Monday, December 28

Dog days of winter

I think I may have just invented that phrase, after all it's usually dog days of summer, but although the temperature does not match the phrase, the feeling of lethargy and inaction probably does.

Every year my employer closes the office from Christmas Eve to New Year, kindly giving all staff three and a half days' extra holiday gratis. I know that they save a lot of money not having to heat the building for a few days when most people would be on holiday anyway, but it's a gesture I've always appreciated and felt grateful for (especially since I used to work at a company that closed the office BUT made you take the days out of your meagre annual leave!).

As a result my christmas break is usually at least two weeks long, this year even longer! I find the run-up to Christmas rather tedious; the requirement to celebrate two consecutive birthdays in our household while still trying to finish preparations for December 25th usually leaves me tired and emotional by the actual day, and drained of any festive spirit.

But the days between Christmas and the new year return to work are something of a gift, particularly if I stay in London and try to minimise my travelling. The city as a whole is much quieter, its population temporarily reduced, and when the weather is good, it's a great opportunity to get out and enjoy the sights, attractions, cycle routes and footpaths of the capital.

With a glorious day of sunshine today I set out for a bike ride along some of my favourite East London waterways, and to explore some new ones.

From Greenwich I head under the river through the foot tunnel, then along the Thames Path on the west of the Isle of Dogs and up to Limehouse Basin. From here I follow the Regents Canal and take the cycle route through Mile End Park to Victoria Park.

At the east end of Victoria Park the cycle route (it's part of National Route 1) dips back to the towpath and heads into the edge of the Olympic construction zone. There's some great graffiti on the walls of the industrial buildings that line the river.

You can either head north along the River Lee, as I did today, and follow the route as far as you fancy, over Hackney and Walthamstow marshes and up into Lee Valley Park or head south along the Lee and back towards the Thames for a shorter route. At Bow Locks take the cute little bridge over the channel and then follow the 'floating' footpath that leads into Limehouse Cut and back to Limehouse Basin.

Today I did both, about 25 miles in total, and got home just as it was getting dark. Annoyingly the south lift in the Greenwich Foot Tunnel did one of those scheduled-but-unannounced closures, meaning I had to drag my bike back up the 90-odd stairs. As if I hadn't seen enough stairs already this week! And if they'd had the decency to put up a notice about it, I wouldn't have bothered doing some shopping on the way back, meaning the bike was even heavier! Grrr!

There's so much to see along these routes, from industrial wastelands to historic buildings and modern construction, delightful parks and colourful narrowboats, loads of river life and fascinating glimpses of forgotten corners of London that even a short trip can keep you occupied for several hours.

Sunday, December 27

The Monument

Today's chilly and blustery weather didn't have quite enough sunshine to tempt my friend Gareth and I out of London for a walk, but instead we had a mooch around the City and did one of the things that has been on my 'to do' list since I arrived here (ahem more than 20 years ago!).

We climbed 311 steps to the top of the Monument which commemorates the rebuilding of the city of London after the Great Fire of 1666. This the tallest free-standing stone column in the world, according to the certificate you are given when you descend the stairs after admiring the views from the top.

The tower was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and Dr Robert Hooke, and provides fabulous views over the city of London and the river, even on a rather dull December day. We could see as far as the tower on the top of Shooters Hill in south east London. On a sunny day you could probably see even further.

The weekend is a great time to explore the so-called 'square mile' of London, which is home to all the major banks and financial institutions, but hides many surprising gems of architecture and tradition. You can wander around and explore all the little side streets, cut-throughs and hidden churches without getting in the way of tetchy bankers. The only downside is that many of the pubs, cafes and shops are also closed, even on Saturday. Head to St Pauls, the Barbican or Liverpool Street station if you need food or drink, they usually have places open to cater for travellers and tourists.

The late afternoon sun provided a very warm glow to Wren's beautiful dome on St Paul's Cathedral as we headed home.

Peppermint creams

I wanted to make some old-fashioned sweets for people for Christmas, having had success with the orangettes and wanting another option.

There's some very impressive gifty recipes over on Smitten Kitchen but the ones I particularly liked the sound of were too complex and required a thermometer, or involved ingredients I wasn't sure I could get a suitable substitute for.

So I give you: peppermint creams! Mostly sugar, with a bit of egg white and some peppermint essence. Very easy to make and very impressive when covered with chocolate! The quantity shown makes a lot of sweets, it's difficult to make less as you can't really do less than one egg white, but perhaps you could freeze some of the dough if you don't want to use it all straight away.

