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Friday, 28 September 2018

Autumnal days

On Sunday it was the Autumn Equinox...that magical time of year when the Sun positions itself directly over our Earth's Equator. The first day of autumn, and I found myself walking on a crunchy carpet of acorns which had fallen on the right hand side of our lawn from the aged oak tree next door.

As I walked the dogs around the village they started to sniff at the ground under the horse chestnut trees.....and I espied conkers. It's years since my boys played with conkers, but they brought back happy memories of the boys coming home with pockets full of them.

We'd always put a few on the side table in the kitchen, and I couldn't resist doing that again this mini version of the junior school's nature table! Besides, I don't want too many daddy long legs coming into the cottage - they love thatched roof cottages .

I also put on the table a huge pine cone which I was given earlier this year when I recorded a programme at the wonderful Kilworth Conifers in South Leicestershire .

The signals of Autumn are definitely here - such as wearing  pairs of socks for the first time in months and putting on black opaque tights for work. Also, all the lamps are being lit just after seven after viewing the beautiful sunsets this week from the garden.
An extra quilt has been thrown on our bed as the nights are distinctly chillier and the chimney sweep needs to be booked. I'm preparing mounds of apples for storing and freezing, and I'll be making  apple mint jelly in the next few weeks.
I do love Autumn , making the most of the most of the light, and watching with delight the Virginia creeper starting to show off ,before  getting ready to hunker down for the  for my least  favourite season in the year. Yes, Winter, you know who you are....
Every year, I  breathe a sigh of giddy relief when the Spring Equinox finally arrives in late March, but this year, I am really looking forward to it.
That's because something very special is happening at that time, apart from the nights getting lighter, the weather becoming warmer and the world springing into new life.
My daughter is going to be having a baby at the time of the equinox!
She runs a company called little old goose, designing chalkboards and signs and running hand lettering workshops. To say I am thrilled for her and her hairy husband is an understatement. To say I'm excited, bowled over and totally over the moon is another one.
We have all been wishing and hoping for this news for a long time, but things often don't go according to plan. This baby may be making an appearance much later than anyone hoped for, but the sheer joy of meeting this little one, this first much longed for grandchild will be carrying me through the dark days of the coming winter.

Monday, 27 August 2018

Monday Monday and why I love Fridays

Mondays are usually such busy days aren't they?

The first day back at work , all systems a gogo from the moment the alarm shrills, there's a sense of urgency, and even excitement,  and a sense of "What will happen this week?"

But today is a Bank Holiday here in England , an official day off and the last one until Christmas. I adore bank holiday Mondays ...they are days which seem to give you carte blanche to do exactly what you will, whether it be going out , meeting up with friends or just slobbing about the house, reading, listening to music or having a doze on the sofa. Today I'm off to the allotment to pick apples and Victoria plums and perhaps if I feel the urge, do some weeding.

So a lovely day, but even though I love my job, Fridays are my favourite days.   For many, they mark the end of the working week, the beginning of the weekend and freedom for a couple of days.

 For years I've worked on a Friday. They've always been a complete rush, as it's a  busy day in a newsroom. You're making packages and features, and orb booking guests for the Monday  breakfast programme. Often stories fall down at the last minute, and you have to pull something out of the bag,chase a fresh angle or a different story, and you can't leave until everything is done.

This always seemed to happen when it was a Friday fizz night with friends which happens once or twice a month.  I was always the last to arrive. A bottle and a half of prosecco would have been polished off , some nibbles and canap├ęs already eaten and lots of gossip already done, dusted and dissected before I'd got a foot through the door.

That's all different now though as I now get Fridays off....and I am bloody well loving it. Arriving on time for Fizz Night, food shopping all done leisurely instead of battling the hordes at Waitrose on a Saturday, and time to walk the dogs, see friends, go to the allotment or read.

 On one Friday each month a group of friends all meet for lunch to critique each others work and have lunch. This month , four of us  drove off to Grantchester for work news, chat, and a chance to see one of our latest books hot off the press - Pippa Goodhart's The Great Sea Dragon Discovery . Brilliant book , and stunning cover ....

Last Thursday night, my darling daughter, her husband and dog all arrived, so Friday was a heady mix of shopping, wine tasting and lunch, and that was all before 2.30pm.

An hour or so later though the dogs made it quite clear (there were four at home) decided that they wanted another walk, so my son in law and I nipped off in the car to the canal a couple of miles away.

