Friday, October 3

Lakes and the rest

September proved to be the most glorious month of the year so far, and offered those of us without school-age kids (or totally child-free like myself!) the opportunity for a fabulous late-summer break. 

Way back in June or something, Jon and I had booked a week in the Lake District, with the optimistic view that we might be able to get one or two good walks in. As it was, we had the most amazing time - walks every day, and swimming every day, mostly in different lakes. 

Jon hadn't swum for years, and rarely outdoors in the UK, so it was a bit of a challenge for him. Not to mention the cold water and stony conditions underfoot, my freewheeling habit of getting changed wherever we happened to be - no matter if it was right next to a busy footpath on Windermere - with only the most basic attempts at modesty.

By the end of the week he was well into it, and had even bought a pair of swim shoes to accompany his brand new trunks!

Our lodgings in Ambleside had a west-facing terrace outside the french windows, and we took advantage of the great weather to eat every meal there, or chill out with a glass of wine or a beer every night before eating out.

Breakfast was a little bit parky one or two mornings but a hot cup of coffee generally solved the problem - once we'd been out and bought a filter cup and some filters. Would you believe it - a self-catering cottage with NO COFFEE MAKING FACILITIES! You can imagine the tone of what I wrote in the visitor's book.

We also decided to try and drink as many different beers as possible throughout the week, and we got almost up to 30! Testament to the amazing range available - also incredible that almost all of them were very local brews.

Our walks ranged from six-mile strolls to the tough 14-mile route up and around the Fairfield Horseshoe (below) - well worth the effort though, for the amazing views - and we came across some unexpectedly beautiful bridges (this pedestrian one above, just upstream from Skelwith Bridge). By halfway through the week we were planning our walks not just around pubs, but also with swimming opportunities in mind.

I think the little-known Loughrigg Tarn (below) was my favourite swim, with Rydal Water (pic below that) not far behind. Rydal lost points because of the busy road on the far side, which rather spoiled the peaceful setting, but Loughrigg was a hidden beauty, peaceful and clear and welcoming. It was so quiet we could hear what the three lads fishing on the other side of the lake were talking about - nothing particularly inspiring, mostly fishing, as you might expect!

We walked right up to Easedale Tarn (below) and swam there too - it was most certainly the coldest of the swims and although I'd brought my goggles with me for once, I decided that swimming with my face under water was not really a good idea as it was so dark and deep I'd rather not know about it!

We had bought a pack of six slices of Grasmere gingerbread before we began our climb, and we ate four of them after this swim. I rather like the pic of us above - Jon looks like he's having second thoughts about hooking up with the crazy woman who throws herself into any bit of water at the first chance.

And on that note, I leave you with a photo of another swim: Coniston Water. Never swum so much in one week in the UK!

Friday, August 22

North Downs Way and Greensand Way; Dorking to Oxted and back again

Another two-day walking trip saw us setting out from Dorking on a beautiful morning to tackle some more sections of the North Downs Way.

First up was a steep ascent of Box Hill; being earlyish on a weekday morning we met plenty of dog walkers on the way down, but once we were a mile or so from the town, things quietened down considerably.

The views were glorious and expansive and very green considering we were viewing London's southern urban sprawl. We started to feast on the luscious, juicy blackberries, which turned out to be an enduring feature of the walk. The hedgerows were laden with them, begging to be eaten, and we grazed on them for the next two days, occasionally stopping for a full-blown gorging.

Reigate Hill was busy with kite flyers and dog walkers, being only a short step from the National Trust car park and cafe at Wray Lane, where we stopped off for a cup of tea. We admired the beautiful mosaics inside the roof of the Inglis Memorial, which apparently used to be a drinking fountain for horses. 

At Wray Lane the cafe owner has provided deck chairs as well as the traditional picnic tables, making a rather nice place for visitors to sit and admire the view.

We saw plenty of sculpture the first day - including natural beauties such as this upended tree whose roots had worn to make a wonderful knotted screen on the edge of the woodland.

A little further on, in the grounds of the private Royal Alexandra and Albert School we came across this dramatic sculpture by Peter Dawson, who sadly lived a very short life according to the plaque next to it.

I love the weathered copper finish and the abstract shapes. I don't think there was a date given for the sculpture, but it wouldn't be too difficult to guess given its style.

On the outskirts of Merstham we diverted from the North Downs Way to head for our night's accommodation in the little village of Bletchingly, a couple of miles away. We came across a tree absolutely groaning under the weight of wild plums - not the first we had seen that day, but certainly the most productive. We stopped to gorge again, and to fill up a box with some snacks for tomorrow.