1 egg white
1 tsp lemon juice
400-420g icing sugar
peppermint essence
food colouring
approx 200g good quality dark chocolate

Lightly beat the egg white in a large bowl. Add the lemon juice then start to stir in the icing sugar until you have made a stiff dough.

Add the peppermint flavouring. The recipe I used said 'a few drops' but I found I needed quite a lot to make it taste of anything other than sugar! You can also add food colouring - pink and green are the traditional colours, you could divide the dough and make quantities of both.

The next step is to roll out the dough on a flat surface with some icing sugar on the rolling pin and the surface. You need to work quickly as the dough will start to dry out fast; it's a good idea to divide the dough into quarters and work on it one lump at a time. Keep the rest in clingfilm while you do this.

Roll it to about 5-10mm thickness, then cut out small shapes and place on greaseproof paper on a baking sheet to dry. I left mine overnight till they were quite crunchy.

Melt the chocolate in a bowl over a pan of hot water. Dip the shapes in the chocolate quickly, covering them on both sides, then place on greaseproof paper to set.

Friday, December 18


I love coincidences. This week I met someone at a first-aid course in London who knew the bookshop a friend of mine used to own in a small town in Somerset. It's like that connections thing where you are supposed to be able to link yourself to anyone else in the world through only eight people or something.

My favourite story goes like this.

Long long ago (I have just looked it up and think it must have been in about 1996 yikes!) I went to see the Belfast singer Andy White play a gig at a tiny venue in London. Andy had just released a new album, Teenage, which I really liked and which I had added to my collection of his other albums. At the gig I bought a T-shirt printed with his trademark doodles.

Some time later that year, or perhaps the following year, I went to Vancouver for a business trip, to see some of the construction projects that were being built over there. As part of the trip I went to see a new highway being built in Vancouver Island, taking the ferry to the island's main city Victoria and staying there overnight.

I decided that I would treat myself and take a seaplane back to the mainland the following day, so I went in to the office to book a seat. As I was talking to the woman behind the desk, a young man came in wearing a pilot's uniform. He started to stare at me and then broke in, staring at my T-shirt and asking where I had got it from. I explained, and he then told me that Andy White was his cousin! As soon as he said that, I could hear the lyrics of the song 'my gay cousin' going round in my head - the song includes the line 'flying high over British Columbia'!

I just love how so many elements of chance coincided to make that happen!

Monday, December 7

Ashdown Forest

Despite a very poor start to the morning, Sunday turned out lovely and I went to visit friends near Penshurst in Kent. This was the source of my last lot of squashes (the last of which I used up in the squash and fennel dish) and I came home with another bagful. Better than having your own allotment, is to have friends with an allotment!

We went out walking in the Ashdown Forest in Surrey, a beautiful area which was new to me. The heavy rain had made the footpaths into little streams, but it was flinty and sandy rather than muddy, so very pleasant for walking.

Getting the two dogs posed for a photo with my friend Rowan was difficult, but we got there in the end. I like this one out of the preparatory shots; Cosmo on the right is the star of the show, he's a natural! Gidget didn't want to be in the photo but eventually acquiesed!

Saturday, December 5

Pearl barley with roasted fennel and squash

I first ate this on a visit to Canteen restaurant in the Royal Festival Hall, which is one of my favourite places to go for traditional British seasonal food. Their treacle tart with clotted cream is to die for.

But back to the recipe. I believe the original meal was made with spelt, but I substituted pearl barley which is just as nice and maybe even better.

I tried to find a recipe but couldn't, so I just made it up, which is why it's quite a basic recipe. I think the secret here is the combination of flavours. Roast fennel and roast squash make a fabulous combination, and the pearl barley brings the perfect texture to the meal. Don't leave out the garlic or the herbs, they are essential.

I haven't done any quantities since I usually make it just for myself. You will have to make a guess I'm afraid, but there's no crucial quantities, just make sure you have enough for the guests.

Pearl barley
Squash, peeled and chopped in large chunks
Fennel, chopped into large chunks
Garlic, crushed
Herbs (I use marjoram, sage or thyme)
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

Put the pearl barley in a pan with plenty of water. Bring to the boil then simmer for about an hour.

At the same time, mix the fennel, squash, garlic, herbs, seasoning and olive oil in a large roasting dish. Put in a medium oven for about an hour, shaking the tin occasionally.

Strain the pearl barley, mix with the roasted veg. Add a dribble more olive oil and salt if necessary.

See, I told you it was simple!

Incidentally, Leez has posted some details of the 1970s pattern book for those of you who were cooing over it the other day - hop over and enjoy!

Wednesday, December 2

Weaving sampler

Certainly not the most beautiful item I've ever made, but it's my first piece of weaving, and will serve as an instructive and inspirational item for future projects!

