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Wednesday, 24 December 2014

The day when I got in the mood for Christmas

It may have taken longer than usual, but last week I finally found my festive spirit. I shouldn't have worried, because there's always one event which never fails to lift my spirits and that's the very special BBC Radio Leicester carol service, held each year on  Sunday afternoon in mid December.

But this year on that day, I went to not one but two carol services.

The first was in the tiny 12th century church in my village. This was a break from tradition ...instead of nine lessons and carols,  Willie's band played and the wonderful Emmanu'-EL Apostolic Gospel Academy came to sing for us, their voices soaring up to the rafters, and we all joined in clapping, singing and smiling.

No matter what our age is.

I left the church feeling buoyed up, and then it was onto another , much grander church  in Leicester, the Church of St James the Greater for the annual BBC Carol Service. Tickets for this service are snapped up within a few days....all 650 of them.

It's a wonderful occasion. My friends and colleagues and I perform poems, prose  and bible readings accompanied by the excellent choir, the New Parks handbell ringers and the Enderby Brass Band play with aplomb. Just not all at the same time you understand.

And the audience join in .....

And in those two services I found the Christmas spirit  I thought I'd lost this year, came flooding back. Love, goodwill ,and the age old stories of the true meaning of Christmas had worked their magic once again.

Happy Christmas!

Friday, 19 December 2014

Days of Bah Humbug

I've always loved Christmas. As a schoolchild I adored the rituals of early December...rehearsals for the school nativity play, the sheer agony of wondering what part I would get, singing at the top of our voices, and been given and allowed to eat a few sweets in our classroom.

When my own children were tiny, I'll never forget seeing my daughter as an angel in the playgroup production of the nativity...and my sons as shepherds.  Of making Christmas biscuits  with them on late dark December afternoons...and getting all of them around the tree to help decorate it. I loved those Christmases...and this special time of year has always filled me with an inner glow, if not panic about forgetting someone's present.

But I don't know what's going on this year. For the first time I've been feeling decidedly "bah humbug" about Christmas. I've become increasingly annoyed with the early and constant bombardment of adverts on TV...and nothing would induce me to do some early Christmas shopping. I couldn't even think of any presents to buy.

 On the first day of December, all the Christmas songs came on the radiom and I seriously thought if I heard Slade's Merry Christmas again I would scream. By now, I was worried...had my seasonal spark disappeared for ever?

Then last week I went to Wistow, a lovely rural centre not far away

.My eyes lit up at all the Christmas plants and gardening gifts ,

and I even bought a few presents from here....

And as I drove home on a late December afternoon...I thought my Christmas mojo had made a comeback

But then, the spark stopped glimmering...and I felt quite out of sorts that I was turning into one of those people who had stopped loving Christmas, even though I'd organised the works Christmas party which was rather jolly.

I kept trying to find my inner Christmas glow without success, and I began to wonder whether it would ever return......

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Then the day there was one

Where have the last nine weeks gone? They've flashed past in what seems like a couple of nano seconds.
Nine weeks since Boo had three beautiful puppies - two boys and a girl who didn't look their parents at all. No, they weren't completely black like Boo and Bow...they didn't resemble patterdales at all and  looked more like border terriers.
After a couple of discussions shall we say, they were all given names - Eric and Rudi and the little brown girl was named Fizz .She had to be ...she's fun and fizzes all over the place.
Of course I would have kept all of them. Well, they're so lovely, so playful, so snuggly and they immediately stole a place in my heart.

 Rudi was the first to go to his new home...he went to live by the seaside in Southsea with my daughter Lucy and her hairy husband Harry and he's having a wonderful time.

 And then there were's Eric, Fizz and their friend Winnie who belongs to my son.

An d here they are with Boo, being trained to sit and stay....

And then came the day for  Fizz to go to her new home.

I was on edge all day Thursday waiting for her new owners to come. I managed to put on a brave face for the last photo here...

But  Fizz has gone to a lovely a farm where Boo her Mum was born and where her grandmother Dinky lived. Amy and her children Joe and Nell all love Fizz very much and she's getting on well with her new friend Flump, a cross basset hound / dachshund.

The fact they are such a great family  still didn't stop me bursting into tears as they took Fizz to her new home.

And that leaves Eric who is enjoying all the attention and enjoying peaceful naps without his brother and sister pouncing on him at all times. He's a quiet boy is Eric. He sits and ponders, and if you're thinking that the name Eric Blair sounds familiar,  well it's the real name of the writer George Orwell.
And the name of Mr Thinking of the Days much loved father.

