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Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Christmas days

Ah,'ve been lovely.

The last five days have flown past in a flurry of fun. Lots of eating, drinking, laughing, sharing, caring, singing,'s been a blast with all of our children, Lucy, Billy and Callum, here.

Our cottage has been bursting at the seams with extra people and animals. For a few days there were seven humans and four dogs staying over, an extra human (Elly) another day, some went home, and then yesterday there were six humans and four dogs , when my lovely sisters in law and their husbands/partners came for lunch with two large spaniels.

I love having a house full at Christmas with my gang....catching up with what's going on, sitting around the kitchen or dining table , relaxing by the fire, watching old favourite films where we know every single line of dialogue and are in fits of giggles waiting or the punch lines.

Usually I do all of the cooking, but not so much this year. In fact, it's been a real joint effort which has worked so well.

On Christmas Eve we broke with tradition. For years, I've baked a large gammon, but this year my son Callum said he would like to cook the meal. Was this because he's bored with the gammon? No, but this was a welcome surprise...and he did everything for that meal from buying, prepping and serving.  It was a gamble though, making a Jamie Oliver's Beef Wellington complete with mushroom pate inside, plus goose fat roasted potatoes and seasonal greens when you've not made a whole dinner before. No pressure with it being our Christmas Eve meal.


It was delicious, really flavoursome and we all absolutely loved it, so much so that all the gang were warning me I would have to step up to the plate with Christmas lunch. No pressure there either!
Luckily, dear, darling Tom Kerridge saved the day as I made his Turkey Crown....stuffed with sausage meat, pistacios , dried cranberries etc, topped with a toasted crumble of pork scratching, s pistachios and sourdough. Lots of praise indeed , and the ultimate accolade of "best carrots ever " as I faithfully replicated the Kerridge recipe of carrots poached in butter, star anise etc.
Make no mistake, this was such a rich lunch, there was no huge pudding this year, and most of us didn't want anything else to eat at all for the rest of the day.
Even though the dogs had been walked in the morning, I thought I might spontaneously combust if I just sat down after the meal, so Callum and I took the dogs for a walk around the village.
Even so, I still couldn't eat a thing for the rest of the day, but some  managed  cheese and biscuits at about ten, as we made our way through a  marathon game of monopoly.  It was such fun....the cunning, the guile, the bad language from some (er yes, that would include me) as certain people began putting hotels on all of their properties, the competiveness between my sons who carried on the game until after I'd gone to bed, three and a half hours after the game began.
Boxing Day was busy too, but my daughter Lucy and her hairy husband Harry cooked a huge  full English breakfast which lasted us most of the day.
Then yesterday, Nigel and Mandy brought the most delicious chicken curry with them for lunch. What a treat.....all I had to do was make a pudding. Home made ice cream with a raspberry coulis made from the raspberries from my allotment, plus some raspberry gin.
It's been a wonderful five days...the Christmas chaos of a full cottage eating such tasty meals, toasting each other, catching up all on our news and just being together. It's been so busy and  I've been so engrossed in each moment, I've hardly taken any photos.
Today though it's quiet. So quiet, even the dining room looks so different without us all squashed around the table, talking at full speed and at full blast.
Some have gone home, others are away for a few days and my husband is on the golf course. I took the three remaining dogs on a walk earlier around the fields and lanes on the village. One of those glorious mornings where the sun had climbed high after the earlier fog, a morning where I had to walk where the sun has dissolved the hard frost on one side of the road only to try and avoid skidding on the ice.

 A morning where as soon as we were in the fields and the dogs off their leads, I could admire the different patterns of the ice on the mud and stamp on icy puddles to hear that satisfying thwack and crack as my wellies crashed the ice.
And for the rest of the day, I am relaxing. I'm just about to go and sit by the fire and do nothing.  Until tomorrow that is, when I go back to work, and when I get home , my gorgeous mum (Mama) who I love and adore will have arrived from my brother's on the Isle of Wight to be with us until her birthday  at the beginning of January.
Happy Days, and I really hope that you all have had a lovely Christmas too.....


Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Stealing the Monday moments

Monday is usually my day's the day of the week when I like to catch up with tasks, do some writing, and relish the quietness before the rest of the week comes hurtling towards me.

Stealing a moment of calm if you like. It's important to me at any time of the year, but in the frenetic build up to Christmas with parties, carol concerts and other celebrations, not to mention present buying, those moments are even more precious.

Last Monday was a lovely sunny day and I was busy in the garden taking advantage of the sunshine during the morning. Mid afternoon though I went out to my favourite bookshop about four miles away to buy a birthday present.

