Tuesday, December 4

Something old, something new

On a visit home last week I remembered to pick up the two things that I'd asked for from my gran's house after she died - her well-worn bread board and her even more well-worn bread knife.

I like the fact that these things she used to use every day are now part of my kitchen; they were always out on the kitchen worktop ready to be used, or in use, with slices of bread waiting to be buttered, or a loaf about to be sliced for some sandwiches for tea. The ancient blade of the knife has been sharpened over decades into a totally different shape, its metal is marked and stained by many years of use, but I only have to glance at it to be transported right back to granny's kitchen.

Ironically my kitchen also gained a brand new tool on the same trip; the whisk with the balls on the end, which was bought at the David Mellor kitchen shop in Hathersage (gorgeous shop, I could have spent a lot of money!).

I used it today to whip up an omelette, and although it was very effective, it was bloody noisy! Apparently you can buy them with silicone balls on the end - I'd probably recommend one of those if you have the choice.

Monday, December 3

Cissbury Ring, West Sussex

When I booked my late November National Trust working holiday which involved scrub bashing on the top of one of the most exposed parts of the south coast, I did feel a slight flicker of concern that it might prove to be a tough week.

As it was, I needn't have worried. Apart from one day of rain (the day off, when I made a rather foolish decision to leave the warmth of the hostel and go out for a six mile walk because it 'looked like it was clearing up') we were very lucky with the weather.

My fellow volunteers were interesting and good company; the food and drink was copious and good quality; my only complaint was the stuffy dorms which I abandoned after two sleepless nights for the relative comfort of the oversized sofas in the lounge.

We worked on Cissbury Ring, a hill fort overlooking Worthing, chopping scrub, small trees, and lots of gorse. Some of it we burned on huge fires, and on the days when we weren't burning the scrub, the warden still made a little fire for us to sit around and have our breaks.

The views were glorious and the trees magnificent. I took a lot of photos of trees. I love trees in winter, they are much more visually interesting without their leaves, although I also love standing under them in spring and summer, and peering through the leafy canopy to the sky. 

Friday, November 16

In the docks

Last Sunday was such a beautiful day that I decided to take the bike down to the Royal Docks in east London for a bit of exploring. In fact the original idea was to head down the south bank of the Thames towards Erith, but I revised my plans as I approached south London's famous new 'transport link' (tourist attraction), the cable car.

Been meaning to try this out ever since it opened, but had been waiting for the right combination of lack of queues and good weather. Sunday delivered both, plus I was on my bike - surprisingly the ideal scenario for a trip on the cable car. It's free to take a bike on, and to get it in the cabin they have to fold up one of the benches, it's a bit of a faff. The benefit is that you don't have to share your cabin with anyone else, which is bloody great!

The trip was exhilarating and terrifying in equal measures, I can be a bit of a scaredy cat at heights if I let my panic take hold. Best to just look out to the distance and take lots of photographs!

Looking east along the south of the Thames

Big tent with pointy yellow poles

The mouth of the River Lea, looking towards west London (Olympic site on the right)

Over on the other side of the river there's not a great deal to see - a load of apartments, the Excel Centre, a dash of regeneration but still plenty of urban dereliction. And you know how I love a bit of urban dereliction.

Cranes in the Royal Victoria Dock

Millennium Mills

Victoria Docks Footbridge - showing its age at close quarters
I circled the docks a couple of times, checked out the various bridges, and then headed to the river to inspect Thames Barrier Park and take a look at our famous flood barrier from the other side of the Thames. Like the bridge, the park is quite lovely but needing some TLC - they are both about the same age, built at the arse-end of the Docklands regeneration era and now a little neglected.

Thames Barrier Park with the barrier in the background
From the Victoria Docks I headed west and then peeled off the main drag to the wonderful little oasis of Trinity Buoy Wharf  which is well worth a visit if you are out that way. The road leading to the end of the peninsula is littered with street art and signs telling the history of the wharf, a lot of which is still derelict and overgrown, but full of atmosphere and wildlife. At the end you find a whole host of peculiar things - container city (where people live and work in old shipping containers), an old lighthouse where you can listen to Longplayer (a piece of music intended to run for 1,000 years, so don't worry you can nip back if you miss it the first time, or you can even listen live via the website), the Faraday Effect (a tiny museum about Michael Faraday) and various other arty and quirky things.