A quiet part of the canal where we could have a gentle stroll. There was no one around, only the cows to our left through the hedge who were on their way to afternoon milking.....

I love this part of the Grand Union Canal....

It may be only twenty two miles away from Leicester where I work, but it's a whole world away from there in terms of noise, bustle  and the start of the Friday leave work early traffic. 

We didn't see anyone else apart from a couple who waved as they passed us by...

Birdsong, the gentle mooing of the cows, chatting with Harry and watching the dogs all enjoying their walk ...what a lovely way of recharging my batteries on a Friday afternoon.

Simple pleasures make me smile...

Then it was time to load the dogs back into the car, and driving home, up the lane

with a goodbye from this lot...

to begin cooking supper for eight of us and trying out the new wines we tasted earlier.

Relaxing around the table until it was dark...and still the chatter continued by candlelight. Bliss....

Each Friday is different, and quite a few Fridays this Autumn are going to spent writing, but it's a delicious feeling knowing that Friday means fun, freedom, fizz and friends.

Here's to Fridays which for me are the best day of the week, whatever I do.....

Saturday, 11 August 2018

National Plum Day

Apparently today is National Plum Day here in the UK....the first one ever.

Of course people in Pershore, Worcestershire will be celebrating it as part of their Pershore Plum Festival - they are famed for their plum harvests dating back to mediaeval times.

Plums are one of those fruits that I didn't care for much as a child, but over the years I've become an avid fan of such a delicious fruit. Especially over the last three years since I took on another small strip of an allotment . It may be small but it contains a damson tree , a Victoria plum tree and one of unknown origin along with a number of apple trees.

So why do I like plums so much? There's a gutsy depth of flavour...which can be both tart or sweet. They're such versatile fruits which can be used in so many different ways, and they're good for you. Packed with antioxidants, they're good for lowering blood sugar (they have a low glycaemic index score ) lowering blood pressure, not to mention helping your intestines, heart and even your bone health.

Two weeks ago I was the allotment, and the damsons were still as hard as bullets. I thought they'd be ready in perfect time for the village show on 1st September as usual. I was wrong though  - last week I checked and the wasps were circling the tree, a sure sign that they were ripe, or  some were even  over ripe.

I picked at least twenty pounds of damsons , and gave about three pounds away immediately to my neighbour on the next plot. Once home, my plans for the day were rearranged as dealing with the damsons had to take priority.

I decided to try a new recipe for damson jam first. This is a very soft set jam where the fruits are whizzed to a pulp first in a food processor before cooking in the preserving pan.

I made a litre of damson ice cream for the first time, whisking away the ice crystals in an ice cream container and popping back in the fridge at intervals. This was very fresh and fruity, and I was rather taken by it. But not the first time, did I wish I had a proper ice cream maker. One day, one shall be mine...!

I digress....I froze about five pounds in a sugar pack, made a litre of damson gin and then wondered what I could do with the rest.

I posed that question on twitter and instagram with a photo of my damson haul.

My friend Laura merely suggested more gin, but that's not surprising , she loves making any type of fruit gin. Then Antonio got in contact...he and Daniele run Gelato Village in favourite geleratia outside of Italy. I've written about them in the past  here

Antonia hasn't made damson sorbetto before but thought he might like to try. So on Monday I put three kilos in my wicker basket and dropped them off at the geleratia, only a few minutes walk from work.

The next morning I received a call. "It's ready " said Antonio, and I could tell he was pleased with the flavour when he sent this tweet.

Well, I couldn't wait until I finished work that evening. to taste my very first plum sorbetto.
The colour was deep and appealing, the taste sublime.

What alchemy and magic had Antonio conjured up to transform the damsons which only the day before had been growing on my tree?

I got some of the other customers to have a quick taste.....the comments ranged from "Wow!" to "This is so fruity" to "I think this is the best flavour today."

Feeling so proud of my plums and admiring Antonio's handiwork, I was then given a huge box full of sorbetto to take home and put in the freezer, and the rest was sold.

My husband I have been eating damson sorbetto every night since Tuesday. A pudding which is not only damn tasty but healthy - so that's why we're having some tonight too, to celebrate the first ever National Plum Day.

I've been back on the allotment today though, and picked pounds more damsons..........


