Sunday, September 30, 2007

Local news

It's a mish-mash of reports: Interesting Talks - 'Coconuts to coir- the history of the product', listings of Community Courses - from Aerobics to Yoga, with all things wacky in between. Toss a few plucky pensioners, tragic toddlers, fund raising coffee mornings, used cars and amateur sport into the mix and we have local news. I must also mention the Presentation of the Giant Cheque as there is always a picture of a giant cheque being handed over. Without fail.

The bizarre, the banal and the humdrum, that's the minutiae of life that finds its place in the pages of the weekly newspaper. What wouldn't merit a mention on a national scale is writ large here.

Our local 'rag': The County Times is no exception and declares itself 'Proud to be Local' above the masthead. It covers a large part of mid-Wales - Powys, and slips across the border into Shropshire here and there. It's an area so large that one would think it could sustain a publication as thick as a telephone directory, stuffed with news and comment. But no, it's a slender little paper - its pages plumped up I think by the duplication of some ads and columns which are printed both in English and in Welsh. I suppose if your 'turf' is home to more sheep than people this paucity of news is hardly suprising. It relays the sort of snippets you'd hear if you leaned over a gate and gossiped with your farming neighbour for half an hour. The price of sheep, petty crime and - as everywhere - house prices.

The front page this week featured a petition against plans to convert an old toilet block into a food outlet and the truly tragic story of a local man crushed to death when his tractor overturned. (Farm man died 'doing the work he loved'.) Our MP - Lembit Opik is relegated to page 2 where he wholeheartedly supports an exhibition of geology. In the adjacent column we learn that 50% of those who voted in a County Times poll believe Mr Opik to be right in thinking that the world's population will be wiped out by an asteroid one day. I suppose that could be earth shattering information.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Changing season

Bit of a chill out there tonight. The season is in a state of change, the landscape looks weary.

There's a big full moon hanging in the southern sky, pearly bright against indigo blackness. I didn't stay out long enough to tune my eyes into stars. That's a treat I'll save for later - I'll open the bedroom window and look out into the blackness, suck in the freshness of the night, wonder what's creeping and crawling, mewing and squeaking. Above, if the sky is clear, will be the greatest show on earth - the circling planets winging on their way. ('On earth' is not strictly true - but you get my drift.) Sometimes there will be a shooting star. I feel excitement but also regret at this planetary demise. I will wish upon this falling star.

Today has been a day of putting the vegetable garden to bed for the winter, tidying and mulching. A day with a golden sunrise and rosy sunset. There are plenty of berries in the hedgerows and the little trees in our new orchard are hung about with apples. It's a fruitful autumn - a sign, I always think, of an earlier mild spring and not necessarily a predictor of a bad winter to come. As I haul out old roots and weeds then fork on something well-rotted, I muse that it only seems brief moments ago that I drew shallow drills in the warming spring soil and sprinkled seed with hopes for a bumper harvest.

For us, here at the end of the Long Mountain, gardening hasn't been terribly rewarding this year. But with the optimism that keeps growers everywhere growing we note the changing season and turn to our seed catalogues and begin planning what will go where, next year.

2008 will be the year I grow a swede bigger than a tennis ball - and oh! I've just remembered, 2008 will be the year when we can harvest our first asparagus. Hurrah! Bring on the Hollandaise, shaved Parmesan and melted butter.......

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Michaelmas Fair

Blimey - testosterone rush or what? Talk about something for the boys!
How much rubbing, buffing and polishing it took to get these babes up to steam I can't imagine. These throbbing engines are more cosseted than any woman could ever hope to be. There can't have been a man in Bishop's Castle this afternoon not salivating at the sight of these puffing, panting beauties.

The Showman's engines led the cavalcade of vehicles through the narrow streets of Bishops Castle this afternoon. They were followed by the road rollers (proper steam rollers), traction engines in diminishing sizes, lorries, tractors and classic cars. The air was filthy and loud with smoke and noise from the massed engines. We coughed and spluttered but even I had to admit these were majestic beasts.

