Monday, January 28

Cliffe Pools, north Kent

Friday was a cold and grey day, but sometimes a girl has to get out for a walk no matter what the weather, and that's how I felt when I woke up on Friday morning.

What's more I wanted somewhere marshy and deserted, perhaps a bit of industrial wasteland and possibly a view of the sea or the river at the very least. The only place that seemed to suit was the Hoo Peninsula, and so I headed for the RSPB reserve at Cliffe Pools.

In two hours at the pools, I saw only four other people, but hundreds, perhaps thousands of birds - coot, little grebes and all kinds of water birds that I didn't recognise, as well as spotting the flash of a kingfisher a couple of times, and seeing a heron and little egret rise from the shallow water as I came up to a viewpoint near the edge of one of the pools.

There was some extreme picnicking on the banks of the Thames - hot soup with chunks of French sausage and paprika in it, and the heel of my homemade loaf - but other than that I just crunched around the still-frozen paths, watched massive ships drift by along the water, and gazed into the slightly hazy distance.

Luckily it wasn't so windy as to bring the temperature down any further, and I was nicely warm as I yomped around the deserted reserve.

No pictures of trees today, but plenty of bullrushes and reeds and seed heads - similarly hypnotic winter silhouettes, almost as good as trees.

Monday, January 14


What, two posts in a row about needle crafts? Must be that time of year.

Like, I suspect, all sock knitters, I have a huge bag of leftover sock yarn. It's full of oddments of many colours, patterns and fibres, being saved for Something Special, aside from the possibility that I may one day darn those very socks.

It seems Something Special has now arrived, in the form of a crochet blanket project (or perhaps a cushion cover, or even a table mat, depending on how quickly I get bored).

I wanted to make hexagons rather than granny squares, to make the blanket look more like a patchwork quilt than a potentially rather frumpy throw. So I'm using the Royal Sisters Grandma Star Hexagon pattern, but with each hexagon made of just one colour yarn rather than two.

Once you get the hang of the pattern it's pretty simple, and on my new year trip to see my folks I spent a couple of hours each way on the train crocheting up a load of these. Well it felt like a load, in reality probably not even a cushion cover yet...!

I'm going to block them and finish the ends as I go along - hell it's going to be tedious enough stitching them together without leaving a whole load of finishing to do first.

Don't expect to see the finished blanket any time soon, this is quite definitely a 'heritage' project, but at least it will give me something to do on public transport now my hoodie is too large to carry.

Add caption

Sunday, January 13

Slow hoodie progress

It's been ages since I've written about knitting on here - but that doesn't mean I'm not doing any! If truth be told it's very slow progress, however, as I just don't get so much time to do it any more.

I no longer get the train to work, I rarely sit and watch TV in the evenings, and my spare time seems increasingly taken up with going out walking, and getting involved with campaigning on local issues.  It's getting to the point where I almost welcome the arrival of a rainy or cold and gloomy weekend as it means I have an excuse to stay in and do crafty things.

My new Central Park Hoodie has reached the point where it is ready to be sewn together so that the stitches can be picked up for the hood - and it will be too big to take anywhere, so the rest of the work will have to be carried out at home. The fact that the new season of Borgen is well under way is helping, although it's not the best choice since I have to keep an eye on the subtitles so that I know what's going on.

This is the third CPH I've made (the second one for me), and I still maintain it's a bloody excellent pattern and very easy to follow - also the aran yarn knits up very quickly which means gratification is rapid, if not instant. My first CPH (renamed the Deptford Park Hoodie, natch) is still going, but the cuffs have been darned a few times and are looking a little worse for wear, so a replacement will be very timely.

Getting a bit threadbare

I'm also using exactly the same yarn as the last one - gorgeous aran wool from Coldharbour Mill in Devon, but in dark green rather than claret.

The fact that this is my third time knitting this pattern makes it all the more embarrassing that I messed up on the neck shaping - messed it up on BOTH of the front panels, and did not notice even through washing and blocking the pieces. It was not until I went to sew the shoulders together that I was rather confused to find the neck decreases seemed to be on the armhole sides of the pieces! Clearly a bit out of practice!

