30 April 2010

least said

I know that one of the things I shall recall mostly fondly about the cold winter is the reacquaintance with my sewing machine.  It's a very simple Singer, bought by mum for me 30 years ago - before that I was using a manual Singer, a perfect gift for a travelling girl - and it would definitely be a prime candidate for the personal history of my world in one hundred objects.  Our second honeymoon has been a gentle one,  No major projects - lots of simple bags, shortening curtains for the kitchen to keep out the Arctic draughts, a pinny for my niece, and many moderations to my existing wardrobe - a nip here, a darn there, and huge amounts of shortening of hems. The thrift-based impetus of this remodelling is probably worthy of a post of its own, but for now let's just note that the success rate is not one hundred percent.  I think this is because some things were never quite right in the beginning and no amount of faffing about is ever going to rectify the basic "wrongness" of some garments.  They are normally the ones that never felt quite right in the beginning, but would do for the time being, as opposed to the ones you fell in love with from first sight.

I have  been wondering about the value of some of this making do and mending. It does not always make economic sense in monetary terms, but it makes you feel good.  And here is one of the successes of which I am most proud,  one which I thought I would never ever get round to doing...

It's only an old work shirt, and a cheap one at that, but it's been hardwearing and could so at least another season.  And when it does finally die it will go on to a worthy afterlife...

I think this patchwork came out of a ragbag somewhere.  I made it into a pillowcase, but the fabric is too fragile and it's now reaching the point where there are more new patches than old.  It must have come from a household with a lot of men with a lot of shirts (each patch is different) because in this house it would take about 30 years for us to produce enough old shirts.  Especially if we carry on turning collars.

28 April 2010

ebb and flow

"It is true there is an ebb and flow, but the sea remains the sea." Vincent Van Gogh

I guess I've been in ebb mode for the last couple of weeks.  Life has been going on, no dramatic events, a few outings, a surfeit of asparagus, cake making, watering seedlings, lots of lovely sunshine.  I may not have been writing here, but I've been thinking about doing it.  And inevitably there are have been some fluminations ( flumen, river) - actually, I don't think there is any such a word, but there should be.

Let's start with the Van Gogh exhibition at the RA.  Visiting a major exhibition on the final weekend is not conducive to a leisurely viewing.  But even among those floods of people the intimacy of  the correspondence between the artist and his brother Theo, the little sketches and earnest handwriting, the feeling expressed in the drawings of stooping peasants working the land, the constant striving, all of these were unusually moving.  I don't think I've ever been moved to tears before in an art gallery.  Afterwards, we walked down through St James Square and on to St James Park to recover.  Guardsmen trotted past in line, the tourists were jolly, the borders bright and blowsy and even the pelicans obliged by showing off.

We cut through Embankment Gardens.  Groups of people were wandering through with roses in their hands to commemorate something and as it got nearer lunchtime, people settled on benches to eat their lunch.  Lurking in the shadows we found a little patch of fritillaria meleagris.

Back out in the light, we sat out on the terrace at Somerset House looking out over the river, one of my favourite places for a cup of tea.  In the courtyard, children dodged through the fountains barefoot. We descended into the cool nether regions of the building, through the rusticated stonework of the alleyways, cubby holes and cellars, spaces that would once have been washed by the river, to experience Bill Fontana's River Sounding - the slapping of water, clanking of buoys, horns and bells, familiar atavistic sounds.  It was like swimming in sound among the bricks and stones..

When we emerged, I discovered that I had lost my specs somewhere between St James Park and the Embankment.  We worked our way back, and back again cutting through the flow of visitors.  Lost.

Our meanderings gave us a taste for more wateriness, this time the RSPB reserve at Elmley Marshes.  On the day we visited the sky were clear and quiet after the grounding of all UK flights.  The birds were enjoying the lack of competition with their honking, singing and quacking.  We saw owls out in the daylight, avocets, bar-tailed godwits, whimbrel, snipe, egrets, lapwings, shelduck, tufted ducks, moorhens, coots, herons, wheatears, reed buntings and a yellow bunting, a marsh harrier.  The birds come really close when you drive slowly along the road so you can catch the iridescence or their plumage or the elegant curves of their bills.  It's exciting, but in a subdued, geeky way.

