Monday, November 19, 2018

Return to Stoneywell Cottage

Back in 2015 we went to visit the not long opened to the public Stoneywell Cottage. It is a beautiful place, and made me think I should rejoin the National Trust because it's very much on our doorstep, and seemed like a place it would be good to go back to regularly.

We joined up in March this year, and since then it's been on my to do list, but never seemed to happen, until last week when an email told me it was closing up for Winter on the 30th of November. We went on Sunday - which was a perfect sunny, frosty, early winter day.






I cannot overstate the charm of Stoneywell. It literally emerges from the bed rock of a slope and gently descends down a hill on a Z plan. Inside you go up and down a lot of stairs to find yourself consistently at ground level.

Three years down the line the house has a more established feel to it, which adds to its charm. The cafe has improved a bit too - but everything is on a small scale, so booking is essential and it's worth trying to pick a quieter time to tour the house.

To keep people flowing through access to the Cottage is only via guided tours, the upside of that is that you don't miss anything, the downside is that you go at tour pace which might not always suit. The grounds are extensive, and lovely to walk through - with the definite advantage that you aren't part of a tour and can find peaceful spots for general contemplation in.

I love Stoneywell because it is the most fairy tale house I've ever seen, it remained in the family until 2013 when the National Trust bought it, and is dressed much as it was when the last owner knew it as a child in the 1950's. It's a nice mix of arts and crafts simplicity with the warmth of family life.

It's also a wonderful example of the best and worst of arts and crafts design. The determination to sit the buildingbin the landscape rather than on it is a big part of its magic, but it also means it's prone to damp. Narrow, twisting stairs that are not much more than a foot wide and built into the wall must have been a nightmare to go up and down with washing water and chamber pots (mains electricity and a bathroom came in 1938. The day after the bathroom was finished the electrical wiring set fire to the thatch roof, this was probably a good thing, the slate replacement allowed for some extra windows and other alterations that made it a little bit more practical.

And yet despite the eccentricities of the place (it's built of stone, the bedrooms have no fire places, it must have been a fridge in winter, although delightfully cool in summer) it's sheer romantic appeal wins out.

This coming weekend it will be dressed for Christmas before closing up for the year. If anyone is near north Leicestershire I absolutely recommend visiting. (Check the National Trust website for car park booking details).

Sunday, November 18, 2018

The New Yorker Encyclopedia of Cartoons

I'm old enough to remember encyclopaedias, and lucky to have grown up in a house that had a Victorian collection of books. We weren't particularly encouraged to look at those books as children, but I spent a lot of rainy afternoons as a teenager flicking through bound albums of Punch looking for cartoons that I could understand (and absorbing all sorts of Victorian political and social commentary that was beyond me at the time).


Even more fascinating was an atlas that was almost to big to manage alone, and still a bit incomplete when it came to the middle of Africa (lake Victoria had been glued in at some point after publication). It was a thing to be looked at with others, and full of countries (all the German principalities) that were long gone. I'm also old enough to realise that maps are still being continuously re-drawn - the maps we had on schoolroom walls in the 1980's now as hopelessly out of date as that Atlas from the nineteenth century.

Every time I try and pick up this 2 volume whopper I'm reminded of that Atlas, or the monumental Bibles that I never really looked at, and really wish I had now. Not just because of the size, but because it has the same air of wanting to be shared, and being an evenings entertainment in itself, that those Victorian beauties had.

I've been working my way through it for a week or so now (and can't quite believe my luck in having been sent a copy - it's a serious treat to have this), it would make an excellent family Christmas present for people - well for people like me I suppose. I'm in love with it because I adore these kind of cartoons (I still miss Punch which I bought religiously in my early teens almost exclusively for the cartoons, it's an extra bonus to find a few artists I remember working for the New Yorker too), and the encyclopaedia format is great as well.

Arranging by subject rather than chronologically works really well, there's some discussion about the various tropes and themes and it's fascinating to see how cultural references are picked up and re worked over the years. It's also a terrific historical record of everything from A to Z, Elvis to Knitting (being 2 sections I've particularly enjoyed).

The best thing though is still the desire to sit at a table, open each volume up, and spend some time going through them, sharing jokes, with family and friends. It's not often these days that I find, or even think of, books in terms of a group activity, but there's something very appealing about it.

Monday, November 12, 2018

The Light in the Dark - Horatio Clare

I like winter, more or less preferring cold to heat, and perhaps because it's the best time to live in a city. I don't miss having a garden when it's cold, dark, and possibly wet outside. I do love being able to watch the sun rise from my east facing windows over breakfast. The uglier bits of the city centre are hidden in forgiving dark on my way home, but most of the prettier bits are lit in a way that gives them a Dickensian charm. And then it's perfectly acceptable to go home and potter over nothing much instead of feeling like I should be out doing with other people.