...and some things, thankfully, will always remain a mystery.

This magnificent procession was only apart of a weekend of events in the small south Shropshire town of Bishop's Castle; the Michaelmas Fair. Bishop's Castle is a town with a certain je ne sais quoi - what it lacks in shops and facilities it makes up for on the feel-good factor scale. Perhaps it is on a fortunate ley line or the feng sui is right. I don't know.

With this in mind, even intermittent drizzle didn't dampen the enthusiasm of the many visitors this Saturday.
Music was medieval or ethnic, food nutritious and plentiful, crafts - well, craft-y and on the whole - this being Bishops Castle - quite tasteful. The Shrophire Bedlam danced and clattered their sticks - a most English thing this Morris/Moorish dancing. (Don't tell anyone - but I do quite like it..) I guess, once upon a time shepherds and milkmaids would have come to a Michaelmas fair - a hiring fair - such as this in search on employment but these days it's in search of entertainment and imported olive oil from the delicatessan's stall.

We could have stayed longer - festivities go on into the night with dancing and revels - and tomorrow will see the streets packed again. Well worth a detour. Bishops Castle, Shropshire, just off the A488.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

A moment on the lips...

.....a lifetime on the hips. This was not a size zero situation.

Rarely has so much whipped cream been seen in the same place at any one time - the tables at Marton Village Hall bowed under the weight of puddings of every description. Fruit and chocolate nestled 'midst cake and pastry. And cream, lashings of it; piped, plastered and poured. No room for dairy intolerance here. A cookery demonstration was the latest Village Hall fund raising effort. Chef Peter Gartell from the Sun Inn in Marton cooked pigeon breast, venison and a number of accompanying sauces - plum, cherry, chestnut and shallot. All of which, I'm delighted to say, we could run up at home. They tasted delicious too.

The audience were keen to taste everything Peter prepared. I was surprised how many of these country women, many of them wives of farmers, gamekeepers and shots were unfamiliar with game and more than a little suspicious of the humble pigeon. It's good and lean - what's more it's abundant and cheap.

The cooking over, and with lips licked the audience could get interactive with the puddings - for some surely the highpoint of the evening. Bowls were piled high, try one or two or more - there's room for a profiterole on top. In true Village Hall fashion cups of tea were available but Maureen on the Bar seemed to be doing a roaring trade too. Belts were eased out a notch as we made our way home. Plenty of time to detox and diet tomorrow.

PS We're so lucky to have a chef like Peter almost on our doorstep. Don't all rush at once to get a table.......

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Currant

Come on, how many of you ever give more than a passing thought to the humble currant? Very few I imagine. The eager beavers at the Currant Marketing Board obviously have their work cut out to raise the profile of this most inconspicuous of dried fruits.

But what's this? A book in praise of the currant, that's what. Apparently it was something of a latter day super food and recommended by eminent physicians and analysts. The late Sir WM Gull, the great Physician always advised his patients when on a long journey to carry with them a Plum Pudding, and no less an authority than Sir Francis Laking the (late) King's Physician noted that 'many are the ways in which currants can enter into daily use in the household, with great advantage to health and pocket.'

The virtues of this little dried grape are extolled and a tour through Greek Currant country recommended. It is a trip not to be despised by travellers - not least because of the light-hearted, picturesquely-garbed Grecian peasantry, to whom the currant harvest is is the crowning of the year, and whose cheerfulness and courtesy is legendary. Don't even think for one moment that those cheery smiles might be sniggers of derision at a whey-faced, Plum Pudding toting Englishman abroad....

This little treasure fetched up in a pile of papers at Harry Tuffin's Car Boot Sale at Churchstoke this morning. As Car Boots go it must be one of the best - amongst the obilgatory plastic tat, old board games and gimcrackery nestle some real finds.

