking what I can over my bent leg. (Yes, I am that person to be seen poking around in skips looking for old orange boxes, possibly the greenest part of our extravagant domestic heating arrangements)

Coal I can manage a little more easily. Not real coal, not allowed in London, but a manufactured concoction, chunky and black, and reminiscent of Pomfret Cakes. It makes a most satisfying clunk when it rolls down into the scuttle.

These nether regions of the cellar are home to all sorts. Just last week I had to remove all my old baskets when I discovered woodworm in them, a very alarming discovery. This time I found an elegant young slug, which at least explained the curious slime trails I've been seeing. I'm beginning to wonder whether it is only a matter of time before I come across toads lurking on the earth banks, or Mrs Tittlemouse sweeping up the dusty floor.

Looking for the largest splinters and leftovers I could find, I came across a sad looking toy soldier in the coal dust on the cellar floor. It stopped me in my tracks - I can remember my boy playing with these.

I left the dusty underworld and sent down the boy to get to work.

16 January 2010

mitten cat stays warm

Our mitten cat likes to stay warm. Even though the temperature has gone up, it's wet outside and she isn't taking any chances. The best spot by the fire, basking under electric lamps, snoozing under the radiator. And, Polly's a two-hot-water-bottle kind of girl. Just like me.

12 January 2010


erratic: having no fixed course;transported from an original resting place, especially by a glacier; characterized by a lack of consistency, regularity or uniformity; deviating from what is ordinary or standard. ( Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary)

I was completely captivated as a sixth-former by the poetry of glaciation - drumlins, eskers, terminal moraines, corries and arretes, erratics. I can't tell you how excited I was when, cycling around Ireland many years ago I suddenly realised that I was surrounded by basket-of-egg drumlins; how much I wanted the unexpected hilly parts of Norfolk to be terminal moraines; coming across perfectly round lakes on field trips. The power of glaciers to scour and shape.

I'm not sure that I've ever seen a natural erratic, those rocks that have been transported from their original locations by glaciers and dumped miles from their natural landscape. You do come across faux-erratics every now and then. When I was a child, we used to play on a giant rock of chalk left on the grass outside a block of flats. It was still there the last time I looked, diminished in size either by the attrition of children's scuffing or me being twice the size I was, or both. There's another art-work erratic in the middle of Hackney Marshes- you can see it from the A102. (I was pleased to see that it was featured in the Museum of Childhood's brilliant little exhibition, Kingsmead Eyes. This link takes you to a short video of some of the work - I love it.

I don't remember having seen before the erratic I photographed here. It's probably been there for ages, but because I took a different route across Mile End Park in the snow last week, I stumbled across it. Now the snow has gone, it might even look like a glacier left it there.

Hope to stop posting so erratically soon, though there is a lot to be said for having no fixed course and deviating from the ordinary.

08 January 2010

flight to egypt bay

After a couple of days stuck in with a cold, I became slightly obsessed with getting down to the seaside or the estuary. Still suffering from post-viral achiness and not wanting to tempt the weather gods, we chose a trip to Egypt Bay. There is a named walk - something to do with smugglers and curlews and well signposted - that takes you across the marshes to the Thames Estuary, between the Isle of Grain and Cliffe, down Decoy Lane to Swigshole. (Swigshole! It isn't a figment of Dickens imagination, it really exists.) We walked along the path, sheep on one side, cattle on the other, bright sun in front of us and threatening clouds behind. The place was deserted, the only sound to speak of the crunchiness of the frozen ground and, where the temptation was too much for me to resist, the satisfying crack of ice breaking.
Egypt Bay is not pretty. It's one of those places that catches deposits of seaweed and detritus. The tide was high, just becoming slack, marked by that familiar watery sloppiness. There was a narrow peninsula of cockle shells and we sat down to eat a slice of christmas cake, looking across towards Canvey Island. I actually saw three ships go by; no sails though just containers. No laughing frogs. No curlews either, with the high tide. Pity - I love the sound of curlews.

We walked along the sea wall a little way, then turned back across the marshes and picked our way back through the dykes. Little flocks of goldfinches appeared now and then. The thorns on the wild roses seemed particularly brutal.

Even the gate posts seemed to be unecessarily heavily barbed.

It was on the drive home that we passed the end of Christmas Lane.

06 January 2010

a walk down christmas lane

I thought that because I was not at work now, this would not feel like a holiday but, much to my surprise, and for reasons I am still pondering, these last two weeks have been one of the best holidays ever.

I had been feeling fairly lacklustre when, rather late in the day, the spirit kicked in. In a panic about the presents I did not have, I sat up into the early hours of Christmas Day making a necklace using the remnants of some green silk I have had for twenty years (instructions available in this book). And after I put on the turkey, in the glorious peace before the sun was up on Christmas Day, I sat hand sewing a handkerchief from some tana lawn (coveted after a visit to see Grayson Perry's Walthamstow Tapestry). Said hankie has already had an outing to see the football at West Ham in the pocket of my brother's overcoat.

Then the holiday began. Christmas pudding for breakfast, cake and sherry for tea, cats competing for prime position nearest the fire and playing hide and seek under the tree, getting up late, feeding a cold and sleeping off the aches and sneezes in the afternoon, seeing friends and family, wearing party frocks with woolly tights, watching the Red Shoes and New Year's Eve fireworks, walking in the freezing wind by the seaside, hunting Stanley Spencer spots and checks in Cambridge and London, catching up on mending, candlelight for warmth, boiling stock and making soups, looking out for abominable snowmen.

And enjoying the first glass of sloe gin while I took down the decorations today.

A late start and a proper twelfth night finish. Here's to 2010 and being bolder.