Saturday, 23 June 2018

Days at Monsoon Valley Wines, Thailand

Summer, and it's the time to enjoy all those chilled glasses of rose which are so perfect for a picnic, for lunch and especially before supper on a warm evening out in the garden.
I like them dry, especially from Provence, but there's a rose from somewhere quite different which I absolutely adore.

Brace yourselves, it's from Thailand. Yes, hot and humid Thailand - from the Monsoon Valley Vineyard, set in the hills about twenty five miles from Hua Hin.  It's a Shiraz Rose which earlier this month won the title of "The World's Best Rose" in Thailand - ahead of eighty others from all around the world in a blind tasting..

I've been to that vineyard on my last three trips to Hua Hin, to taste the wines and to have lunch. The rides around the vines are optional, by elephant or jeep . Go before lunch because it's just too hot afterwards, and you will, whether you intended to or not, have drank some fabulous wines which don't mix well with the undulating motion that comes with being stuck on top of a walking elephant. That said, I wouldn't take an elephant ride in the first place.

Chalerm Yoovidhya is the very successful Thai businessman who had the vision to create Monsoon Valley Wines back at the beginning of the century, even though it wasn't a given that it could succeed.

Last year, my husband and I were in the south of Thailand in January and February, amid the terrible storms which caused widespread destruction and we were stuck on roads which had been swept away. So when we made it to the vineyard on the way back from the islands a few weeks later, we were only too well aware of the difficulties that winemakers here face weather wise.

It was a very warm and muggy Saturday, not a hint of a breeze and we couldn't wait to sit in the shade of La Sala for lunch.

Thai and European food is available - we usually stick to light dishes and salad and pair them with a flight of three wines. 

With a starter of satay pork, we drank the crisp white Columbard. It's zingy freshness worked well with the peanut and lime sauce. Then came the Shiraz Rose, which although slightly sweeter than I usually prefer, was bursting with flavour -  wild strawberries and happiness in a glass.

I also liked the Shiraz red, spicy and plummy and so likeable with a lightness of touch.

After ending our meal with a mango and sticky rice pudding with mango ice cream, we decided we weren't quite ready to go back to our hotel in Hua Hin.

We ordered a bottle of the Shiraz Rose and spent the most delicious hour chatting, eavesdropping on some very interesting conversations at nearby tables and drinking in the views across the vineyard.

My husband is already planning the next trip to Thailand - he leads a golf tour there every year, and no doubt another visit to the vineyard will be planned. Next time though, I will insist we buy a few more bottles of the Shiraz Rose to keep in our hotel fridge!
You can get to the Monsoon Valley Vineyard from the seaside resort of Hua Hin by minibus or taxi, easily arranged by your hotel or by contacting the vineyard direct. Alternatively there is a shuttle bus which runs from Villa Market twice a day  and the journey takes about 40 minutes.
One final word, do book a table for lunch as it's a long way to go and find that they are fully booked!

Thursday, 14 June 2018

A day at Barnsley House, Gloucestershire

Yesterday, I was at Barnsley House in Gloucestershire with some friends from the Garden Media Guild to visit the garden. Some of us had seen this quintessential 17th century Baroque mansion before, but for me, this was my first visit to such an iconic garden.

It was Rosemary Verey, the garden designer and writer, who created  the eleven acre gardens here adn lived here from the 1950s onwards. After her death in 2001,  Barnsley House became  a very welcoming hotel.

Set in a picturesque village, as I arrived the sun was shining and everyone was in the world famous garden for a tour around by Richard Gatenby, the Head Gardener.

 He's an engaging guide, obviously very proud of what is here, and of what Rosemary Verey achieved.
 "Gifted amateurs have no boundaries. Mrs V found the experts and made her own mind up." he said.
It was Percy Cane the garden designer who told her  to include as many vistas as possible, using the longest distance, and that's exactly what she did here  - pictured from outside the temple.

He's working with Rosemary Verey's legacy and says it was the hedgerows and edge of woodland which turned her on - that and successful planting.

 My eyes were darting here and there, as we made our way along the laburnum walk, the temple and  the herbaceous borders.The tour wasn't just an elongated recitation of a plants list thankfully, he took us all along with him by his enthusiasm, and letting us admire the garden at a leisurely pace. "I'm a hopeless romantic who sees the magic not the mechanics " he said.

 I really liked that, and I soon found the magic behind this gate.

Rosemary Verey created this potager and in turn inspired thousands of other gardeners. It is simply and utterly gorgeous, no wonder it created a trend in ornamental kitchen gardens.

