28 February 2010

of trees and aunts and uncles

There was a little family tree planting down in Kent this weekend.  My cousin added three fruit trees to the field at the back of their house in memory of her mum and dad and our Aunt Mary.  John, as befits a gardener, couldn't wait to get started with his fit for purpose tree-planting spade.  Before long he was joined by a posse of young boys crying "Dig for Victory !" and calling him Uncle Arthur (a la Dad's Army).  Cousins sawed wood and banged in stakes and unravelled fencing.  I stood well back holding my baby godson and let the other fourteen get on with it.

There is something special about the way aunts and uncles shape your life.  They are more forgiving it seems to me, their expectations more expansive.  They hold you in check - mine did anyway - but they can also give you another space when it's needed.  Over a cup of tea, my cousin mentioned that she held our Aunt Rosie entirely responsible for her passion for nail varnish, the same aunt whose stash of bridesmaid's paraphernalia I used to snitch and play with as a child (she was always a bridesmaid and never a bride), the one who loved all the new babies as they came along.  It works the other way too.  I watch my cousins with my mum and they are much more indulgent than I am, still grateful for the things she did for them when they were children, things that I took for granted.

After supper we marked the tree planting with a little ceremony.  The aunts and uncles, mums and dads lit three Chinese lanterns and we watched them float off.

I so hope the children will remember it.  And that the lanterns didn't do any damage.  I am, after all, the health and safety aunt.

27 February 2010

a lambeth walk

I  think I may have fallen in love with Lambeth.  My recent jam-related visits to the Imperial War Museum helped me to appreciate more the vantage point that Lambeth North has, nestled within a giant meander, with seven Thames bridges within walking distance.  One day I walked home via Borough High Street, London Bridge and the streets around Samuel Pepys old home.  Another freezing cold day I crossed Waterloo Bridge to get up to the Strand and back home from Temple, red faced from the biting wind.

Last weekend, Lambeth lured me back, this time to the Museum of Garden History to see the Good Life exhibition.  The route to the museum is infused with rural promise - first underneath the fern laden arches of Upper Marsh with their sooty encrustations, elegant brickwork and rusticated stonework; then through Archbishop's Park, hemmed in by Lambeth Palace, where a single witch hazel scented the wintry beds.  Finally you walk along the wall lined road to the redundant church of St Mary at Lambeth that houses the modest little museum and the tomb of plantsmen John Tradescant and his son.

This museum does not do grand.  The Good Life exhibition we went to see was quite small and was a rallying call forself sufficiency, allotments and growing your own vegetables.  To our surprise, there on the wall was a quote from John from his days on the committee of Manor Gardens, a picture of him carrying a blazing torch and a plan of my old plot done by the woman who took it over from me.  Lesson number one of plot holding:  be gracious and do not get piqued when someone inherits your lovely patchwork bed design, asparagus, raspberries, euphorbia, yuccas, fig and apple trees and gets the benefit of your years of investment.  Like Capability Brown, you garden for posterity, even if posterity is short lived.

Upstairs in the permanent display space were some pretty paintings, a desirable collection of old garden tools and some curious gardening ephemera - ancient gardening boots, seed packets, Britains farm and garden models.  I was impressed by this riveted earthenware flowerpot, the fact that it was valuable enough to someone to bother mending it...

... while around the same time someone could afford to have pony boots made to protect the lawns when they were cut by horse drawn machinery.   Somehow the boots bring to mind images of ponies dancing on the lawn at garden parties.  If only.

Outside in the walled garden, above the rumble of the traffic, Big Ben struck the hour, a blackbird was singing, and it didn't matter in the least that it was going to rain on the journey home.

Mr Tradescant's stonemason with his hellish visions was clearly no gardener.

(If you haven't got your act together yet, there is a seed and potato fair at the museum this Sunday.)