The Alunatime clock particularly appealed to my inner geek - it's related to the proposal to build a lunar clock in Greenwich, in my opinion much better looking than the main proposal. It has three rings of lights which change with the tide and phases of the moon. On the outer ring you can see the current phase of the moon, whether it's waxing or waning; the middle circle (I think) shows the current position of the moon, and the inner circle shows the level of the tide, which you can check by looking over the wall at the river.

Most of these attractions are open regularly, but they also host open days when you can visit some of the other studios and homes - worth signing up to the mailing list on the website if you want to find out when the next one is. Sometimes they run a ferry from the dome on the other side of the river, which sounds like fun to me!

Also worth knowing that Fatboy's Diner (shouldn't that be Fatbuoy's Diner?!) is open on Sundays if you want a mid bike-ride snack of pastrami on rye or a chilli burger with fries and a shake.

Friday, November 2

Heygate estate street art

Every day my cycle route to work takes me through the near-derelict Heygate Estate near Elephant & Castle; over the years as more and more of the blocks became empty, life was gradually drained out of the huge blocks and nature started to take over, much as I imagine the city deteriorating in the years after the Day of the Triffids.

In some respects I am glad - some bastard once dropped a massive traffic bollard off the overhead walkway onto me as I cycled home, missing me by inches and shaking me up badly. But Southwark Council's proposed redevelopment and regeneration of the estate has been a long, drawn-out and contentious process that as well as decanting a whole community, has seen bullying tactics employed against local community groups who have put forward credible proposals for interim uses of this huge site.

Despite, or maybe because of, its urban grittiness, I love this part of the ride. There are mature trees along the length of the road (in fact the estate still supports hundreds of trees) and in spring, the grass verges that flank the estate walkways on both sides of the road erupt into a huge sea of daffodils. Every time I see them, I think about the people who must have laboured to plant so many bulbs, and wonder if they know what pleasure the flowers are still giving, so many years later.

A couple of months ago the blocks and garages on one side of the road were transformed by several huge pieces of street art, which have been making me smile ever since. Today I cycled up there specially and took some photographs so that I could share them.

The first photograph, taken from the other side of the road, gives an idea of the setting, and the art basically has a crazy bespectacled man chasing a load of animals along the disused garages and around the corner.

Here's his face - his arms with their scary talons reach out for the wayward animals along the ramps that  link the upper walkways to the ground level. He always reminds me of the crazy teacher in Gerald Scarfe's video for Pink Floyd's song Another Brick in the Wall video.

In front of him, perpetually out of reach, is a kind of Wacky Races scene, with a bunch of crazy animals in a crazy bus. One of these creatures is at the back, taunting him by roasting a smiling sausage on the flaming exhaust of the bus. At the front of the bus, another worried-looking sausage is being dangled in front of the eyes of the bus-cum-monster, presumably to keep it moving at top speed.

Up close there are some lovely details and the colours are superb.

In front of the crazy bus is a huge goggle-eyed blue dog whose tail stretches all the way along the connecting walkway and whose body is probably forty or fifty metres long. It's a massive piece of work.

I particularly like the fact that the garage doors have been made into his teeth, and that one of them is gold.

There are more (better) photographs here, along with the names of the artists who are apparently Malarky, Mighty Mo, Gold Peg and Sweet Toof.

Thursday, November 1

Durham weekend

A couple of weeks ago myself and Gareth took the train up to Durham for the weekend, to watch The Sixteen perform their choral pilgrimage at the cathedral, but also to spend a couple of days exploring a city that was new to both of us. The concert was beautiful and haunting, the cathedral the perfect place to hear such pure choral music. I almost forgot to breathe a few times, I was so captivated.

We stayed in an apartment that, while very comfortable, was furnished like it used to be the show flat (TEN, yes TEN big vases full of twigs in a TWO bedroom apartment. There were six in the living room alone!) and spent the weekend walking the bridges, cobbled streets and riverside footpaths of the city and its surrounds.

