Monday, March 30, 2009

Reasons to be cheerful.....

Let's celebrate - let's have a party. Let's have peanuts and party poppers!

We'll hold it on Saturday in the Village Hall. We can't say it's a celebration though because officially we've nothing to celebrate until Monday. Better call it a Games Night then.Oh dear. For a party-pooper like me that's about as enticing as a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. Never mind, I'll help run the bar which we're not having either.

So there we were 2 nights ago in Marton's dusty and decrepit Hall, skittling, hoopla-ing and shoving ha'pennies - or in my case skulking in the other room. Eventually, when all the teams of 4 have played every game, the scores are totted up and a winner is declared. Team 'H' were the lucky winners. Then it's time to set about some serious eating - there's a magnificent spread laid out in the back room.

But first there is an announcement to make. (Of course it's not really an announcement - because until Monday we have nothing to announce etc etc. blah, blah.)

The real winners, as the Chairman of the Village Hall Committee 'announced', are the people of Marton - the much needed new Hall - 5 years in the planning - will soon become a reality. Our Lottery bid has been successful and, with the addition of other monies received in the form of local grants, means that work can now go ahead.

What's more - the news has just been on Radio Shropshire so it must be official at last. Hurrah!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

'Nids de poule'

Today? Gorgeous. Crisp, clear, bright spring day - as I write this a 2 day old skinny crescent moon hangs idly over Lower House. It's a slender and elegant thing. On the western horizon shimmers the last of the sun. So sun down, moon up. Stars are bright.....

......but what's that insistent 'click-click-click'?

It's the electric fence that encloses the hens' compound, that's what it is. It's shorting on something along its length. I walk the line. I kick the odd leaf out of the way, flatten a molehill which threatens to breach the first 'live' wire and push a load of potentially beetle-holding dry grass to one side too.

AH HA! But what has been going on here? In the lee of the log piles we left, largely to give the birds some points of interest in an otherwise barren enclosure, I discover great excavations; nids des poule. They are literally 'hens' nests' - but known in French speaking road-mending terms as pot-holes. My birds have been dust-bathing in the dry dusty soil under the log pile and have enthusiastically scuffed up enough soil to short the system. They have had fun.

'Nids des poules' ....... we first saw the sign down in the Languedoc in the mid 80's somewhere between S├Ęte and Cap d'agde - a battered tin sign warned of imminent roadworks. Whilst my primitive French could do a word-for-word translation it took a bit of imagination to understand its vernacular use. We were much impressed with the French workers who mended these 'nids des poule' too - there was no stopping them and they seemed to cover vast distances each day - the stop for the long French 'dejeuner' only seemed to fire their progress.

I suppose a travelling Frenchman on the B4386 might be just as bemused on seeing a sign warning of 'Cat's Eyes Removed'.

Friday, March 27, 2009

And another thing....

....vaguely sewing box related:

Back in the day - when all was fresh and green - and I was in my final year at Art School in Manchester, I lived very happily on Shaw Road, in Heaton Moor. It was hardly the ideal home, a small all-purpose attic room, at the top of two flights of steep and narrow stairs. This was the first place I could ever call my own. Being an attic space and just under an uninsulated roof it baked in the summer and froze in the winter. I shared the sole bathroom and toilet with the 5 other bedsits and their various occupants too - an arrangement which seemed quite normal at the time. It required tolerance of strangers' habits and smells; I don't want to go there again and completely understand why 'en suite' is so desirable.

Even now I can see this little room in sharp focus; the sun pouring in across a red Formica-topped table onto a plum-coloured carpet beyond a small square of lino. This carpet was sketched abstractedly with woven lines and squiggles in cream, lemon and grey. Looking back I see this was a fine and 'vintage' piece of floor covering - a sale-room acquisition as indeed was the rest of the furnishing. The lumpy bed, the curious match-wood dressing/table-come-chest-of-drawers and the period kitchen dresser with drop-down Formica work surface, rubbed shoulders with sink, geyser and gas cooker. In winter the gas fire roared and ate 50p pieces. It was then warm and blissfully my own.