Outside the walled potager, the field is the powerhouse for the kitchens of the hotel with beds of spinach, chard, rhubarb. peas, winter squash Crown Prince plus this glorious array of herbs.

There's polytunnels full of tomatoes - mamande, sungold and rosella, plus, as if on guard outside one of the tunnels, the largest, most vigorous lemon verbena I've ever seen.

I  nipped inside one of the polytunnels  to see what the chefs could pick this week , hoping to get a clue of what might be on the lunch menu.

Lunch was very jolly, all of us enthusing about what we had seen while we ate raw broad beans and freshly baked bread and  "Oh, a glass of wine?Well I don't mind if I do..."

This was followed by a delicious lunch using ingredients picked earlier in the day. Cotswold chicken, sun blush tomatoes, peas, broad beans and roasted rosemary and garlic potatoes for most and a deliciously creamy pea risotto for those of us who requested the vegetarian option. Lemon posset to die for afterwards ....all served expertly by a friendly team .

But our visit wasn't over yet. We then made our way to the Temple  where Davina Wynne Jones,
 Rosemary's Verey's daughter talked to us about her mother and the influence she had on her and so many others.

Prince Charles and Elton John both admired her greatly and she was very influential in America.
"Sh could be very difficult and utterly charming , both at the same time"

Meanwhile, Richard Gatenby was back in the Rosemary Verey garden he loves, and that with an attention to detail...

What a revealing and interesting day at Barnsley House.  As I made my way past hotel guests sitting in the sunshine, I wished I could stay overnight too. I simply wanted to stay in the magic which Rosemary Verey and Richard Gatenby have created and kept alive . Another time I hope.

As I drove home I decided it was a day of the four Ps..... a sense of place, planting, personalities and perfection.

You can find out more about Barnsley House at

Sunday, 27 May 2018

Days of rhubarb and gin

I'll admit it - I hated rhubarb as a child. Usually served as a very tart tart, smothered in a  virulent yellow congealing custard, the mere thought of being forced to eat it made me feel sick.

This wasn't my lovely Mum's fault, I'm talking about the dreaded school dinners of long ago.
So for years and years I wouldn't and couldn't eat rhubarb, until I went for Sunday lunch at my parents in law as a newly wed.

BB (we share the same initials ) was a wonderful traditional cook, and I'd enjoyed the array of puddings she'd served up before, but this day I froze as a dish of chilled stewed rhubarb was put on the table.

"No thank you" I said politely but my mother in law wasn't deterred. "Do try some - it's lovely with ice cream. Perfect for today as it's so warm."

I didn't like to upset her so I put three scoops of ice cream into my bowl, two rhubarb pieces, the smallest I could find, and ladled a couple of spoonfuls of the sugar syrup in too.

I numbed my mouth with the ice cream first, tried a piece of rhubarb - mmn, a hint of ginger there,  and then the chilled syrup. I began to smile, I actually liked it.

I became a convert , and even planted my first rhubarb crowns about eight years ago at my allotment.

I grow two varieties, champagne was the first and the other is Timperley Early.

Rhubarb really is the plant which just keeps on giving. I know you're supposed to divide them after four years or so, and that they prefer a rich soil. Mine though have thrived on neglect and continue to offer up pounds and pounds of fruit every year.

Unfortunately the rest of my family don't like rhubarb, although one of them will eat the odd slice of rhubarb and orange polenta cake at a push. I carry on making crumbles and cakes but my favourite is still stewed rhubarb. Not with ginger, but with a star anise added. Delicious!

Both rhubarb plants are prolific this year, I've given quite a lot away, but then came a light bulb moment.
Gin!  Within a flash I was off to Waitrose (other supermarkets are available)  and bought a bottle of the cheapest. That day Gordons was on special offer. My next stop was the allotment to pick rhubarb and within minutes I was beginning to make my first batch of rhubarb gin.

Such a speedy and painless process, mixing rhubarb and sugar together. The following day the sugar has dissolved....
Then you put the jar into a dark cupboard for four weeks. Yes, only four weeks.

After four weeks and three days, I decided to bottle the gin. Of course it's important to have a teeny tiny glass to see if the gin reaches your expectations, and I find a little piece of shortbread just the right accompaniment...

Perfect, although it's very good too with lots of ice and some soda water but don't be too be heavy handed with the water darlings.

Meanwhile, I've decided that more rhubarb needs to be picked and more gin purchased.......