There was that happy feeling as I found  just the right book and drove home up the hills and across the flat parkland.

I stopped as I reached the cattle grids to take a photo

I stopped again a minute later, got out of the car again to take another, standing to drink in the pink washed skies at the beginning of sunset.

I drove further along....


A stolen few moments alone, hearing only the odd bleat or two from some distant sheep.

Such a magical quarter of an hour which I would have missed if I had gone out earlier.

I love watching dusk creep up, but it's not always as beautiful as last Monday. When it's raining or really cold, it's my favourite time in winter to sit quietly in the sitting room catching up listening to serials and programmes on BBC Radio 4 or 4Extra.

Today I went out at about half past three but already so dark, to post the second tranche of Christmas cards to friends far away in the Victorian village post box, and to hand deliver the cards for village friends.

I took Boo and Eric with me, and as we made our way through latched gates and grand iron gates, crunched up the gravel paths to others, it was lovely to catch a glimpse of Christmas in the wreaths on the doors and  Christmas lights through the window panes.

 The warmth of the kitchen as we came home was lovely after the damp darkness outdoors. And what could be nicer than to relax on the sofa in the lamplight, with the dogs, staring into space and listening to the current episode of the Charles Paris Mystery by Simon Brett featuring the amazing Bill Nighy?

To many, it may sound boring, but for me, I do love my moments of simplicity on Mondays. When do you get your moments like that I wonder?


Monday, 5 December 2016

24 hours in Hull...

When I said to friends that I was off to Hull the following day for a 24 hour break, the first question they asked was "Why?"

There were odd looks too when I said I was going voluntarily, plus laughter when I said I'd suggested the idea.

Mr Thinking of the Days had to go to the Thai Consulate there, so instead of him whizzing up the motorway in a day, I'd suggested we book a night in a hotel and have a good look around Hull. There was method in my madness...I wanted to see why Hull had been voted City of Culture 2017, beating my home city Leicester into second place.

So a nice chatty, sunny drive northwards last Sunday...but as we came to the outskirts of Hull  and caught our first glimpse of the Humber Bridge, the weather had turned dull..

..and as we got lost in the diversions around the city, first impressions weren't brilliant. Housing estates, some empty shops, a faded air.

But things looked up as we arrived at our hotel in Hull's historic Old Town which overlooked the Kingston Square Gardens.

After a friendly welcome, we dumped our bags in our room (phew, it was warm in there) and we were off to make the most of what was left of Sunday afternoon. A walk into the heart of the Old Town, where we found Scale Lane and the Lion and Key Pub. It was an atmospheric old building, with a good choice of local artisan beers, but reeked of chips. Looking at others' meals , the said chips were huge logs, and the portions of fish looked as if they'd been fed steroids. Huge portions, but not for us, we had to visit a couple of museums before they shut.

Luckily, there's a number of them all side by side, and what's more, admission is free in all of them.
Walking along the river between  Drypool Bridge and Myton Bridge ,  we came across the Arctic Corsair,  a former deep sea trawler.

Now, as a former matelot on a cruise ship (yes really) I just love going on board old ships and boats. Unfortunately  this floating museum is shut until the spring, but it's got an interesting history and it saw action at the height of the Cod War.

There was a distinct chill in the air by now, and we entered the Streetlife Museum of Transport. Housed in a cavernous modern building, I loved getting on the old tram

 and the veteran cars and bicycles were interesting but I'm a sucker for the big set pieces...the street scenes, complete with recreated sounds of the day.

In the carriage tableaux you can smell the atmosphere too.

There were quite a few families looking around, reminding me of winter weekends in different museums when my children were small. Upstairs I nearly tried to borrow one, as I really wanted to go in the old mail carriage .....Mr Thinking of the days wouldn't oblige and go on it, so I went on my own. It was a compact carriage with the velvet drapes closed, dark inside, the only light from a lantern swinging from the roof and the sounds of the horn and the sounds of the carriage driver. I loved it!

I particularly liked the street scenes including a range of shops...

Time was pressing on though so we made a quick exit and walked next door to the Wilberforce  Museum

William Wilberforce was of course, the Hull Member of Parliament , who led the fight for the abolition of slavery. This museum is the house where he was born right on the edge of the river, and there was some fascinating if not distressing exhibits and audio interpretations of slaves and slave owners points of view. Not to be missed though...

As we left there, dusk had fallen and we made our way down the quiet and empty cobbled streets lined with Victorian and Georgian buildings..I felt as we'd  been taken back in time....