I checked John's copy of the Observer's Book of Birds when I got home.  He bought as a boy when he used to scout over the bombed ruins around the Barbican bird-spotting -you can see in it his ticks and scribbled notes of sightings.  The miniature colour illustrations,  from an earlier Victorian work, are exquisitely detailed. and easily good enough to use for identification  Best of all are the descriptions of their various calls - chirrif, titterel, peewit, tu whit and ho-hoo-hoo-ooooo.  Little stints and sandpipers, knots and dunlins, redshanks and ruffs ("an occasional double pipe: but it is not a talkative bird") - I could read this for hours, and still not be able to tell the difference without a book to help.  But I will remember the sound made by the barn owl because, like me, it screeches, hisses and snores.

14 April 2010

spring greens

Tomorrow's lunch, our first cut of asparagus this year.

Vase co-ordinating with favourite frog.

Cowslip spotted while cycling through Mile End Park today.  Well, it's a bit green, isn't it.  And such a treat.

11 April 2010

slow, slow, quick, quick, slow

I have calmed down a little now, but yesterday evening I was still buzzing with the excitement of some of the things we had seen at Swale Nature Reserve yesterday.  As we made out way down to Harty Ferry, we stopped at Capel Fleet, a raptor viewing point, and saw a couple of marsh harriers sky dancing - swooping and diving together as  part of their spring mating shenanigans.  Impossible for me to photograph, though I did pick up a feather, murdered by one of the cats when I got home.

We took the same route as we did when we visited Sheppey last autumn, passing through the hedges of wild plums, now in blossom,  that yielded such delicious jam.  It was in this path that I looked down, trying to keep my hat on in the breeze and saw - for the first time ever - a slow worm basking in the sun. All those years of wanting to see a slow worm since coming across it in a Ladybird book (the British Wild Animals one perhaps?) and then to come across such an obliging little beastie, tempted to touch her smooth shiny skin but making do with a snapshot instead.  This one was about a foot long and a little bit thicker in girth than a pencil.   I wanted to bring her home to eat the slugs on the allotment, but ethics prevailed and after a little while I watched her slither off into the grass.

Slow Worm, Isle of Harty
The marshes were alive with birds.  We sat down behind the sea wall, in the sun but away from the wind, and ate our sandwiches taking it all in.  More marsh harriers, solitary this time, gliding leisurely above us, herons, egrets, redshanks, shovellers, mallard, oyster catchers, coots, moorhens, gadwall, lots of geese including some that looked like they had escaped from a farmyard, skylarks ascending, bearded tits, common gulls.  Walking back later on public footpaths we saw about half a dozen lone hares, bounding off in that characteristic zigzag fashion, but no boxing - apparently it's the does dishing out the violence. Then, peacocks in the churchyard.  Not a bad I-Spy score for a day out, I reckon.

Tiles, William De Morgan, 1870s
When we got home, a bit windworn, we made a quick supper using a handful of sea beet we'd picked mixed in with fresh pasta, anchovies, tomatoes and juice from one and a half lemons and plenty of peppery olive oil (served up in new car boot sale bargain).  The sea beet was just enough to add a bit of bite without overwhelming the dish.

See beet, tomato and anchovy pasta
I'd also planned to use some alexanders we found but when I looked for recipes could only find one using the stalks.  Now I'm thinking about the nettle, alexanders and watercress Lenten Potage mentioned by Geoffrey Grigson.  Though maybe that will be one step too far, even if I do want to save up for some new binoculars and a camera.

07 April 2010

fast forward

The clocks going forward and the erratic swings in temperature - it was 17 degrees C here in London yesterday - has disoriented us all.  People are walking around in tee shirts,  The blackbirds are singing at four o'clock in the morning.  Geese are honking as they fly past in the early hours.  And I wake up and can't get back to sleep.  It's as if we are all trying to play catch up after our months of hibernation.