There's quite a few recipes on how to make it floating around, with some slight variations but here's mine


2 pounds of rhubarb stalks , cut into one inch lengths
a bottle of gin
12 ounces of sugar , I use plain white granulated but other recipes say caster sugar


1. Put the cut rhubarb into a large jar, kilner jar or whatever you have, with a screw top lid and add the sugar.
2.Shake it all about and put away until the next day, when you'll find all the juice has seep out of the rhubarb.
3. Add the gin, stir well ,  put the lid on .All you have to do the is put it away in a cupboard somewhere - and give it the occasional stir
4. Four weeks later, strain through a fine mesh sieve, bottle and  that's it!


PS My husband - the one who never eats rhubarb,  has tried some and was stunned to find - and I quote  "it's very good."

Monday, 16 April 2018

A day at Belvoir Castle

Early April and a rather windy day to go for a tour of the gardens at Belvoir Castle and to see the site for something rather exciting which is going to be happening in July.

I wasn't alone....

left to right John Stirland, Grace Milham, Tom Webster, Karen Gimson, David Greaves and Andy Tudbury.

Tom Webster who's the Head Gardener at Belvoir Castle and Grace Milham, the Commercial Director, were taking a few of us on an entertaining and interesting tour of the formal gardens.
The snow,  the sheer sogginess of everything after rain and more rain, plus the complete absence of anything remotely yellow in the sky had reduced my expectations of seeing a vision of colour and loveliness. However, the sheer grandeur and commanding position of the Castle is quite breathtaking.

The family of the Dukes of Rutland have lived here for nearly a thousand years but this castle was designed by James Wyatt and erected on the site in Regency times for the 5th Duke and Duchess of Rutland .

The gardens here at Belvoir were regarded as one of the greatest gardens in the early 18th century north of London, along with those of Chatsworth and Trentham. There's still so much to admire in the formal areas and in the 500 acres of woodland gardens and 15 acres of lakes and ponds.

 And then in the Japanese woodland, there are over 250 specimen camellias, rhododendrons and magnolias, and some were in flower.

Many of these were obtained from the original seed collection from Charles Williams of Caerhays Castle in Cornwall. I visited there last year ...see here

So why were we there for a tour and what else were we doing?
Making a radio programme for a start....partly on the gardens and we were off to see the site of the first ever Belvoir Flower and Garden Festival which will take place on 14th and 15th July .

What a glorious site for such an event, where you'll be able to see the results of the original Capability Brown designs for the landscape here. These plans which were lost over 200 years ago, found in 2013, and since developed.

So to the festival itself. Andy Tudbury is a well known garden designer based in Nottinghamshire and you'll have seen over 20 of his show gardens at many big shows over the years. I

Designing a show garden is a very different kettle of fish though to creating a whole new event. So why now, and why here at Belvoir Castle?

Well, Andy feels that the East Midlands has been crying out for an event like this for years. Granted RHS Chatsworth was set up last year, but according to Andy there's nothing this side of the M1!

So, Andy's dream has become a reality - there will be over ten show gardens and two marquees for exhibitors from top class nurseries such as Hardy's Cottage Garden Plants from Hampshire  ( I hope they bring some phlox divaricata "clouds of perfume" with them - I saw them at RHS Malvern last year...divine!)

Flowers and crafts will be on display too, there'll be live music and food stalls. In short, Andy envisages it as a celebration of horticulture with a party atmosphere.

Sounds good to me, and there's such a willingness for this to succeed from so many people and organisations  including  charities such as Perennial, the gardeners charity and Rainbows, a Leicestershire hospice which cares for life limited children.

Karen Gimson, who is a garden designer and one of the expert panel on BBC Radio Leicester and John Stirland from BBC Radio Nottingham will taking part in live Gardeners Question Time over the weekend along with gardening experts from further afield.

Karen is also designing a show garden for Rainbows Hospice which is being sponsored by David Greaves, a landscape designer from near Melton Mowbray whose team will be generously supplying manpower, materials and more besides for the garden.

As this a completely new venture, Andy Tudbury has a lot riding on this emotional and financial investment, and so has Belvoir Castle. It's a leap of faith for everyone.

Tickets for the Belvoir Flower and Garden Show on 14th and 15th July are available from - tickets are limited to 5,000 visitors each day.

This is the view you'll be seeing from the showground... and I can't wait for the festival itself, and another , longer tour around the gardens of Belvoir Castle.