Thursday, 4 November 2010


To say the least.

Have booked tickets to see the most wonderful Band of Horses at the De La Warr Pavillion in Bexhill-on-Sea.

Not until 4th February, but would gladly bypass Yule and Christmas to be there right now.

If you haven't heard them, do so.  Three cd's worth of music of awesome beautifulness awaits.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Summer's Final Fling, the Autumn Asserts Itself - Part 1

At last some quiet time to account for my movements over the past couple of weeks.

We usually take time off work for Howard's birthday at the start of September, but this year I had to work, so we decided instead to have a week off together at the end of the month instead.

There were quite a few events scheduled for the last weekend of September and the first in October, and we planned to get to some of them.  On the first Saturday of our break we headed down to Sussex for the Sarah Raven garden open day.  The food stalls were very thin on the ground, but Judges Bakery were there, so I bought a substantial sourdough loaf and a moderate stock of brownies for the journey.  We then went to look in the garden shop to stock up on seeds in the sale.  Sadly my favourite Sarah Raven "specials" (Cosmos Purity & Zinnia Envy) had already sold out, but I found a few useful Autumn sowing vegetable varieties, and a few indulgences, including some deep blue Anenome caen corms, which will look great next Spring against the front wall in a container.

Now, Sarah Raven's style may come over as twee and aspirational, but it's a hard working and practical garden.  The small terrace beds cut into the slopes around the main building are very productive and a very wise use of space that would normally end up under hard landscaping.  There are inspirational ideas dotted over the rest of the gardens, and the setting is marvellous, with fantastic view in all directions.  In fact, it's a wonder any work gets done - I'd be transfixed by the constantly changing scenery. 

On leaving the gardens, we stopped off in Heathfield, to satisfy my curiousity about the charity shops in the town.  Not the great haul I'd imagine there may have been a few years back, but I found a little necklace and a long handled onion hoe.  There was a second hand bookshop that we didn't have time to visit, due to strict parking regulations - that can be explored another time.  But the best find of all was the delicatessen.  Local cheeses in double figures, delicious pates and much.  Worth visiting just for that.

On leaving Heathfield, we headed off towards Middle Farm.  Not enough time to look round the open farm, but enough to go in the farm shop to fill the gaps in my Sussex cheese collection and a quick browse round the gift shop.  Ashamed to say it, but I bought a couple of tree decs, a good three months before Christmas.

We decided to take a different route back, along the A27, skimming past Brighton and back towards London.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Sissinghurst Smallholding Fair

Journey down was quick and easy until the stretch beyond Goudhurst to Sissinghurst, where the road was closed. We stopped at a junction to examine options on the road atlas when a local driver coming from another direction offered to guide us round the closure. Apparently there had been a serious accident and he expected it would be closed for a couple of hours. It has to be said that the weather at this point was grey and drizzly. I suspect the roads were slippery, and, as we found out on our journey home, the stretch of road that was closed was full of twists and turns, so lethal for anyone travelling too fast for the conditions.

Thanks to his pathfinding we reached Sissinghurst and parked up. The Smallholding Fair was running separate to the main house, so we paid our fee and went to the fields. The livestock part was in a field set apart from the rest of the event. Not much on show - Southdown and Romney Sheep, Sussex cattle from the estate farm, some alpacas, a few ducks and Shire who were giving cart rides - possibly others had got caught up in diversions.

The main part of the show was in the area flanking the vegetable garden - hog roast, burgers, cider and snails (couldn't bring myself to consider trying them, even as an act of revenge),  along the top of the hill, and the rest of the stalls in the paddock between the veg garden and the barn. Treated ourselves to some totally frivolous things such as shitake mushroom spawn dowels. We do have a recently felled log of the best host tree waiting at the allotment, so there's an excuse. Bought a couple of lovely tea towels from the Emma Bridgewater stand - a chicken and an owl design. Howard wants to frame them and I agree - they're collector's items in the making.

Bought some sensible things as well - secateurs, green manure seeds two bundles of chestnut palings. The chances of finding hand hewns palings for anything near the show price in our neck of the woods is nigh on unlikely, and giving the longevity of chestnut, it counts as a long term investment.

We had a look round the vegetable garden. The field is divided into 11 sections, of which 9 are used in the rotation. Each of the beds are about the size of two standard allotments. The permanent ones are a decorative herb garden and a rhubarb and soft fruit garden respectively. The idea of a rhubarb patch the size of our allotment clearly inspired Howard, as he took photos of it from every angle bar bird's eye.