The light evenings and mild weather over the last couple of days have kept up busy down on the plot till late in the evening- cool enough for a jacket but bright enough with the sun low in the sky for a straw hat, little shed on the prairie style.  The potatoes have been in now for a couple of weeks along with a few rows of red onions, and the rocket, lettuce (Red Cos and Oak Leaf) and leeks (Carentan) that I put in at the same time are all up.  Unfortunately I also sowed some of these in the same place as the potatoes in my enthusiasm, and had to re-sow them - ahem.  Beetroot (Boltardy and Detroit),  carrots (Nantes)  and a row of leaf chard went in at the same time.  We also dug in four canes of Autumn Bliss raspberries given to us by a friend and moved a rhubarb plant which miraculously decided to re-remerge in the shed garden when we thought it was well and truly dead.  

This weekend I sowed a few rows of brassicas - Romanesco, Cavolo Nero and some calabrese (Comet, a small compact variety) and popped in a row of Kohlrabi ( Superschmeltz, courtesy of Lidl's great selection of seeds) and a couple of rows of mange touts.   Some unknown variety of broad bean plants, too orderly to resist, went in too though I'll be in trouble if they are not a dwarf variety.  We also laid bags and bags of John-made compost, no-dig style, lightly forking it in.  This is our third season here and at last the top layer of earth is starting to look like soil rather than road drillings.  We'll know soon whether it really is soil when we get the results of the contamination tests in a couple of weeks time.

It may make dull reading, for which I apologise, but I rather like the litany of vegetables and it's useful for me to record what has gone in when and what is up.  When I look back at what was happening last year or the one before, I can see how things have changed.  Behind the shed, a sunless cold patch, the aspidistras looked bleak in this space last year along with the buckets and wheelbarrows (not my favourite plant anyway, but we all have to compromise); for the last couple of weeks they have been interspersed with a lovely show of forgotten narcissi, transplanted last year after they finished flowering indoors, with wild garlic just beginning to show at the back.

Migrant chives have hopped outside the bed in front of the shed and line much of the pathway.

More surprising given how cold it was this year, the asparagus is just beginning to peep out  - this time last year they were about six inches high and almost ready to eat.  This year - hoorah! - we'll be able to cut them for a longer period..

There has been lots of bird activity too.  In the early evening, it is like avian rush hour. John spotted a little willow warbler in the bushes and, with no people around but us,  parakeets and pigeons fly noisily back and forth over the general background of birdsong.  Two visiting ducks make tracks...

... and above our heads two new lodgers cackle aways. Don't be fooled by that "two for joy" baloney,  they'd steal your boots if you weren't wearing them.

Back home I've been busy sowing my runner and climbing beans (Lady Di and Cosse Violette), some radicchio and Little Gems, aubergines and too many kinds of tomato.  Today I can start sowing my courgettes and patty pans, peppers and basil.  Or,with the birds a bit quieter, I might even be able to squeeze in an hour's shut-eye now that my cup of cocoa has worked its magic.

05 April 2010

e for t

I intended to make a Simnel Cake but forgot the marzipan so resorted to the default indulgence - Soured Cream Chocolate Cake.  It takes about three quarters of an hour from start to finish and you don't have to observe the detail of the recipe slavishly.  You can use creme fraiche instead of soured cream and also substitusoft margarine for butter and creme fraiche for milk to give the right dropping consisteny.  I used 8 inch tins as I don't seem to have any seven inch ones and added whipped cream to sandwich the layers - a tart jam is also good (I've used damson before).  

John says the slavering on of the topping reminded him of the abstract expressionism of Olitski.  I think it was meant to be a compliment.

04 April 2010


My son warmed up for Easter yesterday with bacon, eggs and soldiers.  Nice to know some things don't change much.  It set us all off with a craving for boiled eggs.  Which is why the draining board is a bit like a miniature farmyard this morning,

We're off to Mudchute for our lunch.  Whatever you're up to, best wishes for a Happy Easter.