Saturday, January 12

Chipotle jam

Last year when I was on my cycling holiday in the north of England, I came across a stall hosted by the Chilli Jam Man at Malton Food Fair. I snapped up a jar of his Smoky smoked garlic and chipotle jam and would probably have bought a few more except I didn't have a lot of room in my panniers.

It turned out to be a fantastic purchase - really smoky with lots of intense flavours from the chipotles, smoked garlic and tomato,  not to mention other tantalising tastes which were alluded to on the list of ingredients.

Ever since then I've been meaning to try my own version, but chipotles are not so easy to get hold of. Except in south east London it seems - you can buy them at Borough Market from the Cool Chile Company, and online too. I see that the Chilli Jam Man sells them online too, but his are quite a bit pricier.

Having bought a packet of chipotles and a few bulbs of smoked garlic at the market, I made my first batch today. I notice from the chipotle packaging they recommend you remove the seeds before you use them, so I suspect these jars might be rather piquant...depending on your tolerance for chillies, you might want to do as suggested.

If you want to make some that's suitable for vegetarians/vegans, leave out the fish sauce.

These quantities make about three or four medium-sized jam jars.

1.3kg tomatoes
600g sugar
two chipotles
a bulb of smoked garlic
thumb-sized piece of ginger
balsamic vinegar
fish sauce
oil for roasting

Halve the tomatoes, cut out the woody stems and place them all in a large roasting tray. Put half the smoked garlic cloves in (unpeeled) then drizzle a bit of oil and a tablespoon or two of balsamic vinegar over them.

Roast in the oven at a low to medium heat (gas 4) for about 90 minutes, until the tomatoes are falling apart. You can turn them over after an hour if you wish.

Scrape the tomatoes and juices out in a large pan, squeeze the middle out of the roast garlic and add to the pan. Use a stick blender to roughly blend the mix (gets rid of the tomato skin).

Peel and crush the remaining smoked garlic cloves and add to the pan, along with the root ginger (peeled and grated) and the chipotles (lightly toasted then chopped small with seeds removed if you prefer - according to packet instructions).

Add a teaspoon of fish sauce, and a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar, then gently heat the pan till the mix is boiling. You can adjust these quantities to your own taste, but I suggest you wait till after adding the sugar to do so.

Add the sugar, stir well until it's dissolved.

Bring to a rolling boil and cook without stirring until it reaches setting point (or you get bored!). To check for setting point, put a saucer in the freezer till it's cold. Bring it out and drop a small amount of the jam onto the saucer - if it's ready you will see a skin forming. If not, continue to boil the jam.

I don't normally make my jam solid, just enough so that it doesn't run off the sausage sandwich :-)

Pour into sterilised jars (washed in hot water then put in a very low oven for five minutes - lids too) and put the lids on while the jam is still hot.

Chilli jams don't really need to mature like chutneys do, so you can eat immediately - just keep a nice glass of cool milk or lassi to hand!

I may have to rename this 'Bastard Hot Chipotle Jam'.

Tuesday, January 8

Winter textures and colours

You may have noticed comments from a few of my blog posts about how much I love trees in winter. The colours of silver birch trunks in sunlight, topped with deep claret-coloured frondy branches are a particular favourite, but I also love trees of all shapes, sizes and colours when their branches are bare and their bark shines in winter light.

Wood, steel and iron are used to great effect by David Nash in his sculptural works, a large number of which are currently on show at Kew Gardens. If you get chance to go before it finishes in April, I recommend it, although at nearly £15 to get into the gardens, it's not a cheap day out.

When I went in December with some friends, we didn't get there till late in the day and unfortunately weren't able to take our time exploring the gardens, but we did manage to get round most of the sculptures and even had time to go up the treetop walkway, which by that time was deserted.

The sun was just going down so we got the last light of quite a grey day giving a lovely soft hue to the rusty brown of the Corten steel used on the treetop walkway and the smooth wooden handrails.

Nash's sculptures are scattered around the gardens, some of them situated to offer an intriguing counterpoint to other buildings or features of Kew. Many smaller wooden sculptures, such as the one shown above, are tucked among the plants in the temperate house.