I liked Heaton Moor too. This Victorian suburb retained an air of gentility, handsome houses stood in large gardens on tree-lined streets. Where Didsbury and Chorlton were succumbing to an influx of students which would see houses subdivided to provide accommodation, the Heatons - of which there were 4, had been slow to give in to the relentless march of progress. However, the glory days were going fast and a 6 bed-roomed house might be occupied by the sole remaining member of the family - in all likelihood a frail and elderly spinster, keeping up appearances. When the inevitable happened there were plenty of landlords and developers waiting in the wings, keen to snap up a bargain and make a fast buck. So here and there changes were taking place. A new block of flats rose where once stood a mansion - planners it seemed were clearly a push-over regarding architectural style in those days. Ugly tacky boxes replaced Victorian grandeur as multi-occupancy began to seem an attractive economic proposition.

(Bear with me - we'll get to the sewing box shortly...)

One house, clearly earmarked for redevelopment, fascinated me. It stood on the corner of Heaton Moor Road and Brownsville Road; in retrospect it was such a key building that's its subsequent demolition should have never been allowed. But they did things differently then.....
A locked gate, an overgrown garden and a hedge which overhung the pavement deterred the casual caller. Who would want to call anyway - it was patently unoccupied, the windows were boarded up and the doors shut fast. But were they? Walk round the back, dart in through the dank shrubbery and push gently on the blistered paint of the kitchen door and one was in - into a dank and musty disturbing world of dereliction.

Did I ever go there in the daylight? Perhaps - but most of my memories are of creeping around, feeling my way by the muted light of the streetlamps. Light which flickered as the trees swayed and thrashed against the boarded window panes. There was nothing much downstairs - a good layer of brick dust on the quarry tiled floor and the rank smell of soot; crumpled newspaper and broken lathes. Climbing the stairs needed care because for some reason treads had been removed, further up the decay increased. Floorboards had been prised from the joists.

Right at the top of the house, the attic floor was home to servants judging by the mean-ness of the accommodation. Here the windows were open letting the weather in. Rain too had come in through the roof where the flashing had been removed. Lead's a valuable commodity you see. Stacks of newspapers, neatly tied into bundles - the Manchester Guardian - lined one room. A narrow iron bedstead rusted in another. A store room, lined with shelves and with the sweetest oriel window, overlooked the street at the front of the house. I would look down on the traffic and passers-by below with detachment; they might have existed in another time, another place. Here, on paper lined shelves, was sheet music by the volume for the choir at St Paul's Church, jars of jam labeled by a crabbed hand, empty biscuit tins as well. This was the stuff not worth clearing, left to rot. Many years later I learned that this had been a fine house, home to a wealthy family and furnished with antiques and porcelain. A 'classic' car for motoring's early days was found in the garage. The house itself had been empty since its last occupant had been found dead there one day.

My curiosity drew me in - in a way that the house's 'spookiness' kept others away. I would slip through the back door into an other world. I began to unravel the lives of the family who lived there by the bits and pieces left behind. A treasure trove in the form of a work-box had been spilled between the joists of an upstairs room. Yards of delicate lace trimmings and silk scraps and handkerchiefs, an exquisite lace collar, embroidery silks, needles, pins. Snippets of correspondence tucked into the box revealed its owner - a modern young thing, the daughter of the house. She would be taking driving lessons. 'Yes, she would take care', she reassured her father who would be paying. The date? Probably sometime in the 1920s. In an envelope I found her gift to him - made as a child - and as bright as the day those little fingers sewed the words 'For my Dear Papa'. Why did it languish in her work box I wonder? Did he never receive it? Surely a loving Papa would have treasured this little gift of a book mark, used it or kept it safe.
I keep it safe now - although sadly, exposure to light has dulled it somewhat. I brought some of the lace away too - but mostly I brought memories of a fine but faded way of life before it was lost completely. I like to imagine a pretty young thing, dashing in from her driving lesson to sip afternoon tea from a Meissen cup. Only a few of us will ever know that she probably trimmed her silk undies with delicate lace, won't we?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Well known Phrases and Sayings No 4

In which A Stitch in Time Saves 9. A morality tale for credit crunched times.

There's been a little red button knocking around my desk for - what, 6 months? I know where it belongs but can I be bothered to reunite it with its buttonhole? Can I heck. It's making me feel guilty the more I think about it. I imagine it bleating at me now: 'Sew me on, sew me on...'But who mends any more? A 'stitch in time' for something special, much loved or even (an old-fashioned phrase coming up...) serviceable. Alan uses old tee- shirts for polishing stuff in his shed but otherwise I'm afraid the likelihood is that the holey, split or worn item is binned. Should I be ashamed to admit that in the small mountain kingdom of Trelystan darning has died out?