Monday, November 30

November draws to a close

..and with it, the end of Nablopomo and the pressure to post every day.

I can't say I will miss it, as it has been quite a struggle. I've managed to put something up every day, but sometimes I've cheated by posting something the day before and setting it up to publish on the right day, and other times the quality of the post has been rather lacking. Although I'll let you be the judge of that, naturally!

But on the other hand, I've enjoyed the pressure - it has given me the impetus to write about some things I might have let slip by, and also made me think more about the blog and try to keep my readers interested.

I've been chuffed by the number of comments I've had over this period - regular posting clearly keeps you coming back - and want to single out Pixlkitten (another Nablopomo-er) and Colleen for their sterling support and comments over this time.

I'm also delighted to be able to introduce you to a new blogger who has taken the plunge in earnest this month. Leez and I have known each other for many years through work, but also share a love of crafting. She freely admits that knitting is not her forte, but wanted to have a craft that she could do in front of the tele, and recently resurrected her needlepoint skills with very colourful and impressive results. You can read more about it on her blog - please do pop over there and give her some support!

As for me, the extremely wet weekend we endured was just the stimulus I needed to spur me on with my weaving efforts. Unfortunately the gloominess was not conducive to photography so I can't yet show you the completed sampler which I started earlier in the year and which had been gathering dust ever since.

I pulled a whole lot of odds and ends out of my stash and set about trying different combinations of yarn and weaving patterns and ended up with a rather colourful sampler which I believe will prove very instructive for future projects. I tried thick, thin, textured, coloured, hairy, smooth varieties of yarn in different weaves, some with quite startling and unexpected results.

Now I have a couple of ideas for future projects, the confidence and enthusiasm that I need to pursue them, and a few hours more practice that has improved my technique. I can't wait for the christmas break...!

Sunday, November 29

Norwegian star earflap hat

The hat has finally been presented to its recipient - only to come back home again with me for a little alteration. That's the problem with making something as a gift, although I had the measurements I couldn't try it on for the full effect until it was finished. It ended up being a bit too pointy so I'm adjusting the rate of decrease on the crown.

I used the Norwegian star earflap hat pattern by the awesome Tienneknits with a bit of adaptation (the pompom was a must, the ties were unwanted). It was simple enough to use, and I made it in Rowan cashsoft 4ply, which I used double.

I knitted the hat first, then picked up stitches and knitted the earflaps from the top down, reversing the instructions and decreasing rather than increasing.

It was very well received!

Saturday, November 28

Salter add and weigh scale

I love this weighing scale, it is such a perfect example of a well-designed, functional and yet beautiful item, that I thought I would share it with you.

I bought it a couple of years ago on a whim - I didn't need any scales but I saw it in the shop and fell in love with it.

It's made by Salter, it's their 'add and weigh' scale and has clearly been designed by someone who understands how good design can make the cooking process so much easier. Not to mention minimising the amount of washing-up, which is always a good thing in my book.

It looks great - stainless steel jug and a matt black and steel base. Not only that, it stores in the absolute minimum of space by turning the jug upside down and placing it over the base. The only thing that would make it smaller would be if it were telescopic.

Secondly, it's very, very functional. The reason it's called 'add and weigh' is that you can effectively 'zero' the measurement and then add the next ingredient. But unlike electronic scales which need batteries, this is a purely mechanical scale and very simple - something which I think it hugely under-appreciated in these days of electronic everything.

The base is made of two parts - the inner part contains the weighing equipment and the needle. Over this, the matt black cover is loose, and contains a window with the dial printed on it, with both imperial and metric units. To zero the scale, you simple turn the black cover so that the zero of the dial is over the needle.

Not only can you zero it and then add more ingredients, you can also weigh directly into any measuring bowl or pan, saving having to wash up the jug. This means you are not limited as to what volume of ingredient you can weigh by the size of the jug.

The jug itself is handy, the handle and lip making it easier to move ingredients from the scale to the pan or bowl.

Inside the jug are scales for imperial and metric liquid measurements, 'cups' and so on. All this for £20 and no batteries required. What's not to like?

I do also own an electronic scale for when I need to weigh small things very accurately. (I'm talking about wool and fibre, not illegal substances!) But every time I get my Salter scale out to do some baking, my inner design geek gives a little coo!

Friday, November 27

Granny's fruit cake

The granny referred to in the title is actually an amalgamation of both my grannies, only one of whom is still alive (and still baking cakes, in her nineties! Forget supernanny, she is supergranny!)