24 February 2010

best of british

My friend became a British Citizen yesterday and invited three of us along to the ceremony at the old Bromley-by-Bow Town Hall.  I've never been to one before and was surprised at how friendly it all was.  Cups of tea and biscuits for everyone, the Mayor coming round to say hello, lots of snapping and smiling. Dress was supposed to be smart casual but some people had dressed up for the occasion - my stylish friend in her 60s lacy, peach-coloured frock, and some Bangladeshi women looking ravishing  in richly decorated saris.  The Mayor made a lovely, thankfully short, speech about Tower Hamlet's long history of immigration, the importance of knowing your neighbour and how everyone had the opportunity to become fully involved in their local communities. After the oath taking, each person got a certificate, a round of applause and a photo opportunity before we finished off with a couple of rousing verses of the National Anthem before going back out into a traditional heavy downpour of sleety rain. It was all very jolly and also rather touching.

I'm not sure what the precedents are for citizenship gifts, but I thought some lucky red tulips, some special tea and cake would be "suitable" (as B.Pym might say).  The label on the tea, some fine Oolong, suggested it's scent would suggest narcissus and hyacinth, so with the poppyseed cake and the passion cake it turned out to be a rather fragrant tea-time.  All of which set some people up very nicely for that other great tradition, a night in the pub.

If you are interested in the recipe for the Passion Cake, here it is.  I found it in my recipe scrap book but had not noted down where it came from.  Essentially it's a version of carrot cake with a twist -  it includes mashed potato.  I used unseasoned leftovers and substituted margarine for the butter - all very frugal, which seemed rather fitting for the British theme of the celebration.  It made a lovely moist, nutty cake, but I thought it could have done with a bit more spice, a good pinch of nutmeg, or maybe black pepper.  As you can see, I'm still using (ahem) Imperial Measures.  Click on the pic for enlargement.

21 February 2010


There was a time that I used to sit down and plan my vegetable beds months in advance.  Now I'm a bit more relaxed about it.  Even so, one day of sunshine, a slight rise in temperature and sun in the morning is enough to get you plotting.  So the garlic has been planted in one of the little beds in front of the shed and I'm thinking about where I'm going to fit in all those potatoes and what might have to be sacrificed because of lack of space.

And being the shallow person I am, I'm also wondering whether I am ever going to be able to sully the lavender gardening gloves that came with the compliments of the Master of the Worshipful Company of Gardeners last week.

There wasn't very much to report on the night out and nothing to show because cameras were not allowed. Excellent food and drink, balletic service, some nice frocks.  Oh, and some of the men wore stockings and the Master was a woman.  Which explains the delightful colour of the gloves.

17 February 2010

love on the canal

It was the loveliest day today - bright, sunny and, for the first time for what seems like weeks, a few degrees above freezing. My friend and I cycled up to Broadway Market in the morning sunshine for coffee, then across London Fields on to Ridley Road to check out the fabrics at the Dalston Mill. We mooched around the market among the pots and pans, bowls of fruit and veg, hats and dresses and fish. We bought brass buttons, parsley for tabbouleh, fresh eggs and fast food (for her, spicy oxtail and red bean rice) before we turned round and worked out way back home. Just as we reached the path where I turned off, just around the corner from where I saw the Speckled Woods last year, we came across a flight of butterflies on the wall, a love poem and a scattering of flowers.

There is definitely beauty in the city.

14 February 2010


John celebrates his birthday today and when he came down this morning, this is what he found. My son had left him some (by then cold) toast with a Nutella heart, which must have taken some concentration as he didn't get home from his night out until around 8 o'clock this morning. The card comes from Felix's anti-valentine collection ( and thanks to her for getting them to us on time - I knew my boy would like them.)

So here's a toast to you all with best wishes for a lovely day. Toasty warm at least.