So there's one puppy left, and Boo looks rather relieved. Three eight week old puppies take a lot of time and energy to look toddler triplets. So she's catching up on some sleep and conserving her energy until Christmas ...when Rudi's coming to visit, Winnie too, so the house will be full of dogs once again.

I can't wait.


Friday, 21 November 2014

Days of being a gongoozler

I bet I can guess what you're thinking ....what on earth is a gongoozler?

 Well my dears, it means that I am someone who's interested in canals and canal life , but who doesn't have a canal boat or live on a canal. It's thought that the word was slang used by canal workers to describe an observer standing apparently idle on the towpath.

But I do live very close to Foxton Locks, which in the canal world is quite something. It's a place on the Grand Union Canal in Leicestershire .There's ten locks here two staircases each with five locks, which makes Foxton the largest flight of staircase locks here on the English canal system.
 Staircase locks are used so that a canal can climb a steep hill. Really.

Anyway, Foxton Locks in the summer attracts visitors from miles around. The sun shining on lots of holidaymakers on canal boats, people out for a walk, for a drink, or a meal. I've been coming here since I was a child, usually in summertime. I've brought my own children here, family and friends from all over the world..and in winter too, when wrapped up warmly , it was the ideal place for the children to have an early afternoon walk, to see the swans, ducks, boats and the locks being worked.

But it's only recently I've been coming later in the day. I love it in late autumn and winter when the fading four o clock in the afternoon light brings out the shadows

And a walk on a weekday winter's afternoon means that you have the place to yourself apart from a few other dog walkers.

And a few people living on the canal....

It was cold yesterday afternoon, the sort of cold which you can taste....with a scent of wood smoke in the air

Remember I mentioned staircase locks? Here's what they look like from near their lowest point.....

They are an amazing feat of ingenuity, building and engineering, which were finished in 1814, when coal, wood, materials and feedstuffs were transported on the canals by donkeys or shire horses pulling the boats, when there was a working community along all of our canals. It's no wonder that the Locks are Grade 2 listed.

At the bottom of the locks, there's two pubs which in high summer are packed with people, both inside and outside, spilling out on the decks here at the Foxton Locks Inn and in the pub garden at Bridge 61.

We walked towards the twinkly lights of  Bridge 61, which serves real ales....


which has a timeless quality about it. Originally two large sheds built a hundred years after the locks, it's now a spit and sawdust sort of place, but with a lovely warm fire burning and the type of old cast iron radiators that I used to burn my bottom leaning against at school. Mr Thinking of the Days , Boo and I were the only customers and we had a lovely chat with the owner who's a fount of knowledge about the Locks, having been there for fifty years or so.

And out of the window, we could see across to the well lit Foxton Locks Inn ...and that was also virtually empty

One drink, and it was time to go, but there was a delicious sense of having played hookey on a November day at the bewitching hour between day and night  ....a chance to see the shapes and shadows changing as dusk fell.
On a weekday normally I don't get that chance back is firmly turned away from the windows at the other end of the newsroom at that time...hunched over my computer, headphones on, editing an interview, or furiously writing a cue for a feature on tomorrow's breakfast show. Being busy but missing the atmospheric end of an afternoon . 
And as we headed home, we looked at the lights on the boats and I wondered at those curled up inside who love their life on the waterways. In all my time as a gongoozler, perhaps it's time that I actually got myself on a canal boat, untied the rope and finally set off to find out more......

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Days of an abundance of apples Part 2 -pies versus crumbles

I don't know what camp you're in, but when it comes to apples and puddings, I've always preferred a crumble to a tart or pie.

The soft apples taste virtually the same, but I like the crunchy topping of a crumble. And it's so easy isn't it to make a crumble? If I'm really busy, I will throw in the flour, sugar and butter and sometimes oats into my food processor, press the whizz button, and hey presto , within a minute you have a crumble topping.
At other times, especially if I'm worrying or thinking about something, or I'm cooking in advance, I will mix the ingredients by hand. It can be quite therapeutic, the rhythmic  crumbling the butter into the flour and sugar.

But there's a new apple recipe on the block, for me, anyway. It's one  which is extremely vague to say the least, but it's a keeper. And it's changed my opinion of apple pie.