It was supergranny whom I learned the recipe from - she always has a tin of fruit cake, jam sponge cake or homemade Eccles cakes to hand when I visit. So I always thought of it as her recipe and only found out recently that the recipe was originally passed from my mum's mum, to my mum, and then on to supergranny.

The great things about this cake are:

- easy to make and only uses one pan and a cake tin
- very, very moist and very, very tasty
- lasts weeks (if you can stop yourself eating it!)

You know how I hate candied peel. Or you should know by now, unless this is your first visit to my blog! This fruit cake contains sultanas and raisins. That's all in the way of fruit. You can put other fruits in if you like, sometimes I chop a few dried apricots or dates in if they need using up, but it's fab with just the two.

So, here's what you do.

Get a largish pan, and put the following into it:

60z (150g) margarine or butter
1.25 cup raisins
1.25 cup sultanas
1 cup water
1 cup sugar
1tsp bicarb of soda

Don't worry if you haven't got a set of proper cup measures. I just use a smallish cup and make sure I use it the same one throughout.

Put it on the hob, heat until all the margarine has melted, then simmer for 20 minutes. The fruit will be lovely and plump by now. Leave it to cool for a while.

Turn the oven on to gas mark 2 (this is low, 150 C or 300 F).

Line your cake tin with greaseproof paper. My cake tin is approx 8 inch diameter and has a removable base, it's perfect for this cake. I line it with paper that I cut off a roll - a circle for the base and two strips for the outside. This is the most tedious bit of the whole recipe but you can even bypass this bit by buying cake tin liners from Lakeland. Good if you do a lot of baking but I think they are quite pricey myself.

A tip from supergranny is to put a few licks of grease on the tin too - it keeps your lining in the right place, which is vital if you have cut the paper off a roll.

When the boiled fruit has cooled a bit, mix in:

2 eggs
2 cups of self-raising flour

Stir a bit till it's relatively smooth, don't worry too much about the consistency. The worst that will happen is you might get a tiny burst of white flour in your slice of cake, quite pretty really.

Scrape it all into the tin, place on the 4th shelf down, and bake for 1.5 - 1.75 hours.

Check it's done by sticking a skewer or knitting needle into the middle, and make sure it comes out clean.

Cool the cake on a rack, remove the paper before storing.

It will keep for a good few weeks, but you can also freeze the cake (or a section of it) if you don't want to eat it all at once.

Thursday, November 26

Early christmas

Last Thursday I passed a place in Strood, Kent, where real Christmas trees were on sale.

Today at work I got my first Christmas card.

Is this a record?

Wednesday, November 25

Spreading myself too thinly?

I've been wondering more and more of late, just where my spare time goes to. So I started adding up in my head all my extra-curricular activities, hobbies, commitments and locations of friends and relatives. Soon all became clear - here's a taster.

Close family in Derbyshire, Warwickshire, Oxfordshire and Austria (although the latter is currently in Japan!). Just visiting all the rellys can take some months.

Close friends in London & surrounds, Somerset, Derbyshire, Leicestershire, West Yorkshire and Cambridgeshire.

Gardener for the Curse's mum.

Friend to elderly neighbour.

Trustee of pension fund at work.

First aider at work.

Leader of weekend conservation tasks for BTCV

Membership of various committees and groups for Lewisham Homes (our freeholder)

Pilates (once a week)
Swimming (at least once a week)
Deep tissue massage (once a month)

Knitter/spinner/trainee weaver

Pickle-maker and cake baker

Author of two blogs (updated fairly regularly)

Usually the only person in our block of maisonettes who chases up poor caretaking, grass that needs cutting, bins that haven't been emptied, etc etc

Did I mention that somehow I also manage to work four days a week and keep a relationship going? Perhaps it's as well that the Curse is so preoccupied with football, keeps him busy when I'm at one or other of my tasks!

Now I need a sit down.

Tuesday, November 24

Crafty shopping

It's time to hang on to your wallet in London as the crafty/design christmas fairs pile up one after the other over the next couple of weeks.

I'm hoping to sample at least one of the various events; top of the list will probably be the Cockpit Arts open studios at Deptford, which is on 4-6 December. I regularly visit the studios and never get tired of seeing the beautiful textiles, jewellery, ceramics and other items on sale and meeting the talented folks responsible for making them. Cockpit Arts has two sites - one in Deptford and one in Holborn, and they both provide studios and support for 'designer makers'. In a nutshell that's effectively artists/designers who have channelled their skills into a craft of some sort, and found a way to make a living out of their creativity. It's not just a building with studios to rent - they also offer workshops to teach business skills and professional development to their designers, to give them the skills to make a success of their talents. Other support such as organising and promoting the open studios event and other workshops, and maintaining a directory of designers/keeping the website active and relevant, are also vital to help these designers establish themselves and develop their skills further. I rather like the mission statement of this place, that's one of the reasons I keep going back. Several of the studios house weavers, it's fun to see the huge floor looms and dream over what I might one day produce on a smaller scale....