Given the time of year, part of the garden is between crops, and some of the rest had clearly suffered. However, there is something very attractive about alternating blocks of red & green lettuce, including the ones that had bolted and looked like tiny conifers.

Our walk round the fair and the garden was punctuated by a very funny talk by Matthew Rice on his experiences keeping chickens. During the question and answer session at the end I asked about the best ways to discourage hens digging out of the runs, during which I described my Braekel hen as possibly having some British POW blood in her given her fondness of starting tunnels. Towards the end of the show, while Howard was carrying the palings (the collection of which was delayed by Monty Don stopping to talk to the stallholder - I guess it's the kind of butch manly activity he would like, though he gave his prize for the best stand to the family selling preserves and donating a percentage to the turtle sanctuary on Zakynthos), and I was heading for the bookshop, Matthew Rice spotted me. I was wearing a Chartreuse lime green top so Howard could spot me if I wandered off and it clearly had proved unforgettable.   We had a further joke about my ability to bring out the more feisty traits in animals. I said it didn't bear thinking what could happen when I'm finally in a position to get goats!

We stayed almost until the end of the show, and made our way home very satisfied with the way we'd spent the day.  Hopefully it will run again next year, with more livestock - especially chickens.

Sunday, 30 May 2010

More country jaunts

Just getting ready for a day running chicken and garden errands. Have looked on the RHS plant finder database, and a nursery I like going to (Hopleys in Hertfordshire) is listed as having the iris (Action Front) that was used in the top show garden at Chelsea. I need to replace the Spring seasonal container in the front garden (ie. a big pot over a drain cover) and as that spot is a sun trap, I reckon a mix of iris, eryngium and cirsium would be bold and quirky enough to fit in, and stand out from the 2 foot square wild flower meadow in front of it.

Had a lovely day yesterday, despite what the weather threw at us. Went to the Heathfield show in Sussex. It was quite a journey, but it's a part of the country we love, so just being there was good. (One day, must take the time to visit Heathfield Hight Street - LOADS of charity shops). Spent the first hour or so watching horse classes - Mountain and Moorland, and an unaffiliated coloured horse & pony class, which in this instance included palaminos, roans and duns, three colours I'm a sucker for. Having finally seen on close up, Howard now wants a Nowegian Fjord pony Laughing

Shortly after we decoded to take a walk round the rest of the show, the rain started. We had a quick look round the poultry stands, but didn't see anything we could immediately justify buying. At around half past one, the rain became torrential, so we headed for the food tent, as did everyone who wasn't heading for the car parks. As it was lunch time, joined the queue for a Welsh Oggie (pasty). A lovely warming meal, with pastry that was firm enough to hold the contents without the ribbed part breaking your teeth.

Once we'd seen and bought all we wanted to, we headed back out of the tent. The show is held on a hillside, and as I emerged I could hear the clinking of chains in the mist. The heavy horse turnouts were in the main ring. Any other time we'd have stopped to watch & take photos, but by now not only was the rain torrential, it was also horizontal - going straight into my eyes and ears. We retreated to the sheep tent. I have realised that, with the exception of Zwartbles (which look and act like big Balwens), I don't like continental sheep breeds. There was one there (one of the French breeds), and it looked more like a Staffie than a sheep! Being East Sussex, there were plenty of lovely teddy bear like Southdowns, and quite a few Romneys. Made some woolly friends, then braved the outdoors again.

The rain had stopped - I think we were actually in the clouds. The horse classes had continued throughout the rain - I should think that soaked with rain, a side saddle habit must be really heavy, yet the riders still managed to keep their composure. Some of the stands were closing up, so we went for a further look round. Didn't buy much - just a couple of plants and some jodhpurs Surprised Found the High Weald Dairy stand and bought another block of the lovely St Giles. Watched a leading rein pony class, then some terrier racing before heading for the van. Sat in the back of the van for a while to dry off. Howard brewed a tea and we listened to the storm blowing outside. Once the wind died down we headed home.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

New uses for old "rubbish"

Have spent the afternoon helping Howard make raised bed vegetable planters from old Ikea shelves. We have a load of Sten shelves (like the current Gorm basic shelves, but slightly different dimensions, so the two don't fit together) which have been stored until we could think of a use for them.

Four shelves made the sides of a 90cm square planter, and the bases are made from some clean pallets that Howard 'rescued' and broke up at work. Just need to line the insides with mypex which we have stored at the allotment and they'll be ready to fill & plant.

By making two 90cm planters, I now have something to go down the middle of the garden between the extended shade bed one side, and the row of mini greenhouses on the sunny side of the garden.