The path shown on the map looked like it might be a bit tedious, as it skirted the edge of the huge M25/M23 interchange then followed the M23 until it dipped beneath it. I had been expecting a bit of a trudge, but in fact it turned out to be the most surprising and interesting, not to mention unexpected, parts of the day.

It seemed like when the motorway junction was built it must have been policy to plant fruit trees along the verges; we passed tree after tree covered with plums or apples, and then plunged into thick bramble ground cover where the path had been recently cleared to create a canyon effect. As we twisted and turned through the undergrowth we came across a deer on the path, just a few yards ahead; it skittered off pretty quickly when it saw us, but it was a magical moment.

Half a mile further a buzzard lifted from the fence on the side of the field as we approached, making the motorway verges the most productive for wildlife spotting that we'd had all day!

The next morning we diverted from our planned route - rather than heading back up to the North Downs Way and following it to Oxted, which would have been a rather short day, we decided to follow the Greensand Way direct from Bletchingly to Oxted, then loop back up to the North Downs Way and return to Merstham to get the train home.

The Greensand route to Oxted was almost deserted, through quiet countryside and lovely woods. We stopped for a well-deserved pint of Harveys in the first pub we came across on the outskirts of Oxted, then got takeaway cheese and onion sandwiches from a local bakers to eat a bit further round the route.

What I hadn't fully anticipated was that the second part of the day, going back on the North Downs Way to Merstham, would be so wholly dominated by the presence of the M25. The roar of the traffic was all we could hear for most of the afternoon's walk.

Yesterday we'd been just as close, but on the other side of the ridge, and had hardly noticed it. Today it was just below us in the valley, and the traffic noise was unrelenting.

The scenery was beautiful and we came across lots of interesting things to look at, but if I was recommending the North Downs Way to someone I would definitely suggest that they miss out this bit, and divert via the Greensand Way instead. What a contrast!

The last section of the walk took us back over the M25 so we could get a closer look, adding up to one crossing of the M23 and two of the M25 in the same day!

Sunday, August 10


This came about through a combination of factors. My friend Rowan, who lives in the Kent countryside and has a very productive allotment, sent me home from a visit with tons of green beans and runner beans (not to mention a whole load of other stuff!). A few days earlier I'd been very disappointed with the bar snacks in the local pub, not just the flabby pork pies but also the gloopy piccalilli that was dolloped on a plate to accompany it.

I was reminded that I'd been meaning to try my hand at piccalilli for ages, especially since another allotment-owning friend had given me a jar of fabulous runner bean piccalilli a few years back. So I assembled a heap of beans, a carrot, half a red pepper and a patty pan courgette, which were washed and chopped up before being salted and left to brine overnight in the fridge.

I had two recipes - one suggested cooking the veg but I stuck to the dry brining process, which is recommended in the Pat Corbin 'Preserves' book from River Cottage, which is generally my preserving handbook.

Put the chopped veg into a large bowl, add the salt and mix well, then leave in a cool place for 24 hours (ish).

The next day you rinse the veg in ice cold water to remove the salt, then leave them to drain.

Put most of the cider vinegar in a pan with the honey and sugar, bring to the boil stirring till the sugar dissolves.

Use a bit of the cold vinegar to mix a paste with the spices, mustard and cornflour, then add a little bit of the hot vinegar into the paste and stir well before tipping it all into the pan and bringing to the boil. Don't forget to stir constantly to prevent it going lumpy or burning.

Cook for a few minutes then stir the veg in, decant into sterilised jars and put the lid on. Leave for at least two weeks, six if possible, before you eat it.

1kg veg (beans, carrots, cauliflower, peppers, courgettes, etc) chopped into small bitesize pieces.
50g salt for brining
600ml cider vinegar
150g sugar
50g honey
30g cornflour
1tsp turmeric
15g mustard powder
1.5tsp coriander seeds
1.5tsp mustard seeds
1tsp cumin seeds

Sunday, July 13

The best spice biscuits ever

These are actually not just ginger biscuits, although that's one of the main ingredients. In fact they contain no fewer than eight spices if you make it the way I do, with your own homemade spice mix. 

The recipe is a Dan Lepard invention for Tamarind Spice Biscuits, but I pimp it thoroughly with my own garam masala, and I strongly recommend that you do the same. I can't guarantee they will be as gorgeous otherwise!

Firstly the ingredients for the garam masala are as follows:

1tbsp cardamom seeds (taken out of the husks, this is definitely the bit that takes longest)
1 tsp black peppercorns
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp cloves
A third of a nutmeg
5cm cinnamon stick, broken up

Grind them all together in a coffee or spice grinder till they are quite fine. I usually make double quantities and save the rest in an airtight jar for curries, dal etc.