Well, contrary to what the above portrait of idleness might suggest - and surprising even myself - I have this evening put a restorative stitch or two into H's jacket. (It is Mother's Day after all and no mother likes to see her son coming adrift at the seams.) Should be good for another season or two now.

I'm not exactly a stranger to the sewing box. I look at it occasionally, confident that should the need arise I shall find needles and thread, scissors and pins. Yep, they're all there. There's a length of elastic or two, scraps of lace and some pretty bits of ribbon rescued or left over from some project or other as well. A handful of buttons have migrated to the bottom of the box - quite a miscellany - and probably utterly useless now their original garments are long gone.

On close examination its contents always come as something of a surprise. Just why did I keep that ghastly yellow zip? That piece of ribbon on too short to tie into even the smallest bow? It satisfies my sense of history too - there are spools of thread which date back to my early married life, spools of thread which sewed seams in long departed curtains, cushions and unlikely frocks. An ancient reel of brown cotton recalls the duvet cover I made in 1975. How hip and trendy that was, back in the day.

I seem to have accumulated quite a collection of yellows and greens - why, I wonder? I've never worn yellow or green and I can only recall ever sewing one length of yellow fabric to make a tablecloth. There is a rich seam of unlikely pinks, reds and mauves too. The pink on the left - of which there is very little left - sewed the last-but-one set of curtains in the spare room of our previous house. The deep plum, 2 spools along, took up the hem of a gorgeous velvet dress I wore one Christmas and one red......ahem....was the unused remains of an abandoned fancy dress project which we will gloss over..But why it that, in all probability if I needed to mend something tomorrow I would have to go out and buy a reel of colour specially? Luckily these days the wonderful Annie takes care of my turning-ups, letting outs and takings in and she is queen of the colourful cottons - her little work room is a corncopia of all things sewing and craft related.

Back in my sewing box there are needles in abundance - darning, embroidery, tapestry and a savage looking jobbie used for pricking out lace patterns. Pretty glass beads nestle in a folded length of broderie anglaise. It dawns on me that this box is a reliquary of past enthusiasms too.

What it lacks though - and will never therefore be a proper sewing box in the way my mother's was - are the bits and pieces which were necessities in the days when mending wasn't an option.

I am lacking:
Well, a proper sewing basket for a start - generally woven wicker and lined with padded silk. Failing that an old biscuit tin.
The darning 'mushroom' and accompanying darning wool to be persuaded through big eyed blunt nosed needles.
A proper pin cushion.
Shirring elastic. Who shirrs?
Safety pins. Big and steely and small and brass. Quite cute the little fellas.
Knicker elastic by the card-ful and probably in a disgusting shade of 'flesh' pink. Is it still possible to buy knicker elastic?
A replacement pyjama cord. Is it still possible to buy pjs with cords?
Bra straps and replacement suspenders with rubbery buttons; also 'flesh' pink and gross.
Buttons, hooks and eyes and press-studs, patches for elbows, bias binding.....
And Cash's name tapes by the yard and Cash's name tapes unpicked from some ancient school sock, ready to be prudently re-used. God forbid.
Am I bovvered? Of course I am. I like to do things properly.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

More sheep I'm afraid.

It's hard to keep up round here. Heather and Gwyn came today to 'change our sheep'. They've had a couple of days on our field and it's time, now they've bonded, to go out into the big wide world. The ones on the other field were 'changed' yesterday.

The stock trailer squeaked to the gate, its passengers bleating and bawling until it was their turn to be let out. Same routine as before. Here are the last 4 lambs waiting to be reunited with their mums. For the 'aw, cute!' factor click on the picture.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A delivery of lambs...

Hurrah! The sheep-shaker has shook lambs on our field too: Here we have the obligatory spring-time sheep and lamb picture - and apologies for the less than bucolic backdrop of a pile of stone and a galvanised trough. Trust me; 2 metres to the right is idyllic. Sheep and lambs may safely graze. Little Bo Peep is probably (be-ribboned) in the offing.