And boy there are plenty of all those things. The sun shone on us all weekend, unlike the south east from which we had reports of endless rain, and we trod the wooded, muddy footpaths for miles each day, taking many photos and stopping now and again for a sandwich or coffee.

Kingsgate Bridge, Arup's modernist masterpiece, stepping through the tree canopy 

Viewed from the riverbank, a very different prospect
It's a beautiful bridge with classic details

Gareth experienced his first full-on northern Friday night out, which to the uninitiated means hordes of single-sex groups roaming from pub to pub with no coats on, some with barely any clothes. Unbelievably high stiletto heels were much in evidence, which the cobbles were playing havoc with, even before the drink started to have the inevitable effect on balance. I grew up witnessing such shenanigans and found myself at pains to fit in, so never attempted to do so. It was the start of a happy  lifetime of being a non-conformist!

Sunday, October 7

Autumnal pleasures

The last two weekends have been full of all the things I love about autumn; glorious light, foraging, and a real feeling of the changing of the seasons.

I spent the last Saturday of September walking the 6 mile route around Cuxton that I first explored on Boxing Day last year, but this time I took my friend Sue with me. She was good company and barely complained about the hills, even the last three that took me by surprise, having promised her that there were no more. My rubbish memory for such things (endings of films, books, and now it seems, walks) is legendary among those who know me well, and Sue has now found herself at the sharp end of it a couple of times. I honestly plead that I don't really remember the hills much, not unless they are real killers, like those ones on the Dorset coastline!

The route was noticeably quieter than the last time I walked it - we encountered only a handful of people the whole way round - and the sun was much warmer. We sat on the trunk of a fallen tree by the Darnley Memorial for half an hour or more, just chatting and enjoying the peace and quiet.

On the slopes heading back down to Cuxton we came across masses of sloes, and lingered in the late afternoon sun to pick them, admiring the views of the Medway bridges in the distance.

That box of sloes went in the freezer overnight, the following day they were defrosted and tipped into a huge Kilner jar full of gin where they will remain for a couple of months.

Today was a new walk, and a new walking companion as I dragged my friend Keith along for a try out. I'm completely happy to walk on my own, and often enjoy the freedom of just jumping in the car or on a train and heading off at my own pace.

But it's good to walk with other people too, and my recent walking companions have reminded me of the pleasure to be had from good conversation and a shared experience. I've shied away from joining big groups because of the impact that would have on the peace and quiet I like to savour, and the spontaneity of lingering awhile or cracking on the pace as you wish. But walking in twos or threes appeals, and I'm gradually starting to build a little network of people who share my love of the countryside and match my pace and interests.

Keith passed the test, barely murmuring about the rather steep slopes and muddy paths we encountered on our six-mile circuit out of Otford, while sharing my total contempt for the golfers and their silly little buggies that disturbed the peace and quiet of a couple of the first valleys we crossed.

It was hard to believe that we were only just outside the M25, although at times this was proved by the views back to the London skyline.

The best walks are those which have a good pub halfway round - a requirement drilled into me by my parents since early childhood - and this was no exception. The Fox & Hounds at Romney Street provided a very fine pint of ale to keep us going for the return leg.

Thursday, September 27

Family memories

This evening I stayed late at work starting a little job for my dad. After the death of my gran (she of the famous fruitcake recipe) he gathered together many family photographs with the intention of getting them scanned and copies made for those who wanted them.

When he told me he'd taken them in to Boots and been quoted a FIVER for each copy, I nearly fell off my chair; I told him that I would sort them out for him. Luckily our design studio has a good quality scanner and processing software, and it only took me an hour or so to scan almost 50 prints of varying sizes and qualities.

I've ordered a couple of them as prints from Photobox (12p each!) so that I can assess the quality and make sure my dad's happy with them before I order the rest, but in the meantime I thought I would share a few with you.

Here's my dad and his young brother Julian in the garden at the back of my gran's house. She lived in the same house for almost all of her life, from being a teen, getting married and living there with my grandad and her mum, eventually scraping together enough money to buy the place, until the day she died.

My grandad played football apparently, something even my dad didn't know till he found this photo! He's on the far left of the middle row.

Granny and grandpa on their wedding day outside Eynsham church.