Sometimes too there are unexpected treats; seeing a flock of long tailed tits flit between trees against a sunset sky last week, or the kites that are now a regular sight on the outskirts of town, never mind the Peregrines that seem to be spreading around the city centre. Or even the strong smell of quinces coming from the museum garden that's only a small detour to walk past on my way home (some still on the tree, obviously quite a lot rotting beneath it, there are medlars in there too, and figs which never ripen).

I've been thinking about my love for winter a lot, especially how that's tied up with how and where I live, whilst reading 'The Light in the Dark', which is more or less about how much Clare has come to struggle with it. The last couple of winters having been bad enough for him to question his sanity. 

I think we're generally getting better at talking about mental health issues, but its still a brave decision to publish a book like this about your experiance of depression, not least because it invites speculation and judgements about your life which might not be at all welcome. At least, I'm not particularly comfortable with the way I ended up wondering about aspects of Clare's life and relationships, though I think one of the strengths of the book is the way in which it made me question some of my own reactions to it. 

After a particularly hard time getting through the winter of 2016-17, Clare kept a journal for the Winter of 2017-18 as one coping mechanism against the season. It starts at the end of August, making the most of the last golden days of summer and the slow slide into Autumn, before a terrible omen for he coming months. Badger baiters set their dogs on Clare's mother's sheep. The results are horrific, and amongst other things there are metaphors here for how powerless depression can leave you, it's also a stark reminder that our vision of country life and it's reality are often at odds. 

From there it's a balancing act between work and family on the one hand, and self care on the other. Clare lives in Hebden Bridge (a little bit of North London in Yorkshire) which seems like a compromise between family commitments and preference, but there's an ambivalence to the North that runs through the book which makes it feel like an uneasy compromise at best. There are more tensions within the family that are hinted at, but not quite followed up on and in that respect the balance of the book is off. I feel that this is something that should have been explored more thoroughly or excised completely 

Otherwise the nature writing part of the book is beautiful (Clare writes sky and cloud the way Constable painted them), there is much there to take comfort from, and even to luxuriate in. When he talks about his students his anger and frustration on their behalf is infectious, and also a positive sign for his own state of mind that he still has the energy to feel like that on others behalf.

The end is important too, a final screwing up of courage to see a doctor to find out exactly what the problem is as the winter ends. Worst fears turn out to be unfounded, a palpable relief the reader can share. 

Sunday, November 11, 2018

November 11th 2018

I got up at 6 this morning to check the sky, it was cloudy. Had it been clear I would have set off to walk across the still dark city to be at the war memorial for sunrise just after 7. Leicester's war memorial is solar aligned with the rising sun, the odds of it being a clear morning are not great (once in the decade or so that I've known this) but the privacy of a November sunrise makes thin places even out of city parks.


When I was a child the First World War was still held within living memory, but it was as a distant part of long lives that had seen many other things since. Now that living memory has gone the way we remember seems fundamentally different too, a handful of images, lines of poetry, stark casualty figures, and increasingly poignant art installations.

But I keep coming back to our war memorial. A handsome arch designed by Lutyens, some of the men who worked on it would have been veterans, all of them would have known people who didn't come back, or who came back damaged. That solar alignment feels like a gift to them, a prayer for hope, and a better future, a promise that the memories remain. It certainly seems better to me to remember at the coming up of the sun, rather than it's going down.

I'm not sure about tacking on some book recommendations at the end of this - but books are one of the things that build a bridge between us, and those who experienced this anniversary that we're marking with such ceremony.

There's Dorothy L. Sayers who chose to make her detectives shell shock a fundamental part of him. 'The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club' takes place during the armistice parade. Written in 1928 her ambivalence to remembrance seems vaguely shocking now. I think it's one of her better books, and for something that's ostensibly light entertainment there's a lot to contemplate in it.

Lyn Macdonald published a series of books in the 80's that took letters and eye witness accounts from  the First World War and arranged them into a narrative history of the major battles. 'The Roses of No Man's Land' concentrates on the experience of volunteer nurses. These books are heart wrenching and shocking in turn. It's 20 years since I read them but I still remember the emotional wreck they made of me. Still, they're worth reading to understand something of what the day to day experience was.