Looking at the price of similar planters, we've saved at least £60, and have the material to do a few more.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Enforced Rest

Signed off work at the moment with a bad bout of sciatica.  I was made to carry the sack of outgoing post from our building to the main building reception a couple of weeks ago, and at some point twisted my lower back.  Had a good moan to my supervisor the next day, but after a week with no improvement - in fact more pain, more restricted movement, I decided to see my GP.

Having described the problem, and the probable cause, I was expecting to be told to take painkillers, or possibly get sent for a cortisone jab.  But he asked what my job was, how much of it was sitting at a desk (all of it, and the new supervisor begrudges you loo breaks), so he signed me off, telling me to spend the time lying down or going for gentle walks - as little sitting down as possible.  So I shouldn't be on the computer.  But I feel like I'm not doing anything just lying down watching TV, so I ration myself - short bursts then a wander down the garden.

Not looking forward to going back to work - expect grief about being signed off.  So I'll make sure I get them to agree to no more heavy lifting (and a trolley if anything needs moving), breaks to keep my back comfortable and a new chair that isn't jammed in an uncomfortable position.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

A Wonderful Spring Day

Set of later than intended, so did something totally out of character - Used the M11.  But as most people who were "getting away" had already gone, traffic wasn't too bad.  Spotted hares in a wheat field at a spot almost parallel with where we'd stopped on a country lane last autumn.  We drove on, and as we passed through Newmarket I saw thoroughbreds training on the gallops and the furthest reaches of the racecourse, and in the paddocks of various studs, mares and a few spindly legged foals.

Once we passed Bury St Edmunds, we headed off the main roads.  We stopped at a farm shop and bought vegetables that had just been picked or lifted from the surrounding fields, and ended up chatting to the father in law of the farmer about veg growing, specifically about the frustrations of not being able to plant potatoes at our "normal times".  There are times when I feel I was born a townie by mistake.

We continued on through the Suffolk lanes, avoiding random pheasants, and reached the village of Troston, site of Francine Raymond's annual Easter Hen Party.  We visited her several years ago, and parked just down the lane from the cottage.  This time we parked the other end of the village, in the garage next to the pub and walked up to the house.

You could say that Francine Raymond's Kitchen Garden Hen set up in Country Living magazine made flesh - a deep Suffolk Pink painted cottage, sat opposite a small flint walled church.  The gardens are immaculate and even in this slow Spring, splashes of colour exist - mainly hellebores and viburnum, but also anenomes self seeded in the brick paving and gravel, plus the boards of the raised beds in the vegetable and herb garden, painted the same colour as the house. 

The garden is divided into three by clipped yew hedges.  One column ends with the willow fenced duck pond, one is the vegetable garden, and the middle has a lawn and a gate to the open fields.  Francine's flock of Buff Orpintons reside in a shrub lined area near the cottage, and whilst free to roam most days, were confined to quarters for the event.  The lawned area housed several exhibitors with their hens, selling hatching eggs.  I almost wished one of my hens was broody, as a gorgeous wheaten Marsh Daisy hen laid an egg right in front of us!  (That's another one for the list). 

There were other stands in the cottage itself, which is decorated in lighted muted colours to tone with the yellow grey of the oak beams.  I loved the coat hooks shaped like eggs on the beam that forms the portal to the kitchen area.  The wooden furniture is also heavy grey oak - I doubt anything else would look right.  I also loved the collection of old lead toy chickens in a knick nack display, including a Buff Orpie type hen like one I bought Howard a few birthdays back.  Smallholders feeds had a stand, and their special mixed corn was on special offer, so we bought as many bags as we could carry (two).  The rest of the stalls in the dining room were given over to edibles - cakes, preserves and delightful tiny French style macaroons.  The yard and outhouse were given over to plants and gardening equipment.  Sadly, someone beat me to the last of the bamboo tunnel cloches (as did someone else to the blue glass chicken shaped egg cups in the Kitchenalia stall in the garage) but I bought three pots of rhubarb.  It's an unknown variety, but it was rescued by builders from an old man's garden, who told them it was a very old variety.  So it has been named Mr Batchelor's in his honour.

We were too old for the Easter egg hunt in the churchyard, but the WI were selling cakes, teas and soup in the church itself, so despite being laden with goodies, we stopped off for some more before heading to the van.

Our next port of call was Harveys, a plant nursery specialising in shade tolerant plants.  I became interested in shade tolerant and woodland plant long before we moved here, but I'm now able to really indulge, have a damp shade and a drier shade bed at either end of the garden.  Thus I was able to justify buying both a burgundy and a yellow flowered Scopolaria, another geranium, two Polygonatum, plus a Uvularia and a Trycitris.