Back to the present day though as we went into the Sailmakers Arms...a convivial little pub with warm lighting and a very friendly welcome, plus live music from several local musicians who meet there every Sunday lunchtime until whenever o'clock. They all played individual songs, then joined in for a couple more, ranging from folk to ballads to more mainstream and newer material..

A lovely relaxing hour or so there, then there was another couple of pubs I wanted to see. Not that I'm a lush you understand  -at one I had water, at another a glass of lemonade...but you can find out a lot about an area from a historic pub.
Especially at Ye Olde White Harte which is also in the Old Town and dates back from the 1550's. Originally a house, it became a pub in the 1700's. From the road, we walked down a long alley  before finding the pub

I loved the windows here 

Original panelling  is everywhere, a huge inglenook fire, quirky, local beers, what more could you want? How about The Plotting Room? The very helpful barman told me the story....and took me upstairs to a room packed with the past...I could almost feel the previous occupants around me.

This is where back in 1642, the great and good of Hull met and decided to refuse King Charles I entry to the city of Hull, and it is this which precipitated the Civil War.

 History indeed, and then as we descended the stairs back to the bar, he pointed out this...
 How many other pubs do you know where there's a skull sitting on the bar? A skull which was found here during renovations in the 1800's . Who was this person? Well, there's a number of stories which conflict each other madly, but let's put it this way, this poor person didn't die naturally.
We walked around to one more pub, the George, which has the world's smallest window

before going for the oldest house in Hull, which we had spotted earlier on our travels..

We were very hungry so ordered promptly. A Sunday roast  for Mr Thinking of the Days and I chose sausages and mash with champ.  Rib sticking food for a cold Sunday evening which arrived promptly, tasted delicious and prompted us to order the sticky toffee coffee pudding, which despite its name was surprising light and tasted oh so good. When I come back to Hull, I'd come back here....

 We waddled back to our hotel, and conked out on the comfortable bed. Bliss, and  a good hearty breakfast the following morning before failing on the iniative test to get straight to the Thai Consulate .Those pesky road diversions again with a sat nav screaming at us to go around an impossible route
By eleven am we were on our way home......but choosing a different route home so we could drive over the Humber Bridge which is the world's eighth longest single span suspension bridge..

So, a very fleeting visit, and there's more I'd like to see. I don't know what's planned for Hull as it becomes the City of Culture 2017, but I'd like to be there at some stage to see how it is celebrated.

Monday, 28 November 2016

A day at the Garden Media Guild awards

Back the hot days of high summer, I went to a Garden Media Guild event at Easton Walled Gardens - I wrote about it here....

Apart from the stunning location, interesting talks, and delicious lunch, I was delighted by the sheer affability of everyone, the inclusiveness, and the sheer wealth of knowledge of all things horticultural in one place.

Over a glass of pre lunch prosecco , I couldn't help but notice that many of the guests had the same gardeners hands as I have.Well they didn't have my fat fingers, including a broken one, but none of the women had long polished talon like nails...these were all workaday hands of women who garden. We compared notes

 I felt at home....especially when Constance Craig Smith, who is on the committee handed me a card and said "Why not join us?"

So I have done,  and on Thursday I went to the Garden Media Guild Awards lunch at the Savoy Hotel in London.

Let loose in London on my own, I can be a bit of liability, but managed to get straight there without interruption or deviation , just a brief pause to photograph the decorations in Covent Garden before sweeping into the Savoy Hotel.

Now The Savoy may only be a mere two hours from my cottage in a teeny, tiny village, but it's a world away too. Oh such smart people enjoying coffee, luxury around each corner, such polite and welcoming staff...I liked it.

Before the drinks, lunch and the awards, there was the AGM....where items on the agenda were swiftly dispatched until the last item which ignited direct discussion, even passion.

But then onwards and upwards (literally ) for pre lunch drinks in a beautiful room. Hundreds of people, thousands of air kisses, the decibel levels rising higher and higher, the laughter, the hundreds of glasses of champagne discreetly and attentively poured and drunk eagerly, and the sheer joy of overhearing snippets of the most unlikely conversations between writers and broadcasters I've read and watched for years.

Then lunch!

Who would I be sitting with? Would I know anyone? Well, no, but that didn't matter one iota as I was sat on such a great table, planted between the lovely Natalie Ashbee and Alexandra Campbell. Alex is a writer of books and broadcast plays and and I've been reading her Middle Size Gardens blog for ages, Natalalie is a horticultural researcher on Gardeners World .

We've all lived and worked in Bristol at different stages of our lives, so we didn't stop nattering until the wonderful Carol Klein gave an ascerbically, amusing keynote welcome and speech which was greatly appreciated in the room.


