Tuesday, June 29

Chilled pea soup

Just the thing for sweltering days like today - a lovely chilled soup to cool you down at lunchtime. There's a glut of peas around right now, so grab a few and you can whip up this soup very quickly.

1lb fresh peas, shelled
approx 1 pint water
half a lime
one spring onion
half a vegetable stock cube
a few sprigs of fresh mint (optional - I put them in but the taste didn't really come through)

to serve:
creme fraiche/yoghurt
chilli oil (optional)

Put the shelled peas, water, stock cube, spring onion (topped and tailed but otherwise whole) and mint in a pan. Cover, bring to the boil and simmer for about 10 minutes. Discard the spring onion, leave the soup to cool then blend until smooth. Add lime juice and black pepper to taste. Chill in the fridge for a few hours.

Serve with a dollop of creme fraiche, yogurt or cream, and a few drops of chilli oil if you so desire.

Friday, June 25

Cycle superhighway 7/Heygate Street junction safety

Struggling to work yesterday on my Raleigh 20 (much easier cycling than walking with a sprained ankle, surprisingly!) I discovered that in my absence, part of my route had morphed into a section of Cycle Superhighway 7.

Cycle Superhighways are the London mayor's idea of how to encourage people onto their bikes, and on the whole they consist of painting parts of the road blue and putting more signs up.

However I am delighted to report that in this particular location the implementation of the superhighway has incorporated a much-needed improvement to what was a very dangerous crossing of a busy road.

Formerly this junction incorporated a separate pedestrian and cycle crossing of Newington Butts near the Elephant & Castle in south east London; the two were separated by about 50 yards. The cycle crossing was able to operate separately from the pedestrian crossing but it had no button to change the lights, it relied on sensors which were never pointing the right way. If a pedestrian pressed the button on the pelican crossing, the cycle crossing would operate too, but because of the separation of the two crossings, any motorist jumping through on orange or red (usually at least one each time) would then arrive at the cycle crossing just as bikes had started to cross. Any cyclist not aware of this anomaly was at risk.

What's more, the road surface at the cycle crossing had no hatched yellow lines, so if there was a queue of traffic at the junction further along the road, it would inevitably block the cycle crossing.

The other problem with this crossing was the amount of time it took to change, even when a pedestrian pressed the button and even if it had been a while since the last change. Some cyclists would try to nip across to the tiny strip of central reservation, which was barely wide enough for a bike, attempting to cross the road in two stages.

Sensibly the two have now been combined, so that both cyclists and pedestrians can use the button, there is a wide crossing area and there is much less danger to cyclists from errant motorists.

All they need to do now to improve my journey safety by about another 25% is to alter the phasing of the lights on the following junction (Heygate Street/Walworth Road). The lights have several phases - traffic runs both directions on Walworth Road (L to R on the photo) and then all traffic is stopped and a pedestrian phase operates on all sides. Traffic coming out of Heygate Street (towards the photographer) then has a green phase, the vast majority of it turning right (L in the photo) into Walworth Road. A very short green phase then operates for traffic going in the direction of the photographer - mostly wanting to go straight on, and mostly cycles with one or two motor vehicles. Unfortunately the way is usually blocked by traffic from Heygate Street that has jumped through the amber and red phases and is still turning across the junction. After the short green phase, the lights for Walworth Road traffic change again and if you haven't cleared the junction by this time you are at a very high risk.

A couple of years ago I spent about six months trying to find the right person at the council/TFL to nag about this, being passed from pillar to post before eventually tracking them down. I suggested that if the two phases for the cross-junction traffic were reversed, the problem could be solved at a stroke, with no impact on travel times and a huge improvement in safety. They agreed and said they would issue instructions to this end. I am still waiting, and know that I should nag again but have to be honest it has ground me down. If you see me there, I'm the one who nips across on the red light when the pedestrian phase is finished, before the lights change for Heygate Street. It is the only junction where I run the red light, and I believe my action is justified in the name of safety. When TFL sees fit to implement this simple change, I'll be happy to obey the highway code again.

Thursday, June 24

Fame at last!

My post on making Elderflower Cordial has been picked up by fab crafting website Crafty Crafty.

I recommend having a browse around the rest of the site for inspiration and tips on many types of crafting, how-to guides and ideas aplenty.

Monday, June 21

Missing out

So there I was, all set for my Great East Swim. I was excited because the water temperature was reported to be 17 degrees and wetsuits were not compulsory - looking forward to pushing myself a bit to swim a mile in open water.

On Friday I took the train up to Manningtree in Essex, with my bike and camping gear in the guard's van, then cycled about 6 miles to the White Horse at Tattingstone - a delightful pub with a field at the back where you can camp for £3.50 per person per night. Met up with my chums and we set up our tents, then enjoyed a very pleasant evening drinking ale and sampling some very high quality pub grub served at very reasonable prices. A great find in a lovely location.

The next day all three of us set off on our bikes to Alton Water for our swim, timed to take place at 11am. We were standing on a small grassy bank overlooking the reservoir, watching the other swimmers, when I turned to walk down, my right foot slipped and I fell down, my left leg getting caught underneath me and twisting my ankle. Cue a trip to the first aid tent in a wheelchair, where ice packs were applied, my foot was elevated, and various first aiders tried to establish which bit hurt most. I was too busy bawling with disappointment to be much help.