The nursery has a cafe which sells wonderful lunches and cakes.  They were happy to chop and change my order when my sesame allergy became known.  We sat at a table where we had a good view of their chickens in the old orchard.  The luch was excellent and the entertainment superb.

On the nursery's recommendation, we next went to a farm shop with a deli in search of local cheeses.  The deli shuts up early on Saturdays, but we treated ourselves to some Suffolk (black treacle & ale) cure bacon.

After that, we drove on towards the fringes of Norfolk to stop at Blooms of Bressingham.  It's Blooms only in name now - the family have handed over the reins to the Gardening Club (formerly Wyevales) group, but at least that meant I could use my club card and get vouchers from my purchases.

By now, it was gone 5pm, so nowhere else worth investigating would be open.  We drove for a short while, back down country lanes and their suicidal pheasants, until we stopped in a parking space for some heathland.  The notice board showed in Summer it was the haunt of Sand Lizards and Adders.  The soil was so acidic that little else was growing bar Gorse, Silver Birch and moss.  As we sat and brewed up a tea, it became clear from the other cars arriving that this was one of those "beauty spots popular with dog walkers" that get mentioned in newspapers.  Suspect funny things go on there after dark.

Our journey continued south back into Suffolk, spotting a few more hares and deer, before we reluctantly hit the main roads and headed home.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

First outing of the year

Spring has arrived, and with it the assorted out of town events we like to take in.  

First on the agenda was an early visit to Sarah Raven's garden at Perch Hill, East Sussex.  They usuaully hold a couple of open days later in the year, but this year there are more, including an early spring one for bulbs.

Sadly, the weather has meant that plants such as Narcissi have been held back, and Sarah Raven's was really quiet, but because the garden was so far behind, entrance was free.   However, plants that should have passed their peak, such as Snowdrops, Winter Aconites and of course Hellebores were still in full bloom, and the vegetable garden still had hardy winter vegetables such as Kale and assorted hardy Oriental salad leaves (Mustard & Mizuna) and Radiccio in the ground.

Visiting a great garden in the off season may not seem exciting, but seeing the "bare bones" is a very rewarding exercise.  You get to see the layout, the soil and its additions uncovered.  You also see how shrubs are pruned and trained, and the various structures used to support plants at their fullest.  We did this on an early visit to Hyde Hall some years back.  I'm not a fan of fancy roses, but seeing the structures in place to carry the rambling roses along the rope lined pergolas was interesting all the same.

Not much in the way of food stalls unfortunately (and no cheese stall at all), but Judges Bakery were there. Treated myself to macaroons and brownies, plus a sourdough loaf.  Sadly when I got home, I discovered the loaf I'd bought was riddled with sesame, so I'll have to give it away. Sesame is a known allergen, causing serious, potentially fatal, reactions.  Why do people contaminate perfectly good foods with dangerous ingredients?

Afterwards we drove through the Sussex countryside to Middle Farm, a working dairy farm with an "open farm", farm shop and The English Cider & Perry (plus mead & country wines) centre shop alongside, on the A27 near Newhaven. We had a look round the barns, meeting a donkey foal, angora goat kids, various farm cats and assorted poultry, including Frizzle bantams and low flying peacocks.

We watched the farm's herd of Jersey cows being milked (love watching this - it reminds me of childhood holidays in Powys when I helped the farmer and his family in the milking parlour), then went to meet some of the latest additions to the herd. I was wearing my green suede jacket, which caught their eye, and I was on the receiving end of the calves' prehensile tongues.  I can't help it if I look like a tasty bale of hay!

After looking round the farm, I bought seven different Sussex cheeses in the farm shop, then sampled several and bought one each of single variety cider & perry.

As we left the Cider & Perry centre part of the farm, the clouds finally burst, and once the worst had passed, made our way home.

Sunday, 28 February 2010

Cheese of the week - pt 2 - Gorwydd Caerphilly

St David's Day tomorrow, so I'll be handing round the Welsh Cakes at the office.  Have already treated myself to some fine cheese.

The commercially produced version of Caerphilly is similar to the many other British "white" cheese - Lancashire, Cheshire and Wensleydale, but Gorwydd Caerphilly is a proper traditional farmhouse version of the cheese.  As it ages it becomes creamier in texture and deeper cream in colour.  The flavour is more intense as well.  Sorely tempted to put together a potato, leek and bacon bake for tomorrow night and embellish it with cubes of Caerphilly - if there's any left!