12 February 2010

...is not gold

I have been totally captivated over the last month by the British Museum/BBC's History of the World in 100 Objects. I look forward each day to the unearthing of another of the museum's treasures via my radio, rather like opening the door on an advent calendar. Then I peek at the website to see whether the aural description does justice to the chosen item. Across the country, local museums are telling history through their choices and individuals have been invited to identify the objects they would include. And there have been such wonderful things to see - the achingly beautiful carved reindeer, the Mesopotamian clay writing tablet with its descriptions of beer rations, the Jomon cooking pot, the jade axe, the clay cattle - objects so beautiful in their simplicity that they make your heart jump.

Today's object was the Mold Gold Cape, finely crafted and still a bit of a mystery as to when t was worn. One theory is that it was a ceremonial piece, worn to display the wealth and power of the wearer - and like a lot of power goods both then and now, difficult to wear with any degree of comfort.

I have a fancy for anything with a touch of gold and I just love these ancient, bashed-up gold artefacts - it must be the East End show- off coming to the surface. As it is, my gold ceremonial wear is much simpler - a strip of coloured silk, sewn up at the sides, washed, wrung out and tied in a knot to dry to make some rough pleats. Took about an hour to make. I'll be wearing it tomorrow when I meet the good people of the Worshipful Company of Gardeners at the Mansion House (not my usual kind of hangout, but it is my year of being bolder). Pretty though my mock cape is, somehow I don't think the Lord Mayor will be eating his heart out.

I hope to add my two penn'orth to the 100 objects project. You can add your own objects to the website; read about the objects other bloggers have chosen, like Kate's knitting sticks and Anna's exploration ; or post something on your own blog. Whatever, I do hope you enjoy teh project as much as I am.

11 February 2010


Yes! Chitting has started. and somehow it feels that sub-zero temperatures will rise and spring will arrive. After the messing around we had last year with the aminopyralid and while we are still waiting for the results of the soil contamination tests, I decided not to go too wild and just popped down to B&Q and got what they had on sale - Pentland Javelin, Nicola and Charlotte (oh, I know one or the other would have done rather than both), and Desiree. There are so many that I've had to bring a table in from the garden to lay them on.

Now when I come down in the morning I find that there is something eerily reminscent of Anthony Gormley's Field for the British Isles going on in the kitchen.

all that glitters...

We have a little brass table that my niece uses when she pops in and we sit down and do a bit of painting or whatever. Her favourite thing, after finding the cats, is glueing and sticking and covering drawing paper with glitter, a task that she tackles with such gusto that all of her concentration and energy goes into it. Remnants of the glitter stick to everything - the table, the cushions, the carpet - for the rest of the week, impossible to eradicate.

I just love her glitter obsession. Absolutely priceless.

10 February 2010

waste not, want not

In spite of the sudden drop in temperatures around here, there is something of an air of clearing the decks. This is my Belgian Cake, a light fruity affair with a touch of bite, which helps to use up any leftover mincemeat - and somehow there always seems to be some left in the cupboard after Christmas. The recipe comes from my battered and much loved Cranks Recipe book which still gets used a fair bit here for its simple soup recipes and the house speciality vegetable crumble.

As it happens, I've been rather immersed in worthy wartime recipes too, firstly while researching jam and pickle recipes for our WI jam making project, then just trying to get a feel for what it must have been like to feed a family on rations during and after the war years. A few of us went along today to the Imperial War Museum for a preview of their Ministry of Food exhibition and had a taste of some of typical recipes - mock goose (good, but nothing to do with the taste of goose), potato oatmeal savoury biscuits (very good), scone bites with mock cream made with margarine and sugar (gross) and, for lunch, corned beef and piccalilli sandwiches (rather good, actually).

We were filled with admiration for the fortitude and imagination of those women who were responsible for feeding themselves and their families on the meagre rations and limited range of foods available, on top of the daily shopping and queuing, keeping the house clean, making do and mending and, in nearly 6000 WI preservation centres around the country, making jam. No wonder they needed half as many more calories as we do and an 8oz a week ration of sugar each. And all that cooking. The ABC of Cookery, published in 1945 advises good meal planning, rather like the Love Food, Hate Waste advice, but also gives suggested menus for four meals a day, plus snacks for some, and recommends having some form of fat at each meal to prevent getting tired and hungry too quickly. All of which explains why my Aunt Mary insisted on regular meals and had a grip of iron up until she died at 90.