My all-time favourite; granny and her sisters having a laugh in the back garden. She's second from the right. I think she really looks like me on this picture.

Monday, September 17

Scottish sojourn part II: Edinburgh

The second part of my Scottish holiday was spent in the beautiful city of Edinburgh, which is four hours by train south of Inverness. It might sound like a long trek but it's one of the most glorious train journeys I've taken - mountains and glens and seaside and valleys, the contrast of remote wilderness with pretty little towns that appear every now and again, and the last dramatic approach to Edinburgh as the train heads along the opposite side of the estuary before swinging round to carry you over the iconic Forth Railway Bridge.

My host in Edinburgh was also a friend I'd made through conservation work - Allan and I were co-leaders of a weekend break about 12 years ago and recently got back in touch again via Facebook. I got to lodge in his lovely flat in the New Town and be waited on hand and foot - he's been there less than a year and the novelty of entertaining guests has not yet worn off, as he himself admitted!

It was utterly charming to stroll around the streets admiring the architecture and enjoying the sunshine, and I was able to continue my holiday themes of walking, swimming, ale and good food in a contrasting urban setting.

At Glenogle baths we swam in impressive Victorian surroundings; the water considerably warmer and the soundtrack much different to my last two dips, since we shared the pool with the local school kids.

Food played an important role but whereas the first half of my holiday was all about veggie comfort food, the second half was a mix of haute cuisine and top notch home-cooked grub.

Standout meal was at Castle Terrace where we took advantage of the special lunch deal. It was a quite incredible meal combining beautiful presentation, incredible flavours and a touch of theatre in the surroundings and service. For all that, a bargainous experience.

Starter of sea trout cannelloni with a little nub of hot-smoked salmon and lemony moussy stuff, buttery tomatoey sauce (yes I know I will never get a job writing menus).

We chose different mains - my partridge was beautifully presented....

...but as soon as I saw Allan's choice I immediately had plate envy. He went for a selection of different pork cuts which were imaginatively served in a frame of artichoke puree filled with gravy (well probably some kind of posh 'jus' or other, I doubt it was just gravy). He was kind enough to swap a bit of the pork belly for some partridge breast so I got to discover that the food was even tastier than it looked!

Pudding was a total revelation, with the flavours and presentation of this blackberry cheesecake far exceeding expectations, and I particularly liked the intense little green dabs of mint that were dotted around the cheesecake to contrast its sweetness.

With all the food and ale being partaken of, it was a good thing Edinburgh has some handy hills to climb and long walks to sample.

Thursday night was a trip up Arthur's Seat with a dozen or so walkers; we just about managed to avoid the rain but it was damn breezy up at the top! It was comical to watch the three young tourists in their rather flimsy kilts hopping around the rocks and every few seconds striking a pose like Marilyn Monroe as the cheap fabric proved no match for the Scottish weather.

Mind you they had taken the precaution of keeping their boxer shorts on, which turned out to be very wise.

The Water of Leith walkway is a substantial leg stretch of 13 miles, although the vast majority of it is flat, and so we broke it up with a couple of pub stops along the way.

The burn changes character every few hundred yards, with little dams and weirs creating very still, reflective stretches upstream and bubbling, churning waters below.

We found Giant Hogweed along the upper stretches, now gone to seed and looking all dramatic in silhouette, and we saw about four herons on the lower section, some of them at very close quarters.

There's even a tunnel through the hillside, originally built for the railway line that the upper section of the walk follows. 

Dean Village is a particularly picturesque part of the route, which winds its way past a number of Edinburgh landmarks such as Murrayfield stadium and the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art before reaching Leith Docks.

Dean Village

One disappointment of the walk for me was that we only managed to find one of the six Anthony Gormley statues that are on the route as part of his work 6 Times, and it was face down in the water (they are designed to fall over in high water). Of the others, we didn't go to the sites of two of them, but there was no sign, erect or otherwise, of the other three that are supposed to be standing in the water.

When we finally reached Leith after about five hours (four of actual walking) we found it bathed in evening sunshine, which gave me a bit of a Proclaimers earworm that I considerately kept to myself.

All of which meant I felt I had thoroughly earned my breakfast the following morning...!