I'm off now to knock together a Nelson Pudding (requires currants) which I shall serve with currant sauce and a side order of currant fritters. It's 'hello' cleansed, enriched blood and clear, bright complexion and 'goodbye' waistline methinks.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

A week on Paxos

Legend has it that around 2,000 years ago an Egyptian sailor, Thamus, when passing the island of Paxos was becalmed. In the ensuing stillness a voice, divine and thunderous, was heard to proclaim 3 times: 'The great god Pan is dead'. This news was greeted with much lamentation and marked the passing of the classical world. The genii of the sacred sites, the nymphs of the wild places, the fauns and satyrs and centaurs,and all wild things fell silent. The Lord of the Wood was dead, and the new king's domain not earth but heaven. Old Pan became Christianity's devil, be-horned half-man, half-goat.
It's a tale which always sends a shiver up my spine - not least because sometimes, in the silence of whichever wilderness, one wonders if these genii are not just waiting in the wings.

Paxos rises out of the blue Ionian, its eastern coastline broken by headlands and bays, while cliffs soar in the west. The island's gentle contours are blanketed with olive trees - a legacy of the occupying Venetians. The olive groves mask an unforgiving rugged and stony terrain which must be back-breakingly coaxed into production. Summer brings heat, drought and tourists. The cold winter months bring the olive harvest and rain to fill the cisterns. And fishing; year in, year out, there is the sea to harvest too.

It's hardly the archetypal playground of the gods but for a 21st century gal it's as fine a place as any to spend a week.

We arrived safely, with luggage intact despite Servisair's very best efforts to separate me from my suitcase. Yes, the case lying forlornly on the tarmac where it had fallen from the laden baggage truck as it hurtled towards the plane was mine. How our bus-load laughed as we came across it as we too hurtled plane-ward. We agreed it was a good job I'd not packed any eggs. Laugh? Liverpudlian humour is quite special isn't it?

Paxos had had rain earlier in the day - the first for many months - after a summer which has experienced heatwave after heatwave. The Paxiots were understandably quite pleased at this much needed contribution to the island's reservoir. We were less enthusiastic but decided it was good to be there anyway and pulled on sweaters. Cats' paws slapped on the dark sea, the sky was hung with cloud and over to the east the mountains of the mainland were in sharp relief. 24 hours later the storm had passed and all was well with our holiday world again.

We sat and basked in the sun. We sat and watched the world go by, met old friends and acknowledged small changes. The island bus took us from Loggos to Gaios and brought us back again. Small zephyrs flicked the pages of our holiday reading. Sigh.

We ate shaded by olive trees - lunch of calamari, whitebait and Greek Salad at Spiros' Kantina on Levrechio beach - surrounded by cats and an assortment of kittens. Erasmus, at 'Taverna o Gios', cooks a robust dinner: a chunk of octopus - to be dressed with a flick of vinegar, seasoning and the fragrant local oil - accompanied by chewy bread, crisp of crust, from the village oven. This might be followed by a slab of grilled meat or fish, or something 'from the oven' - a hearty 'stifado' or 'pie' more suited to a winter's day. Good island cooking this. Elsewhere may be daintier dishes but here is food to fuel body and soul.

In the 20 years we've known it, the island has changed. Of course it has. It is busier now, more prosperous. The donkey's have gone. More cars and scooters and visitors are in evidence. The old brightly painted fishing boats are gradually being replaced. Smart craft anchor in their place in the small harbour at Loggos. Land now changes hands for staggering sums of money and prestigious villas rise amongst the olives. Roads and facilities are better and, one suspects, so is the quality of life for the people of Paxos and who would deny them the right to enjoy the comforts and conveniences we take for granted? God forbid this place should turn into some Grecian themepark.

It is evolving gradually and if not gracefully, then very Greek-ly. The sunsets and sunrises are still, and ever will be, breathtakingly beautiful; the Paxiots and their landscape warm and welcoming. A week was just perfect. We'll be back.

Thursday, September 06, 2007


Hands up anyone who, on hearing the words 'Beam me up Scotty'* didn't think, 'Hmm, good idea'?