Oh and they sell some lovely stuff too - the only problem being that I usually end up buying things for myself rather than trying to focus on christmas shopping!

Another event grabbing my attention is the Hidden Arts Christmas Design Fair, which I have never been to before - it's a bit further afield but could be worth a look. It's on this weekend 27-29 November in Brick Lane, east London. Good place for a curry while you're down there!

Alternatively I might pop up to trendy Clerkenwell for Craft Central this weekend. Tsk, so many shopping opps, so little time!

Monday, November 23

Christmas preparations

Lots of people have been blogging over the last few weeks about preparations for Christmas - making puddings (yeuch), cakes (yeuch) and mincemeat (it's ok if it does not include any alcohol or candied peel).

Have you noticed I'm not a great fan of the traditional English christmas sweet things? That's mainly because I believe spirits should be imbibed from a glass and not used to ruin food (I don't mind wine and beer in sauces/casseroles). Hell I don't even like rum and raisin toffees!

I also hate the candied peel that tends to be included in packets of mixed dried fruit and hence ends up in most fruit cakes and christmas puds. Which is odd considering how much I loved the chocolate-covered orange peel!

I don't mind mincemeat if it is made to the family recipe (no peel, no alcohol) but rarely make it as the Curse doesn't like it and it gets thrown away in the end. I've still got half a jar I begged off my mum in the back of the fridge, I'm going to dig it out and see if it's still ok...!

So what do I have for afters on Christmas Day? Usually a bit of a lie down after eating too much duck and roast spuds. Then maybe four or five hours later, cheese, biscuits and - you guessed it - pickle!

Sunday, November 22

Favourite cardy

One of the great things about winter is rediscovering old knitted friends. I had totally forgotten how warm and comfy my Deptford Park Hoodie is, but since digging it out of the bottom drawer for the winter months I'm enjoying the rekindling of our flame. This item really eliminates the need for an autumn/spring jacket - it's warm enough to wear through all except the coldest days, with only the addition of a thin waterproof jacket needed for the wet days. I put this outfit to the test quite thoroughly over the weekend during one of the wettest visits I've ever had to Somerset!

Last year I even wore the hoodie on my birthday - just a few days before Christmas day! I just found the photo to remind me - sorry but you won't be seeing it as it's not particularly flattering!

I love it so much that I'm planning to knit another one, although I'm toying with the idea of making it a jumper rather than a cardigan since the buttons tend to gape somewhat over my ample chest (rather like some men).

Saturday, November 21


The Hat nears completion - gift for my fave photographer and walking/cycling companion. This is a very late birthday gift, but only late because it's taken him so long to decide what knitted item to have! It has been a pretty smooth project, although it has been ripped back a couple of times. Having to swatch and calculate for it was a bit of a pain but I'm really happy with the way it's turned out. Just putting the finishing touches to it now.

More details once it has been handed over to its future owner.

Friday, November 20

Eastbourne, East Sussex

On a windy and wet day we travelled down to the south coast for lunch with friends in Eastbourne.

The sea was rough on the shingle beach and in contrast to the scene you see on summer days, the seafront was devoid of old folks and their mobility scooters.

We visited the new Towner art gallery - a beautiful building with some lovely exhibition spaces and great views across the tennis club and out to the South Downs. One of my favourite artists, Eric Ravilious, lived in Eastbourne for much of his life and hence it's a great place to see his work and find obscure books about him and his contemporaries.

Tomorrow I'm off to Somerset for the weekend, then sadly it's back to work on Monday. I think it's fair to say I've made the most of my week's holiday though!

Thursday, November 19

Rochester, Kent

After my brief visit to Rochester on Tuesday, I returned today for a longer exploration of this lovely town.

Rochester is only about 40 minutes' drive from Deptford, and it is in a rather idyllic location on the edge of the River Medway, which meanders north to meet the Thames estuary just a few miles away. Sadly this ancient town is hemmed in by rather charmless estates of housing, light industrial units and supermarkets which crowd up to the opposite edges of the river, however it is still possible to be captivated by the town as you wander through its historic heart.

Today I was on tour with the Curse, so we left our walking boots at home - after all, he's already done one walk this week; two would be pushing it!