Dee and Scott set off in some of the worst weather of the day, which was consistently squally; they had to swim the first half mile into waves and stinging rain before they actually started to enjoy the second leg. I sat on the shore and felt pretty fed up, yearning for the feel of the water on my skin and the physical effort of the swim.

But shit happens, we all know that. I was immensely proud of them when they made it back - Dee got a special mention as she crossed the finish line, being one of only a handful who swam without wetsuits.

I did actually make it into the water later that day - we cycled back round the reservoir and found a quiet spot where I was able to hobble in and bob about in the silky water for a few minutes.

Those without sprained ankles climbed trees and we generally made the most of the sunny spells in between the showers.

Getting back home on Sunday was something of a challenge with a swollen ankle - although it's much easier to cycle than it is to walk - but now I'm taking it easy and putting my foot up when I get the chance. I don't know how long it will take to heal but it's still pretty painful.

And I'm plotting to swim in the Great Scottish Swim later this year! Who's coming?

Thursday, June 17

Elderflower cordial

Now is the time to be gathering elderflowers and whipping up a pint or two of the English classic Elderflower Cordial.

1. First source your elderflowers: often the bushes are found growing on waste ground or along the side of canals, rivers etc. I filched mine from a local park which has dozens of bushes. The recipe only calls for about 25 heads but I would hesitate to pick them in a park if there were only two or three bushes.

2. Wait for a dry, warm day to pick the flowers. This is when the distinctive scent will be at its finest. Pick flower heads which still have a few buds unopened. Avoid those with any brown areas on them.

3. Make as follows:

- 25 elderflower heads
- juice and rind of three lemons
- juice and rind of one orange
- 1kg sugar
- 1.5 litres water

Pick over the flower heads and remove any insects. Place in a large pan with the lemon and orange rind. Boil the water and pour it into the pan, then cover with a clean cloth and leave overnight.

The next day, use a sterilised* jelly bag/piece of muslin/old pair of tights to strain the liquid and return it to the pan with the orange and lemon juice and the sugar.

Bring to the boil, stirring until the sugar has dissolved and simmer for a couple of minutes.

Pour into sterilised* bottles.

The cordial will last for a few weeks in the fridge, but if you want to keep it for longer, you can divide it into small plastic bottles and freeze it, remembering to leave a bit of air at the top of the bottle. Alternatively you can add citric acid as a preservative.

To drink it, dilute with still or sparkling water/champagne etc to taste.

*I generally sterilise these using boiling water, but be careful if you are putting it in plastic bottles - they deform! In this case you might be best off getting some sterilising tablets.

Saturday, June 12

Cycling in Manhattan

I have never really thought of New York as a city for cyclists, but on the latest visit I just couldn't help noticing them everywhere! Cycle racks are prevalent in Manhattan, many streets have them every few yards - not in great swathes but one or two at a time. I guess with the miniscule size of most apartments in Manhattan, many cyclists have to lock their bikes out on the street.

On the subway, bikes are allowed at all times unlike on the London Underground, which only allows folding bikes - although of course the subway is only just below ground level so it's not so difficult to get your bike down there. The suburban trains have similar rush-hour restrictions to those in London.

The main downside for cyclists (apart from motorists!) is that nearly all streets are one-way, which means that you may face a long detour just to get to the next block, if you find yourself wanting to go the wrong way. I guess that's why it's fairly common to see the less sensible cyclists going against the flow of traffic on one-way streets.

I found myself with most of Saturday free, so decided to hire a bike for a few hours and explore the Hudson River Park which is bordered by a traffic-free cycle path all the way down the side of Manhattan Island.

When I set off at about 9am it was nice and quiet, with cyclists and joggers sharing the route without any problem. Scented flowers and shrubs are planted along the borders of the path, making it a very pleasant ride - although the acres of roses planted outside the New York Department of Sanitation building could not totally disguise the smell of rubbish!

The Hudson River Park is delightful, taking in some of the old piers that have been repurposed with seating, lawns and landscaping, as well as offering unobstructed views out to New Jersey on the other side of the river. I followed the path all the way down to Battery Park on the tip of Manhattan, then made my way back, taking a diversion through the meat-packing district and having a look at the start of the High Line - an old railway viaduct which has been redeveloped into an elevated park. Definitely a destination for my next free day in the Big Apple.

North of the bike rental place (at Pier 84, around 45th Street) the bike path runs below the elevated highway, which makes for an even more pleasant ride - shaded from the sun which by now was quite hot, and also suffering much less traffic noise. By this time, however - about midday - the path was becoming quite a cycle superhighway with groups of tourists pedalling gingerly along and being overtaken by aggressive lycra louts. Time to hand the clunky, squeaky bike back and call it a day.

If your sin finds you out...

...here's your solution!

Friday, June 11

Sober thoughts

Across the road from my hotel in Manhattan. A sobering thought for believers out there.

I'm more of the persuasion that you should do unto others as you would have done unto you etc - which means that sometimes I'm on the receiving end of kind acts, other times I get the brunt of someone's bad day. When the latter happens I try to remind myself of the former.