If you aren't rationing yourself and fancy a treat, here is the Belgian Cake recipe. Don't worry too much about using wholemeal flour or raw brown sugar if you don't have it, use white and dodge the thunderbolt.

Cream 4oz (100g) butter/ margarine and 3oz (75g) brown sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in 2 free-range eggs a little at a time. Fold in 5oz (225g) wholemeal self-raising flour, 8oz (225g) mincemeat and 1tbsp water. Spoon into an 8in square cake tin and level off. Bake at 170 degrees C (450 degrees F/ Gas Mark 3) until well risen and golden. ( The recipe says for around 30 minutes but mine has never been ready that quickly - nearer to 40 or 45 mins I'd say).

Time to polish off the last of the sloe gin now.

09 February 2010

make do and mend

Thanks for all the helpful comments about vacuum cleaners! Just goes to show that nature may abhor a vacuum but we don't. I still have not got round to mending the existing machine and am seriously tempted by the promise of a lighter, brighter model...when I've saved up for it (though a new camera may come first) .

I'm all for saving but even I was beginning to think about the value of darning the moth damage in a pair of John's socks this week- we were talking about some serious holes here - but to be honest, I do rather like the challenge of a bit of darning, and as long as he doesn't flash his ankles they should be fine for the rest of the cold weather. I'm also thinking about doing something with the remains of my old Harris Tweed allotment jacket that the moths devastated and which I have now unpicked and salvaged. I have an idea for using the remains which involves this map of the Manor Gardens allotment site, now demolished for the Olympics. Hope it will be finished before 2012. My project that is.

02 February 2010

a new broom sweeps clean

My vacuum cleaner is broken. All is not lost though because it just so happens that I bought a new stiff-bristled broom a couple of weeks ago. It really is a very satisfying job to sweep the house with a broom. No eardrum bursting vrooming sending the cats scattering, just some brisk strokes, a kind of conflation of swishing and whisking; the broom as a swisk-stick. After tackling the kitchen and stairs and front room, I was warmer than I have been for days. Strangely it also leaves you feeling a little glow of sanctimoniousness.

Two proverbs knocked off in one.

01 February 2010

all's well that ends well

Still on the subject of diaries, I suffered what I think is called a diary malfunction yesterday. I thought it was the day of a potato fair in East Dulwich, but it turns out that it was last week. Instead we went across to the Dulwich Art Gallery only to find that the drawing exhibition finished last week. Which left us with a trip to the Horniman Museum, a gem of a place, where at least we might get a decent cup of tea, a walk in the gardens and a dash of ethnography and culture all in the one pot.

The Horniman is a lovely museum. Small, inclusive and imaginative, it buzzes with life. We were impressed with the beautiful photography and perceptive juxtaposition of everyday and natural objects in Nature as Designer by Alision Millner and Steve Speller. Then we looked at the traveling Fabric of a Nation exhibition looking at how fabric and its design is used as an expression of everyday Ghanaian life.

Here there were uniforms where the names and distinguishing motifs of institutions were part of the fabric design, and worn with pride, a far cry from the regulation stripes of my school dresses. Other fabrics were inspired by local sayings and proverbs. A prince does not cry.

Do not put your gold around the neck of a Guinea Fowl.

A bird that is not in flight roosts.

Wildness cannot stoke fire.

Like the best exhibitions, both of these made me want to bring these ideas home with me - play with the contents of my cutlery drawer and vegetable box and see what I could come up with and think about how to illustrate well known sayings. Which all goes to show that all's well that ends well and (maybe) the best things in life are free.