Today, Carl and The Girl came and 'loosed out' 11 ewes and seemingly dozens of lambs - in fact only 22. They were all 'doubles'.

The arrival of the stock trailer is no surprise. It has something about its suspension that emits a carrying rhythmic squeak; one can follow its progress around the lanes with no difficulty. I knew to be ready with an open gate about 5 minutes before it actually came into sight. Carl backed up vaguely in the region of the gate and opened the tail-gate. The ewes, from the larger rear compartment, trotted down the ramp and headed for grass, fresh-juicy-tasty-lovely grass. Their lambs, which had traveled in a little sub-section at the front of the trailer were carried out and dumped fairly unceremoniously in the field. Their mothers for the most part gave an identifying bleat. They didn't seem terribly anxious to be reunited with their youngsters.

Why? Fresh grass? Lambs? Lambs? Grass? No competition. Munch.

Instinct gradually took over and the small ovine families got together again after much baaing and sniffing. We humans can match them up by the bright numbers sprayed on their sides but sheep, not being noted for their literacy, recognise by smell.

By dusk all was peaceful on the field. Little groups had formed and only a small amount of interest was being paid to the hen houses also on the field. I have my fingers crossed here - the average sheep can work out fairly rapidly that hens are a source of food and Worth Investigating. I can do without this sort on initiative.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

On going up a hill and seeing the landscape in spring.

I thought 'It's as if a mighty hand had reached for the sheep-shaker (imagine a giant salt-pot thingy) and sprinkled the hills, valleys and dingles with ewes and lambs.' Seasoned it, so to speak.

They are everywhere on the greening slopes of the Long Mountain; little specks of white, immobile at a distance, but coming alive to form bleating streams when the man with the fodder beet comes by. A bag of sheep nuts does the same trick. It's food and these are hungry days.

The ewes trot behind the tractor and its trail of food - shouting the odds, baaing and bawling, their lambs are close behind. These little scraps, confused as yet as to the ways of the flock, have only mastered a tentative nibble of grass to date. For them it's mother's warm milk - they bunt her flank encouragingly and little tails wag as they drink. (Gimme. Gimme.)

What a perfect day it has been to be a sheep on our mountain - and a perfect day to be a person too. There was a touch of warmth in the sun. Birds sang. Buds swelled. The sunset was tinged with pink - the portent of a good day tomorrow as well.

Were I not such a sceptic I would say 'deo gratis'. I think I will anyway.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A Proustian moment...

It's not momentous or anything - I'm probably a little late in doing this - but yesterday I sowed my sweet pea seeds. Here they are prior to planting having been soaked for 24 hours. Ah, the alchemy of it all.... Such promise packed into those little wizened globes - delicate pastel petals, such fragrance and spiralling tendrils that clasp and twine, holding the vine on its skyward journey. But mostly it's about memories - memories that on catching the scent in a summer breeze come flooding back.

Today in my empty greenhouse I am a time traveler - it is March, my imagination sees June and my memory sees a gauche 10 year old helping her father pinch out the side shoots of his sweet peas in a Warwickshire garden too many years ago.

Good thoughts.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Well known phrases and sayings - No. 3

'The game is not worth the candle.'
'This expression, which began as a translation of a term used by the French essayist Michel de Montaigne in 1580, alludes to gambling by candlelight, which involved the expense of illumination. If the winnings were not sufficient, they did not warrant the expense. Used figuratively, it was a proverb within a century.'
So it's an old one but still applicable today, 9th March 2009, though the activity wasn't gaming and our household can, even now, run to a few watts of candle power.

My supper was being cooked for me - always a treat - and under normal circumstances means I can finish the crossword or watch for pictures in the flickering flames of the of wine and salty pretzel to hand. Bliss.

'Ravioli di coda di manzo' was on the menu - taken from Giorgio Locatelli's weighty tome 'Made in Italy'. Are you familiar with Mr Locatelli? - He has a restaurant and had a TV programme a few years ago. I don't recall much of the cooking on this but do recall a lean, effusive Italian with a mane of long dark hair which was flicked a little too often over the food. Call me old fashioned but hair and food I do like kept separate.