There was plenty to amuse us, starting first with the impressive castle, from the top of which the above photograph was taken. This view looks over the Medway towards Strood. The road and rail bridges cross the river right next to one another while further upstream and not visible on this photograph are the much bigger Medway Crossings which carry the motorway and the new Channel Tunnel Rail Link across the river. The bridges on this photograph are interesting, particularly the old road bridge which is a bit of a mishmash of arch and truss bridges, along with a 'new' bridge which was built later to increase capacity. Unusually they are funded and managed by a trust.
You can see a lot more detail on the photograph by clicking to enlarge it; detail such as the Russian submarine Black Widow which is currently moored just downstream of the bridge (and looking far from seaworthy in my opinion!)

We spent a pleasant half an hour or so mooching around the castle along with several classes of school children - although they were noisy they were incredibly polite! The Curse was most impressed when one of them addressed him as 'sir'.
We wandered the pretty streets which house Rochester's posh school. Not being au fait with the world of public schools (that's private schools for my US readers) I don't know how its fees compare with other independents, but they are certainly eye-watering.

The cathedral - second oldest in the country after Canterbury - kept us amused for a further hour or more. We were shown around by Jools Holland. To tell the truth he wasn't actually there, he was just narrating the audio guide which we decided to use. But seeing as we've seen him drinking in our local in Deptford, and he has strong links with our part of the world through his former band Squeeze, it was quite a nice connection!

The cathedral is beautiful both inside and out, and features some fantastic medieval graffiti as well as a great 13thC wall painting of the wheel of fortune. I find that although the main purpose of cathedrals, churches and so on is obviously a spiritual and religious one, they are so closely tied to British history and also to local events and personalities that they are much more valuable as such for aetheists like me!

Wednesday, November 18

A day of culture

Today I have mostly been enjoying:
Ghost forest (above)

Anish Kapoor at the Royal Academy (wow!)

Lunch at Yoshino.

Wild thing at the Royal Academy (disappointing, especially since Gill and Epstein are among my favourite sculptors).

Tea and cake at Waterstones.

Private view of this show at the National Portrait Gallery. Excellent, well worth a look!

On days like this I really love London!

Tuesday, November 17

The Hoo peninsula and Medway towns

Today the weather was perfect for cycling so I got up and at 'em early, heading out for Gravesend in Kent just after 10am.

I started off on Sustrans route 1 from Gravesend, heading east. I've always avoided this town, I think it's the name that gives me the shivers plus the train station doesn't give the best impression of the town. But it has a fascinating history, some beautiful buildings and a view of the Thames that may not be glamorous but is certainly compelling.

Apparently Pocahontas was buried here, a canal was built in the 1800s to connect the Thames and the river Medway, and it was an important site for defence of London, her ports and shipyards (including Deptford of course!) Clifton Baths no longer exist, but aren't they glorious?!

The route of the cycle path follows the old canal, which is overgrown and weed-choked along the parts I saw, but I passed a work party clearing scrub around the obelisk near Higham, and it seems there is an active group working to preserve and improve the canal.

After Higham I turned north to the Hoo peninsula itself, leaving the scrubby industrial land behind and riding through fields of cabbages, grazing horses, orchards and polytunnels. I was following the Heron Trail, or local route 18. You can download directions and a map from the link; I had an Ordnance Survey map with me, which had the cycle route marked on. Whatever you do, don't rely on signposting. Even with my map I missed a couple of turns.

I've been wanting to to explore this part of the world for some time, inspired in part by Colleen who seems to be adept at finding pearls among the swine of our city's industrialised margins. It is a strange and compelling landscape - much bigger than you imagine from the maps, and endowed with a strange feeling of otherworldliness. It is so close to London and yet so far removed from it - the scenery, wildlife and views are full of promise and the little villages like Cliffe and Cooling are picturesque in the extreme. There are huge expanses of marshes and flooded gravel pits teeming with birdlife - the RSPB is very active in this part of the world, with quite a few reserves in the area. Cliffe Pools and Northward Hill are two of the main reserves on the peninsula, and both have local walks and events throughout the year.

The great thing about this cycle ride is that you are within sight of water for most of the day - from the industrialised banks of the Thames you then turn south towards the Medway, a very different waterway with lots of sailing boats and dramatic vistas. Hoo Saint Werburgh and Chattenden are uninspiring villages, but then you come to Upnor, nestled at the corner where the Medway swings around St Mary's Island and heads towards the sea.

This is a truly beautiful little village, watched over by Upnor Castle which can be visited via a gate at the bottom of the delightful cobbledy street (except in winter, when it's closed!).

The view to St Mary's Island and Chatham's historic dockland (earmarked for a future visit). Who let those bloody towers be built there ffs?