And then there's John Jackson's 'Private 12768'. John Jackson's memoir was published posthumously, and is fairly unique in that his memories of the war, whilst not romanticised, are generally positive. The great adventure of his life. It's not a fashionable point of view, but it must have been the experience of many who fought and it's important to remember that as well.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Kingdoms of Elfin - Sylvia Townsend Warner

I am literally surrounded by excellent books at the moment (they're at my feet, piled on both arms of the chair I'm sitting on, there are more by my bed, in my work bag, piled up on every surface...) so much so that it's hard to know where to start, or to stop myself trying to start 3 things at once. The books I feel most enthusiasm for are also the hardest to write about; they demand both more thought, and work, in direct relation to how good I think they are.

Which is a long way of saying that I've put off writing about 'Kngdoms of Elfin' for the best part of a week whilst I try and expand on my over riding thought that it's one of the most perfect collections of short stories I've ever read. Which came as a bit of a surprise really, because until now I've not been overly interested in Sylvia Townsend-Warner.

I have collected quite a few of her books though, I know I bought Lolly Willows because it sounded interesting. I also know I never finished it. Since then I've picked up as many of the old Virago editions of her books as I've ever seen with genuinely good intentions of reading them one day. In the end it took committing to a review copy of Handheld Press new edition of 'Kingdoms of Elfin' to make me actually get in with one of her books.

It's hard to define 'Kingdoms of Elfin', a collection of 16 short stories more or less about fairies written in the 1970's towards the end of Warner's life. They were first published in The New Yorker before being collected into a book, I'm not at all sure how they fit with the rest of her work, but they feel like something that might be both a conclusion and a departure from what's gone before it.

There's a disconcerting quality about these stories which I think is heightened by Warner's own timeline. No dates are given, but there's a general sense that they're set sometime earlyish in the 19th century, a time about as distant from Warner's own youth (she was born in 1893) as the 1970's in which she was writing. They really feel like they've got a foot both in the past and the present, and make a specific sort of sense out of Elfin longevity in relation to her own age when writing and the changes she'd seen.

There's something dream like about these stories too, especially the later ones, were things make sense in exactly the same way they do in dreams. These fairies aren't particularly magical, they can fly, although it's considered vulgar to do so, and occasionally other gifts are hinted at, but for the most part everything seems normal enough, until it isn't which makes them work wonderfully as weird tales. Especially at this time of year - autumn makes it easy to half believe strange things, and I found I particularly reading something a little odd, but not designed to be frightening in any way.

More than anything though, I loved the humour, sly and sometimes a little wicked, mixed with a master story tellers turn of phrase. I am profoundly grateful to have read this book, it's an absolute jewel of a thing that I look forward to reading again and again.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Christmas is Coming

I work in retail, so as far as I'm concerned Christmas has been happening for a while now - though thanks to the increasing popularity of Halloween as a festival to celebrate the bulk of it is pushed back to the beginning of November these days.

I know I write this kind of post regularly at this time of year, but it all seems worth saying again. Since the clocks went back last weekend and people started to get paid it's all kicked up a gear at work - people (mostly women) are starting to prepare in earnest, and they're getting increasingly grumpy with it.

My first Christmas in the wine trade was 1999. Champagne sales were phenomenal, everyone wanted something special to drink, we had queues out the door, I've never seen shops busier, and the best thing about it was how excited everybody seemed to be part of this particular celebration. The year afterwards was just as busy, but the sense of excitement had gone, and it's ebbed further away ever since.

I guess the bar had been set high, and there's pressure to maintain that, the advertising is far more relentless now too, and our expectations have changed. There's a much greater sense of entitlement - we expect to get what we want, when we want it, and cheap. This has increased the chances of a customer having the sort of temper tantrum you'd once only have associated with a sleep deprived toddler exponentially. It's not a good look on an adult. It isn't going to magically produce the desired object either, but it will instantly destroy any desire a retailer had to help.

For me Christmas is all about the preparation anyway. It's by far the best bit, a process that helps keep the dark at bay. Walking through the city centre on my way home at this time of year it's a blaze of light and colour that only intensifies as the leaves fall from the trees. Grey, rainy, Sundays like today are filled with a sense of purpose as I tick off the things I want to do, and chance meetings with friends and acquaintances doing the same.

I know that as December wears on my goodwill will wear out, that by Christmas Eve when I finish work I'll be too tired to really enjoy anything before I'm back at work (probably for the 27th). So I'm going to get every bit of enjoyment I can now. That's why I love making Christmas puddings, the hours of steaming they require gives me time to think, as does the process of making mincemeat. I love the smells too, and the sense of putting things by for the very darkest days roots me in long traditions of housekeeping.