It's from my friend and colleague Ben Jackson . Ben is an absolute foodie, and on many a Monday morning we talk about what we've cooked and eaten at the weekend. Ben was telling me about his Granny's apple pie and how fabulous it was, how rich, sugary and caramelly it was. Yes I know it's not a proper word so don't get all hoity toity and het up...but it perfectly describes the unctuousness of the pie's topping , so there.....

Ben's Granny is Dr.Eva Shirreffs, and she was one of the first female GPs.., practicing in the Second World War. Apparently she was a much loved family doctor, but I'm loving her recipe that's for sure.
Now there's no written recipe for this, it hasn't even got a proper name ,and I've adapted it slightly,  but here you go.....
Ben's Granny's Apple Pie
 or Dr Eva's Apple pie.......

shortcrust or sweet shortcrust pastry
6 apples
4 tablespoons of water
2 tablespoons sugar
2 or 3 tablespoons of goldren syrup
2 tablespoon Demerara sugar

1.Peel and core apples and slice. Put in an earthenware bowl with the 2 tablespoons of sugar and the water. Cover and microwave for 2 - 3minutes
2.Roll out some shortcrust  or sweet shortcrust pastry and line the bottom of  a pie dish or tart tin.
3.Put the apples on top, sprinkle with merest hint of cinnamon  and cover with pastry.
4. Drizzle the golden syrup over the top of the pastry and sprinkle the Demerara sugar on top's one I prepared earlier..... ready for the oven

5. Cook in the oven at gas mark 4,180 degs Celsius  for about 30 minutes
6. Serve with custard or a good dollop of cream.....I prefer cream.

It's simply gorgeous....sweet, comforting, warming with a crunchy top and a rich golden juice with the apples.

As I said, I adapted it slightly, because I believe Ben and his Granny put the apples into the dish without cooking first, and cooked for about 45 minutes in the oven. You can try either method. I also used puff pastry instead of shortcrust pastry once....but that's only because I took the wrong packet out of the freezer. A word to the wise....don't bother with the puff, just make sure you use shortcrust or even better , sweet shortcrust pastry.

It's been a hit in our house that's for sure......

Saturday, 8 November 2014

days of wondering....

I remember as a child thinking about things. Lots of things. I had questions too, lots of them.

Usually in those moments just after waking up...especially in winter when you didn't want to get out of a nice cosy bed. A bed of cotton sheets and blankets tightly tucked in...the days before duvets.
How did we manage before duvets? That was this morning's thought on opening my eyes.

But back to those moments Those questions usually began with a word beginning with w or h.......

I wonder why, I wonder how, I wonder when, what would happen if....

I'm still asking those questions the mornings as I lie in bed  and stare at the overhead beams in my bedroom, which have been here for four hundred and fifty years.

I think about all the people who have lain here and looked up at those same beams , and wonder about their lives.

Of course I'm always asking questions at's my job. Why did you do that? How do you feel? When were you aware of....? What do you think about...?

The moment I stop asking questions, I'll be in a box six feet under.

But until then, I'll continue. And it's a very important part of my life...those moments as I wake up and wonder and ponder.

Meanwhile, perhaps you can answer another question which I thought of this morning as I logged on here to my blog .

I could see how many people have been reading the blog over the last day....I can see where you come from....The UK, the USA, Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, the Ukraine, The Netherlands...Brazil , South Africa, Germany,and one this morning from Mexico.

Hello, I thought , who in Mexico is reading this,...and how did you find me? It's interesting isn't it?

So, it's not compulsory but I would love to know who you all are ,wherever you live....and perhaps a glimpse of who you are and what you're doing, on  what is here in England, a cold and fairly bright Saturday morning.

Over to you....

First though, here's a song which has been swirling through my head, as I've been writing this post....
I'd always known the version by the Specials, but this is my favourite version, the original by Andy and Joey -and watch the wonderful dancing. on the it.


Saturday, 1 November 2014

days with an abundance of apples part 1

I'm not one to waste food. OK, but let's qualify that. I have got previous (as they say in English cop series) in that I've let some items lurk at the back of the fridge before now and then found they're past their sell by date. And yes, they may have been the odd, old manky courgette or carrot decaying at the bottom of the vegetable basket. But generally speaking, I like to find a use and a tasty recipe for everything that I pick, dig up or buy .