The only downside was having to pass Strood and its environs to get to Rochester. At least I think it's Strood - it's very difficult to tell with these Medway towns, they don't really have any boundaries. Suffice it to say I had to cycle past a vast expanse of modern warehouses; a light industrial estate which has reproduced like the proverbial rabbit, and sprawled out across every inch of the riverside at this point.

Rochester itself is well worth the effort - this was the final stage of my trip, 26 miles on, and made for a pleasant end to the day. The regeneration crowd seem to have been working their magic on it since I was last there, and the high street units were mostly occupied with very interesting looking independent shops. I popped in a couple but made a note to take the train down for a day trip one day soon.

There's also the castle and the cathedral to visit, of course, not to mention the many other fascinating old buildings to peruse.

Finally while waiting half an hour at the train station I fiddled with my camera and reminded myself that black & white photos can make even the dullest scene take on new interest!

Monday, November 16

Spinning and cycling

A week in late November is not the most reliable time of year to have a 'staycation' in England, but I've got lots of plans for this week, not all of which rely on good weather.

Today I had hoped to go out to Gravesend and do a bit of cycling on the Kent leg of national route 1 but it started off pretty rainy, and once the rain had cleared, the wind became very gusty. I even got my bike out of the shed, but it blew over as I was trying to sort out my panniers. I took this as a sign, and decided to limit my cycling to the local area.

Hence my day was a combination of spinning, cycling and a couple of chores.

I've been spinning this yarn for about a year or perhaps even more. The wheel doesn't get brought out much these days, although with the winter approaching it will probably be making more regular appearances. Late morning after I abandoned the Gravesend plans I put radio 4 on and settled down to spin the remainder of the fibre, and then ply the two bobbins together.

Here it is on the niddy-noddy before I washed it and hung it up to dry.

Then it was out on the bike, along to Lewisham and a couple of miles on the Waterlink Way through Catford to Bell Green, then back through the rather unprepossessing estates of Bellingham to Hither Green, Lee, Blackheath and Greenwich Park.

I caught the late afternoon sunshine from the top of hill right outside the Greenwich Observatory. One of my favourite views.

Sunday, November 15

November bonus day

After the heavy rains and strong winds of yesterday, today was what I call a real 'bonus' day. Not only was the weather glorious, but the Curse and I had no commitments, no shopping to do, no errands or other things trying to snag our attention. It was unplanned, unexpected and delightful.

We left the chicken seasoned and ready for the oven, then hopped on a train for a few stops down to Abbey Wood, to do a few miles of the Green Chain walk. This is a lovely route which links most of south-east London's woodlands, parks, open spaces (and in some cases the odd grotty suburban road, but you have to take the rough with the smooth). It passes lots of train stations and bus stops, so it's a great asset when you want to go for a bit of a yomp but don't want to travel too far. You can make it as long or as short as you want, and there are lots of different branches so you can choose a different route each time. I've done all of the route at least once, and some sections half a dozen times or more.

Today we walked about four miles from Abbey Wood station through Lesnes Abbey, Bostall Woods, East Wickham Open Space and Shooters Hill. The light was glorious, the going was a bit squelchy underfoot but nothing too bad, and the experience was memorable.

Saturday, November 14

Winter delights: crumpets

This weekend's Guardian magazine has a great recipe for crumpets - I haven't tried Hugh's recipe but I have made crumpets and can confirm that it's ridiculously easy to make something that you can impress your friends with.

Don't be put off if you haven't got crumpet rings - all you need to do is take a small baked bean tin and use your tin opener to take the top and the bottom off. It works best if you've got one of those old fashioned tin openers which take the rim off too. Wash off the label and voila! Just mind your fingers when you're greasing it, or go the whole hog and smooth off the sharp edges with a file.

Crumpets are definitely top of my list of British tea-time treats, well above muffins, pikelets, potato cakes and all those various other regional variations (although they would probably come equal to toasted teacakes if we were to include sweet as well as savoury!). But it's always difficult to decide what to put on them. I think my order of preference goes as follows: butter only, butter and Vegemite, butter and honey, butter and jam (the last two are ok without the butter if you are watching the calories).

Where I am from in Derbyshire we have local delicacy called Derbyshire oatcakes, nothing like Scottish oatcakes, instead they are more like thick pancakes. We never had them at home when I was a kid, since neither of my parents is from Derbyshire, and I only discovered them in the last few years. You can buy them cold in packs of five off the market in Chesterfield, they are good fried in butter with breakfast, rolled up and stuffed and used like cannelloni, or heated up with sweet toppings.

Another recipe I particularly like is for Parsley Pikelets, also in the Guardian weekend magazine about a year ago. I usually make a batch of these and freeze the ones that don't get eaten, they can then be defrosted overnight and fried in butter for breakfast with scrambled eggs the next day.