I particularly liked the fact that it is often difficult to tell what material Nash has used until you actually touch it - some sculptures which appear to be scorched wood are actually steel, and those shown in the picture below are actually cast iron, which boggled my mind a bit when I started musing on the practicalities of transporting and assembling these sculptures.

I thought of these sculptures when I was out walking in Derbyshire last week and came across this fabulous jumble of steel that was strung on a chain and being used as a gate-closer.

Similarly, the bright green moss that clings to some pieces of stone on dry stone walls changes them from sharp, cold lumps of inert rock to something soft, welcoming and warm,  not to mention providing a splash of glorious colour in these grey days.

It made a pleasing circularity to my holidays that on a visit to the Millennium Galleries in Sheffield we came across an exhibition about John Ruskin and landscape. One of the exhibits was David Nash's film Wooden Boulder, which I didn't have time to see at Kew. The film tells the tale of a 25-year journey by a wooden boulder from the Ffestiniog Valley in Wales down to the Irish sea. There is no narration, only brief subtitles where necessary, and I became fully absorbed in the journey of the boulder and the soundtrack, mostly rushing water or rain, or just the quiet lapping of waves; in a few cases, silence, when the boulder sat stranded on a sand bank. 

Monday, January 7

December walking

Contrary to what I would have expected (and would have predicted, given the generally awful weather), the last month of 2012 was a real feast of walking for me.

It kicked off in dramatic fashion with a visit to Edinburgh early in the month, combining work (a site visit to the new Forth Crossing) with the pleasure of a weekend in the Scottish capital.

At my host's suggestion, we signed up for a six mile walk in the Pentland hills with his regular walking group. I'd been very envious of a walk he'd done earlier in the year in the same area, which I'd seen the photos of, and was keen to enjoy similar views.

With such expectations it was bound to fail; although I look back on it now as a memorable experience, at the time it was something of an ordeal! Three miles of climbing with ice and snow underfoot, cold conditions and little sunshine, followed by three miles of mud of the kind that you don't know how much of your leg is going to disappear each time you put your foot down. Right in the middle of those six miles, the main peak of Allermuir was wreathed in icy mist. It's good to laugh about it now, and I was saved from despair by the good company and the promise of ale at the end of it, but the walk will go down in the annals of history as the one that gave me a new perspective on mud.

Christmas was a time for urban walks - a Christmas day stroll from Deptford to Tower Bridge along the river gave us a glimpse of sunshine after a morning of heavy rain, and the chance to pop into the Mayflower pub for a lunchtime pint. We climbed Stave Hill to look across the treetops to Canary Wharf, and to add a few flights of stairs to my friend's daily pedometer total.

On the return trip, although the light was fading by now, the last of the sun's rays lit up the buildings across the other side of the river as we passed by.

On Boxing Day we headed along the river in the other direction, all the way to the Thames Barrier with a couple of pints of Doom Bar to keep us going, and just managed to get up the hill to Charlton Village before the rain returned with a vengeance.

A trip to the Austrian Tirol to visit my sister, her partner and my niece, offered the opportunity for some rather more dramatic walking, although we were restricted to mostly flat paths on our family walks. A walk around Schwarzee near Kitzbuhl gave us lovely views of the jagged mountains once the clouds parted in the late afternoon.

On the last day, my elder sister and I took a yomp up the mountain at the back of Ali's house to get some cardio-vascular exercise - the views were almost as spectacular has they had been from the cable car we'd ridden on the first day we arrived, with the added thrill of having to dodge across the ski slopes a couple of times, in between the skiers.

The photo below was taken from the lower slopes of the valley, showing the church in Hopfgarten, which dominates the village.

An evening return flight meant that I was late joining the new year's eve celebrations - the plus side being that I didn't drink a great deal and was able to leap out of bed the following gloriously sunny day and make the most of the holiday.

My chosen walk started at Toys Hill in Kent, and was six miles of glorious views, steep hills and almost deserted footpaths around Chartwell; a route recently devised in celebration of National Trust founder Octavia Hill, who lived in the area.

Although only six miles long it had a number of good climbs and descents, sufficient to give me a bit of a workout and raise my temperature on such a balmy day.

Some great trees too - I was able to add to my burgeoning collection of photos.