I've bought cards - important to do early whilst the choice is still good, and important to send because  emailed versions, or social media messages, do not touch people in the same way, they certainly don't have the same cheering effect after a trying day at work. I'm not buying into the 'gave the money to charity instead' line either. This is a once a year opportunity to reach out to the people on the peripheries of our lives and show we care enough to make this effort. The older we get the more likely this is to include people this will really matter to. Cut corners somewhere else.

As for the rest of it, it should be optional. Don't spend more than you want or can afford. Nothing is ever going to be perfect anyway, and nothing is going to be ruined by the wrong Brie or a lack of Limoncello. It certainly shouldn't be a competition (especially to spend either money or emotional labour) but genuinely a time to share what you have with those you care about.

Mostly though, just be nice to wine merchants. We work hard, the pay isn't great, but we'll do everything we can to get you something great to drink if you're nice to us.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Grape and Almond loaf cake - a Waitrose recipe

Because I have hundreds of cookbooks kicking around the place making it look untidy I normally ignore the recipe cards in supermarkets, no matter how tempting they look. Last week though, someone was tweeting about a grape and almond cake they were making and it sounded good (or at least it made me think of the vineyard cake from Ottolenghi's Sweet book which is amazing). Then I saw the recipe card in Waitrose and decided to find out for sure.

It's really nothing like the Ottolenghi cake apart from both using grapes, but it's good, and the roast grapes on top were pleasingly posh looking (very Waitrose). The grape element also feels right for late autumn/early winter, it would be good at any time, but there's something about that icing and the squishy roasted grapes that make me think of the sugar plum fairy in the Nutcracker, as well as the last of the grape harvest.

Maybe it's the thought of the Nutcracker that's tempting me to I'm see what happens if I double the quantities and make it in a bundt tin (except I don't need enough cake for 20 at the moment). I think this would be a great cake for a biggish tea party.

Heat the oven to 160°C/gas 3, grease and line a 900g loaf tin, and cream together 175g of soft unsalted butter with 150g of caster sugar until light and fluffy. Beat in 3 eggs, 1 at a time, and a few drops of almond extract. In a separate bowl combine 150g of self raising flour, 1/2 a teaspoon of fine salt and 100g of ground almonds. Fold the dry ingredients into the wet ones until combined, then stir in 200g of seedless Vitoria grapes (they're small and dark, small, seedless, and dark skins are all desirable here). Spoon into the tin, levelling the top, and bake for an hour to an hour and ten minutes, or until a skewer comes out clan.

Cool in the tin for 20 minutes and then transfer onto a wire rack. Once the cake is on the rack take another 75g of the grapes, cut them in half and put them in a small roasting tin along with 2 tablespoons of water. Roast in the oven for 20 minutes, until soft but still holding their shape. Remove from the oven and lift the grapes onto a plate. Add another tablespoon of water to the tin and scrape up the grape juices. Start adding icing sugar, a little at a time, stirring well until you have a thick enough icing. Spoon over the cake and top with the toasted grapes. Cool completely before serving.

I took this to work the next day to try, where it disappeared quickly, but my guess is that it would keep well for a couple of days given the chance.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Wirlie Mitts - Leslie Smith

I've started to many things recently, so nothing is getting finished very quickly. This is especially true of the several books I have in the go, but includes things like making Christmas puddings and mincemeat - all of which takes reading time...

One thing I did manage to finish yesterday however were the mitts I've been knitting very slowly over the last few weeks. At least, the second mitt came along very slowly, and that's one of the things I've learnt from this project. Mitt number one you fly through, keen to see how it's going to turn out. Mitt number two happens at a more sedate pace.

I am particularly pleased with this project because a pair of Leslie's mitts that I bought some years ago (and loved so much their picture has been on the side bar here ever since) were a major inspiration to re learn to knit.

I like these for a couple of reasons; the way the thumb is constructed appeals to me aesthetically, and is comfortable to wear. There are no finger holes either, which again I find more comfortable to wear - your fingers don't get forced apart so they stay warmer, or at least that's my theory.

The lack of fingers means they're much less fiddly to make too, and the pattern repeats front and back so you can wear them on either hand, which also makes them a perfect first glove/mitt project. I only used two colours for this pair because I didn't want to think to much about changing yarns (or weave the ends in at the end), not least because I'm not used to knitting on DPN's (more used to it now), and these pretty much need to be done on DPN's. By the end of the second mitt I was finding it considerably less fiddly and coming round to the advantages of using them.

Ideally the blue would have been a bit brighter, but I wanted to use up some odds and ends of yarn that were hanging around. I'm happy enough with the results, and looking forward to starting another pair.

Find Leslie and her mitts on Ravelry Here, or look for her on Instagram @takdeesock she has an etsy shop too.