This year, the apples have just kept coming....for the last two months, I've been eating them raw, in Dorset apple cakes, apple crumbles, and there are pounds and pounds of slightly stewed apples in the freezer ready for more warming crumbles to come throughout the rest of autumn and winter.

I find the best way to preserve the apples for the freezer is to slice them and put into an earthenware bowl, dredge with lemon juice and perhaps two tablespoons of sugar, then add four tablespoons of water.

Stir and cover tautly with cling film

Stab the cling film twice, ( a task I always relish, especially when  I'm in  a bad mood) then bung the bowl in the microwave for three minutes.  Remove the cling film , then as soon as the apples have cooled properly put in freezer bags. They will keep for about 9 months.

 But still the apples keep a I've made six or seven pounds of apple and mint jelly. Now this is something I've been making for years, and in good years when the apples are in abundance, I make shedloads. It lasts for a good two years. I think I may have to make another batch pretty soon....if the mint in the courtyard keeps going that is.

Now this is a jelly which goes extremely well with lamb and my lot vastly prefer it to mint sauce. It's also good with roast or poached chicken. So would you like the recipe?

You will need

5 pounds of cooking apples
about 5 large sprigs of mint
2 pints of distilled white vinegar
 another 8 -10 tablespoons of mint; chopped finely
(should make about six pounds of jelly)


1.Roughly chop the apples, cut out the bruised bits , but the good news is you don't have to peel them all!
2. Put the apples in a preserving pan with the sprigs of mint and about 2 pints of water. Bring to the boil, then turn the heat down and simmer for about 40 minutes. Don't let the mixture catch - no sticky bottoms here thank you very much.
3.Add the vinegar and bring to the boil for a further 5 minutes. No longer, because the smell is so intense, I don't want you becoming overcome and falling face first into the preserving pan.
4. Make sure you open the kitchen windows...I hate the smell of boiling vinegar.

5. Spoon the hot apple pulp into a jelly bag which is suspended over a big bowl and leave overnight . When you wake up in the morning , you will have lots of fluid in the bowl..
6. For each pint of extract you have in the bowl, use a pound of sugar, and put everything in a preserving pan.
7.Stir while you heat it gently and make sure all the sugar is dissolved and then boil until setting point is reached...about 15 minutes for me.
8. Don't forget to remove the scum which forms on top .

7.Stir while you heat it gently and make sure all the sugar is dissolved and then boil until setting point is reached...about 15 minutes for me.
8. Don't forget to remove the scum which forms on top .
9.Now throw in the finely chopped mint  and cool.
After 15 minutes put the jelly in to sterilised  jam jars and cover.

I've just got to work out now what I'm going to do with the next batch of apples.....

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Puppy Days

Well, the last three weeks have passed in a blur...a blur in which our tiny new puppies

have grown and changed beyond recognition.

The two boys and one girl , who haven't been formally named yet, are lighting up my life as they learn new skills everyday.

Now their eyes are open and they can hear, they're discovering the world around them and their voices.....

Our little girl ,who is staying with us,  was a dainty little thing compared to her brothers

We don't know what her name is as yet. It's not that we haven't got any ideas....let's just say there's on going discussions and negotiations. I loved the idea of calling her "Tickety" ...well with a mum called Boo, it would have worked. Mr Thinking of the Days isn't convinced  and said so in no certain terms. Mind you, I'm not taken with his suggestion which is Fig. Yes, you read that correctly. I couldn't give a fig about that name to be honest. So, she will remain "Little girl" until a unilateral agreement can be reached....but she's beautiful , whatever her name will eventually be.

The boys are adorable too...

One will be named Rudi, but which one is yet to be determined. My daughter Lucy and her husband Harry are having one, but couldn't decide which one at only one week old. I think they were can you choose which one is the right one for you when they're deaf, blind, and can't move well?  Anyway , a visit is imminent to choose the right dog.

This one will be an escape artist....he' already trying to get out of the whelping  box....and very nearly made it.

Here's the other boy...

He's gorgeous too, and has the most delicious little growl.....

I love them all to bits....they are such snuggly puppies who love to be picked up and cuddled, and so far they have very placid natures. They are a real credit to Boo....

They are difficult to photograph though, and they don't look like their mother and father at all.....see for yourself...

Anyway, I took this video five days ago, when they were taking their first, drunken steps......and in  years to come, I will watch this, marvelling at how tiny they were, how absolutely gorgeous they were, and remembering these very special days with a box of puppies in the house.