As I thought - looks like a vote in favour.

I do travel hopefully and I am looking forward immensely to a week on a Greek island - but faced with the contents of the wardrobe, a suitcase straining at the seams and a flight leaving in the early hours, find myself wholeheartedly in favour of more R and D in the field of teleportation. Oh, the joy of finding myself in an instant on the picturesque quayside in Loggos, watching the sun go down over the Ionian, cool G and T to hand and lip. Dream on. The long and winding queue at Liverpool airport is a more realistic proposition.

Hens have been moved to fresh grass - in the hope they will concentrate on pecking the green sward and not each other. Plants watered, tomatoes picked, neighbours briefed. I've wiped, dusted and swept - even behind the dogs' beds - though gawd knows why, there's no one to appreciate my labours. Knickers and t shirts counted and cases packed. Dogs have gone to kennels - the brown one with a backward glance to break a husband's heart apparently. (Remember, he's a dog. Kennels is what dogs do. Don't even contemplate a dog on a Greek island - too many cats for a start...)

All being well, at this time tomorrow night we shall be tucked up in our Ionian apartment. I won't say 'comfortably' as Greek beds seem too closely related to planks of wood for that description, but we'll sleep well enough. Outside the sky will be clear, its blackness pierced by millions of twinkling stars. We will hear the suck and flow of the flat but restless sea through the open window. Tomorrow there will be olive groves to trail through, kalimari to nibble at Spiros' kantina on Levrechio beach and the prospect of a week's idleness ahead.

I'll be back before you know it. In the words of some Trekkie or other:
things must come to an end!
May the Great Bird of the Galaxy bless your planet..."

Can't say fairer than that.

*For the sake of accuracy, Captain Kirk never actually said those immortal words - but that's another story.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

From the Stiperstones

If you look long and hard - and it may help to do the click-click thingy on the image to enlarge it - it's just about possible to see where we live. (Should you want to of course.) About half way down the picture and running from the right hand side to about the centre is the Long Mountain, its eastern slopes basking in the afternoon sunshine. About halfway along this slope is the dark outline of Badnage Wood and nestled in its leftmost trees the little black and white St Mary's Church. Follow the hedge line down - imagine it continues from where it stops and you will find yourself, well, in our garden. I hope that's clear.

We found ourselves today with an eager 7 year old who can see the Stiperstones from his bedroom window, looking back from that ridge to see if we could see his bedroom. Great in theory but very hard to put into practice. From our vantage point on Manstone Rock we did our best to point out landmarks to him and guide his inexperienced eye along contours, woods and shapes to the place we call home. I'm not sure we succeeded but he seemed happy enough with the notion that 'here', in its boulder strewn vastness could be seen from 'there' - and that 'there' was over in the distance.

Such a wonderful day to be clambering over the Stiperstones - the craggy outcrop that runs roughly north to south between the Long Mountain and the Long Mynd - above us a clear blue sky with a handful of cartoon clouds. England spread below us to the east, and Wales to the west where today both Cader Idris and Snowdon were visible on the horizon. We scrambled along the rocky trail that links the massive quartzite tors; Nipstone, Cranberry, Manstone and Shepherds Rocks and the Devil's Chair. This trail is an ancient routeway and this is an ancient place. We looked down on other sites where man had made his mark in former times, leaving forts, cairns and circles - the enigmatic Mitchells Fold - and goodness knows what else beneath the soil in his wake. The 19th century's miners have come and gone, their predations now disguised by fields and trees. The landscape below is restored and pastoral once more.

We ate our picnic lunch - a jam sandwich (most yummy) and an apple, lodged amongst the stones, lounging in the sunshine and curiously comfortable. Our boy leapt and sprang amongst the heather and the rocks to emerge jammy faced and happy. It's back to school for him tomorrow so today was something of an end of holiday treat. For us all.

Here's my souvenir, a sprig of heather and a couple of stray feathers.