For the biscuits you will need:

125g butter, softened
250g caster sugar
25g tamarind concentrate
1 medium egg
3tsp ground ginger
2tsp garam masala
200g chopped glace or crystallised ginger
250g plain or gluten-free flour
Three quarters of a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda

Beat the butter, sugar, egg and tamarind concentrate into a smooth brown paste in a large bowl. Stir in the spices and the finely chopped ginger.

Mix in the flour and bicarb to make a thick mixture of putty-like consistency. Roll small walnut-sized balls and place them on baking paper on a baking tray leaving some space for them to spread.

Bake in the oven (gas 3, 170C/335F) for about 15 minutes. Leave them to cool for a few minutes then peel off the paper and cool on a wire tray.

I like getting people to try and guess what spices are in them. They rarely guess the black pepper.

Tuesday, July 1

North Downs Way; Farnham to Dorking

I never thought I would be the sort of person who would do long-distance trails, but I suspect I might start getting into this type of walking.

Nearly two years ago I signed up for a Meet-up group called 'Joined up hiking' which is dedicated to doing long-distance trails a bit at a time. Although they don't really do the well-known routes such as the North Downs Way, the leader does seem to enjoy seeking out the little-known paths (whoever heard of the Three Castles Path, for example?!) and the idea of walking the full length of a trail can be quite addictive.

In early May, Jon and I set out for two days on the first section of the North Downs Way - yes it was ages ago but I've only just got round to writing about it!

We were blessed with good weather along the way and since we did the first day on a Friday, it was relatively quiet.

We came across this interesting road bridge which looked like it had been widened in a rather strange way, with increasingly-wide brick arches built out from the smaller arch in the middle.

The river path into Guildford, our overnight stop, was delightful - quiet and calm, with clouds reflected on the still water.

There were plenty of glorious woodland paths like this one, and we seemed to be constantly surrounded by birds chirruping and flitting around, wonderful May flowers, and the scents of spring.

Ah, a stunning tree. I do like to photograph trees!

On the second day from Guildford to Dorking we seemed to be stalked by rain, but most of the time it hung over the adjacent ridge and the clouds skittered along a few miles away. There were a couple of times when we pulled on our jackets expectantly but the deluge never materialised till we were back in London that evening.

By now I bet the route is lined with teeny wild strawberries - lovely to snack on but you'd rarely have the patience to pick a bowlful!

Monday, April 21

Hastings to Winchelsea

Taking advantage of the long weekend, Gareth and I took a trip to the south coast on Friday to walk from Hastings to Winchelsea. It's a walk I've been meaning to do for some time, having heard how lovely the coastline is in that part of Sussex, and I wasn't put off by Gareth pointing out that it was labelled 'the toughest walk in the book'.

The full walk (the one we were following in the Time Out book of walks) goes from Hastings to Rye but by the time we'd got to Winchelsea, and having stopped several times and had a few diversions around landslips in the Hastings Country Park, we were ready to go home. All the same it was a good ten mile stretch with plenty of hills to get the blood pumping.

I love the slight weirdness of the Royal Military Canal which borders Romney Marsh, and the first part of which we followed from Fairlight to Winchelsea - there's a real stillness and eccentricity about its presence in this forgotten corner of the country. Maybe one day I'll walk the full length in one go.

Winchelsea itself is also an interesting little village, its semi-ruined town gates standing alone some distance from the centre and its train station just as remote out the other side.

At the centre is a fascinating church built half of ruins and featuring some striking 20th century stained glass windows designed by Scottish artist Douglas Strachan.

Monday, January 20

New jumper on the go

I cast this on last year but have only just got to the really (really!) easy bit - acres of knitting, not even any purling as I'm going round in circles on my lovely Knit Picks needles!

I've used the Drops Alpaca yarn before some years ago when I made hats and scarves for the niecelets one Christmas, and it's a lovely fine yarn that relaxes quite dramatically when washed. Hence I'm trusting that the neck is going to be a bit looser than it is at the moment when it's finally done and blocked. I did make at least three swatches for this (washed and blocked too), so I'm fairly confident it will work out.

Of course the great thing about doing a top-down circular knit is that you get to try it on as you go along. The bad thing is that by the time I get to the sleeves it's not going to be a very portable project.

The pattern is Hannah Fettig's Lightweight Pullover which you can buy as a single pattern on Ravelry or it's available in this book if you're not a Raveler (if not, why not?!)