 Lunch. How can hundreds of people be served efficiently with a delicious three course lunch plus coffee in just over an hour? I don't know but it happened and the tension mounted as we all finally quietened down for the awards.

Best gardening book, best journalist, best blog, best photographer....the categories kept a coming, but there was one I was really interested in - I was a finalist in the Radio Broadcast of the Year

No I didn't win, but Lucy Dichmont and Alex Feldman did from the RHS did, so huge congratulations to them.


So many worthy winners for  each category, inspiring us all.

But the proceedings weren't finished....there were more air kisses of congratulation amongst winners, old friends were nattering away merrily  as they caught sight of each other, and some (OK it was Natalie and James Alexander Sinclair}   posed perfectly for the camera.

By now, it was dusk, and everyone began to drift off in a flurry of coats, scarves and goody bags from the kind sponsors of the Guild Awards.

Oh and many scooted off to the pub too, including Natalie and I. Cue more prosecco and chatting!

Such a perfectly lovely day - I'm rather looking forward to next year's event. In the meantime, there's lots of other garden events planned for members of the guild during the spring and summer,  and I can't wait......


Tuesday, 22 November 2016

A whistlestop day trip to Stamford

If you love to look at mellow limestone buildings, and feel as if you should be wearing a long dress and a bonnet, then look no further. Stamford in Lincolnshire is the place to visit. You've probably seen glimpses of it though in so many period dramas on television.
It's a quirky place, oh so historical, with more than six hundred listed buildings and a number of fine churches, including five mediaeval ones.
Reminders of the past are all around you, from the 15th century Brownes Almshouses, to one of the oldest provincial theatres in the country, and only a mile away, the beautiful, and awe inspiring Burghley Hall, a triumph of an Elizabeth house with stunning gardens.
But this visit to Stamford, on a gloomy wet day earlier this week, wasn't about sightseeing, it was to lunch and to shop with Susie, Fiona and Laura.
Now, if there's one thing Laura and I love to do, that's to mooch about in search of antiques ,so our first port of call was to the St Martins Antiques Centre. To step out of the rain into somewhere with over fifty dealers displaying their treasures under one roof, is a joy.

The siren call of the kitchenalia attracted me like a homing signal. Laura got lost in the silver section...she's a collector of silver made by her great grandfather.
No such luck on this day but she did come away with two fine silver ladles, after we'd managed to drag her away out of this cutlery corner.
By now, we were feeling peckish, and our lunch stop was at The George Hotel just down the hill. I cannot pay a visit to Stamford without nipping into the George, whether just for a drink or a snack.

It's incredible to think that the origins of this  old coaching inn began over a hundred years before William the Conqueror beat King Harold at the Battle of Hastings.

four to five hundred years later, the neighbouring Hospital of St John and the house of the Holy Speulchre became part of the George .

The courtyard is stunning at any time of the year. Formerly a cloistered quadrangle belonging to the old church, in high summer, there's nothing nicer than having an afternoon tea here, amongst the profusion of hanging baskets and containers all packed with flowers.

Last week Christmas trees were already in situ here and fairy lights were uplifting in the gloom.


I also always have to have a peek at what is known as the Monastery garden. Past its summer best, even in November it's a charming, restful place

My friends Tessa and David had their wedding reception here a number of years ago, and in my mind's eye I remember the garden filled with guests,waiting staff weaving expertly through the crowds with huge trays of canap├ęs to the sounds of popping prosecco corks and  a chamber quartet playing .

But this was years later, a winter day ,and we were hungry so we went straight through to the Garden Room. Wine of course, and lunch...

The wild mushroom risotto was full of flavour and the salmon from the buffet was a very generous size, all served expertly.

It would have been so easy to stay for another glass of wine, to gossip - after all Laura was only here for a week's flying visit from the States. But we needed fresh air and a brisk walk we walked and talked past the almshouses and up the hill into the other part of town.

Past lovely quirky mediaeval houses and alleyways  and the grandeur of the gothic.

We strolled into St John the Baptist's church on the High Street, a designated Grade 1 listed building which originates from the 12th century.. Unfortunately this is now a redundant church...but it's looked after by the Churches Conservation Trust. Although it wasn't full of worshippers, there were quite a few people perusing the aisle full of charity Christmas cards.

All too soon it was time to stroll back to our car, over the river by the alms houses....

A whirlwind four hours in what many believe to the be the finest town in England. It really is in a  league of its own.  I love coming here, each time I see something new, different, and make a promise to myself to return soon.

 Next time I hope my visit is longer, hopefully overnight, to really make the most of what this quintessential English town has to offer.