Friday, November 13


Not much knitting of late, I admit.

But now I'm ready to start the next project, which is a birthday present for a friend who had his birthday quite a while ago.

He wants a hat with earflaps, probably with some kind of Scandinavian motif on it, something 'a bit different'. I've got a couple of ideas, just wondered if anyone else had any tried and tested patterns?

Thursday, November 12

Me and my bike

You've heard me blog about some of the downsides of cycling, but I thought I would just give you non-bikers and reluctant riders a flavour of why I've taken to cycling to work every day, come rain or shine.

1. A time-efficient pursuit. Not only is it quicker than taking the train, it is also far more reliable. I can predict my arrival time at work within a minute or two each way, depending on how energetic I'm feeling that day.

2. Exercise while you travel. No need to spend any extra time in the gym or pool.

3. Saving money. About £5 a day at the last count, in train fares alone. That's without counting the savings on gym membership.

4. Being in touch with things. The weather, the city around me, my body and its daily twinges, my mind. Sometimes it can even be a meditative experience.

Some of the things that my friends and colleagues say to me are:

- isn't it dangerous?

If you take care, stay aware, make yourself visible and your intentions known to other road users and pedestrians you cannot go far wrong, even when you have to contend with bad drivers, careless cyclists and foolhardy pedestrians. It's dangerous in the same way as it's dangerous to step off the kerb without looking if anything is coming. Having no lights, wearing dark clothes, listening to your MP3 player and carrying shopping on your handlebars are all silly things to do and put you in danger. Remember that it's not a race and if you try to squeeze down the side of that bus which is negotiating the left-hand bend in front of you, you are likely to get crushed. Don't do it.

- do you cycle in the rain?

Yes, and it's a bummer if you wear glasses but not impossible. What's more you'll be surprised how rarely it rains at the exact time you need to travel. A good waterproof and windproof jacket is a necessary investment for the winter, if you live in the northern hemisphere.

- I bet it keeps you fit!

I'm fit but haven't lost as much weight as I would have expected (especially since London is quite flat). I think the problem lies in the eating side of things - and you will have seen the cake-related evidence to back this up on the blog!

Wednesday, November 11

Anzac biscuits

..or should that be Anzac flapjack?

I used a recipe from Sue Lawrence's book On Baking. Something went a bit wrong, perhaps with the ingredients, which I adapted slightly. This tray wasn't too bad - at least they look like they were once separate entities. The other lot just flowed into a single mass, filling the tray and ending up about 5mm thick.

170g/6oz unsalted butter
1tbsp golden syrup
1tsp bicarb
1tbsp boiling water
113g/4oz rolled oats
113g/4oz plain flour
2oz dessicated coconut
113g/4oz caster sugar

Preheat oven to Gas 3/160C or 325F. Melt butter and syrup in a large saucepan over a low heat.Dissolve the bicarb in the hot water, then add to pan.
Put the rest of the ingredients in the pan, stir well.
Put spoonfuls on a lightly greased baking tray, bake for 15-20 mins until golden brown.

Anzac stands for Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, the biscuits were introduced during the First World War as a tribute to the forces who fought in the invasion of the Gallipolo peninsula in 1915.

I thought the recipe was particularly appropriate for today, Armistice Day.

Tuesday, November 10

Deadline ahoy!

Every three months I get my 'time of the quarter'. Right now I'm suffering appalling PDT (pre-deadline tension) and cannot say a civil word to anyone. The Curse got the brunt of it this evening after I came home to find he'd tucked into the last rashers of bacon that I was saving to make the smoked fish chowder with. You'd think he'd have learned by now - just apologise for everything, even if you're not really to blame, and you will be ok. Fail to apologise and you will have to suffer the tantrums and door slamming and expletives until you do.

So it's best if I just sign off now and go and read a few pages. Tomorrow should be back to normal service. I apologise for any inconvenience.

Sunday, November 8

Green tomato chutney: part II

The following day (or at midnight the same day if you are a bit strange like me) pour as much liquid as you can off the minced tomatoes/onions/apple.

Put the remaining mush in a pan with:

1 pint malt vinegar
12oz sugar
8oz sultanas
2tsp mixed spice

Bring to the boil then cook for about 90 mins, till the mixture is soft and slushy.

Spoon into sterilised jars (I sterilise them by putting them all on a tray in a coolish oven (gas 2) for about 10 mins).

Label and keep in a cool dark place for about 4-6 weeks before eating.

Sorry I don't have any photos of the finished product. It was late and I wanted to go to bed!