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!