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Cheese of the week - Montboissie

As can be ascertained from my previous post, I am more than partial to cheese - proper cheese, cheese with flavour, texture and character to set it apart from the flaccid yellow slabs of "mild Cheddar" that are the most pungent the uninformed or lily-livered can stretch to.

I'm not saying I'm a cheese snob - I regularly buy Seriously Strong or Colliers' Cheddar, but I do like to have something a little unusual among the five or so cheeses in the fridge at any given time.

Howard passed by a touring French market on Friday, and bought a selection for me.  The stall holder was mildly amused that for once he had a British customer whose response to each product sampled was "Have you got anything stronger?"

Eventually he came away with four fine treats - a lovely dry flavoured but creamy textured Chevre, a slab of Morbier, another mountain region classic, Tomme de Savoie, but a particularly aged one, not so much farmhouse mature, more essence of derelict barn!

There was one final cheese, one that was new to me - Montboissie.  It's a semi-soft rinded cheese, a relative of Morbier,  but without the ash layer in the middle.  It has a sweet pungency, with a slight sharp kick - really does melt in the mouth.  Ideal on a slab of slightly warm proper bread.

As it is probably only made on a small scale, I can't promise you'll be able to find some to try.  But if you do, get a slab and enjoy it!

Sunday, 24 January 2010

A Day in Town

I haven't posted for some time - slight technical difficulties, but from here on in I'll try to be more efficient.

Had a lovely day in town yesterday, but feeling slightly creaky from all the walking.

We got off the tube at Westminster, crossed the bridge and walked along the embankment to the museum. Much easier than fighting through the crowds to get the right bus for such a short journey.

The Grow Your Own exhibition at the Garden Museum was great. It started with Manor Garden Allotments (lost to the Olympics), then went in more or less chronological order - the 1908 act, World War 1, Land Settlement Act (something I want to learn more about - suspect if it was still going many of us would be signed up), World War II, post war decline and the reversion of allotments to beings a male preserve, the Self-Sufficiency movement of the 1970's (not just John Seymour, and including a few exhibits I have copies of), The Good Life tv series, Lawrence Hills, Lady Balfour and organics, the resurgence in demand for allotments and grow your own as a "fashion statement". There was a notice board for comments, and we read some very funny ones from a school party.

An excellent exhibition - informative and inspiring without being heavy & dry. I would have liked to see more detail in some areas, but that may be because I collect and use Dig For Victory and Self Sufficiency literature. For a newcomer or less avid reader on the subject, there was plenty to explore.

We had lunch in the museum cafe - mushroom and chestnut stroganoff with side salads - split pea & Jerusalem artichoke, roasted aubergine & fennel, herby couscous with pumpkin seeds and green salad from the museum garden. Delicious, wholesome & filling - many places would have charged as much for the individual salads as we paid for the whole plate. Sadly, we were too full to research the home made cakes on offer, but they looked very naughty.

I had all the books on offer in the museum shop directly related to the exhibition, but treated myself to a book on earth sheltered greenhouses. When I was at college for my organics course, we had to do a presentation on a Permaculture plot design. I did my group's design & presentation almost single-handed with their blessing, and an earth sheltered greenhouse was one of my key features. At last I have more than one Mother Earth News article to learn from.

After the exhibition, we caught the bus to Trafalgar Square. Our intention had been to finally catch to 1960's photography show at the National Portrait Gallery, but they were only selling time slotted tickets, and the slots being sold when we arrived were for 6pm. The queue was long, and we were told we were very likely to be alloted a slot for the Sunday by the time we were served. At 3pm on a Saturday afternoon that seemed ridiculous, so we left and caught another bus towards Oxford Street.

The bus we caught stopped almost next to John Lewis, so we didn't have to fight through the crowds. Went down to the kitchenware department, on the lookout for jam jars. All sold out - have to order online. Then up to the haberdashery department as I needed dark blue cotton to mend a pair of jeans. Also splashed out on a Cath Kidston sewing wallet. Very middle class, playing at practical, but every time I use my current mending kit, I keep dropping the contents on the floor. This wallet will at least keep stuff in place.

A quick dasj along the back streets to Selfridges and the food hall, to treat myself to some exotic cheese (Gjetost) and some cupcakes for supper.

By now our feet were aching, and it was time to think about shutting the hens in for the night, so I splashed out on a cab to Kings Cross and thr train home.

Lovely day - it was good to be a tourist in my home town for a change, but couldn't manage it every week.