Anyway: 'Ravioli di coda di manzo.' Alarm bells should have started ringing a little earlier - who in their right mind wants to cook and process oxtail, make pasta and then stuff resultant oxtail paste into pasta to be served with the broth-like sauce of the cooking liquor? (I know who, though I did volunteer to make the pasta which I suppose might be construed as encouragement so I must shoulder part of the blame.) It's a job for restaurants with their hierarchy of chefs and potwashers.
It's hard to relax when after about 4 hours of preparation things start to hot up. My chef cries for 'More pans! More bowls!' 'But there are no more darling,' I reply 'You have used them all.'

And indeed every pan in the house, including one which rarely sees the light of day, have been pressed into use. A mountain of bowls, colanders, spoons, knives and sieves are piled in the sink and most surfaces have acquired a thin film of orange-tinged fat. I feel loathe to interfere but this greasy disorder makes me a little twitchy. I fill the dishwasher, roll up my sleeves and draw a bowl of hot detergenty water to deal with everything else. In the background I hear that even the food processor has been pressed into use thus ensuring that yet another square metre of kitchen will need a Good Wipe Down.

Fortunately it didn't take long at all to restore order. Rolling out the pasta - a satisfying job - took moments and neat spoonfuls of the oxtail mix could be laid out on one strip before being covered with another and cut out to form sweet little round cushions.

The sweet little round cushions were duly cooked and placed in their bath of broth to be served with plain green beans. They were delicious.

The process has taken a little short of 5½ hours and an inordinate amount of time, expense and effort. Was it worth it? Was the game worth the candle?


Thursday, March 05, 2009

Prospective roast dinners?

Remember the Des.Res. made by my horny-handed but glamorous assistant in November of last year? Like much of the nation's housing stock in these credit crunched times it has remained unoccupied. We towed it into position - thus proving a tow bar was a Good Idea, and there it has sat ever since - the poshest poultry house in the County*- waiting for hens.
Until yesterday that is. Becky had got herself 28 birds - young pullets to rear for the table - and did I want some? Well, yes please. How many could she spare? She thought I could manage 8 or 10. So 10 it was.

I held her baby while she manhandled the crate containing the birds out of the boot of the car and carried them up the field to their new home. Baby Tristram and I watched as they were decanted into the house where they stood in a miserable cheeping huddle. Were these surroundings not good enough?

24 hours later and bedded down on some of the last shavings in Montgomeryshire, well fed and watered too, they are a little less suspicious of their surroundings and have actually ventured outdoors. I wouldn't describe them as remotely pretty; pale and beaky and already at 15 weeks, big bodied. They are a commercial hybrid, bred specifically for meatiness and presumably rapid weight gain. Becky wasn't sure what had gone into the mix. They'll be ready for the table in 6 to 8 weeks time provided I can hone my poultry rearing skills and get them to gain weight. Poultry Fatteners are what I need apparently - although not so much as they 'go off their legs'. We don't want that do we?
Again, terribly difficult to photograph - or maybe they are just camera shy.

* The title of the poshest hen house in the County, if not the country, should actually go to the Fowl House at Leighton, now owned by the Landmark Trust. That is one impressive hen hut.

Monday, March 02, 2009

In which good things arrive in big brown boxes.

Last week my brother and his wife stayed for a few days. They arrived with gifts and foodie treats; the sort of visitors we relish!

We are now the owners of a CD of Lute music composed by Lord Edward Herbert of Cherbury (brother of the more famous George) and a map of Montgomeryshire dating from around 1700. Good stuff. The cheeses and the Battenburg cake got scranned asap.

Now, on arrival @nt strolled round our house - not unusual as it was his first visit and curiosity isn't a crime. But as he progressed the expression on his face grew a little more perplexed. A problem @nt? And what's this? A gift for our house in a big bag is what it is. It's a lampshade - a gorgeous lampshade. A lampshade for a pendant light - and we have none. Strings of halogen spots and recessed jobbies by the dozen but not a hanging light to our name. Oh dear. The shame, the shame.
The shade returns to London with a view to exchanging it to fit a standard lamp. We do not have a standard lamp either but that is easily resolved and plans are afoot to commission Nigel the blacksmith to run us up a stand using similar motifs. This morning it arrived and is a lovely as I remember. Thanks @nt and S. The Granary is delighted.

PS. A quick namecheck for Lush Designs who have a shop in Greenwich Market in SE London. Have a look online at their other shades, products and textiles.