Thursday, 30 April 2015

One week today! #Election2015

I'll admit straight up that I do like a good election night! The uncertainty of the live broadcast, the pontificating and timewasting before anything is actually known, the naughtiness of staying up Way Past Bedtime purely to watch TV. I remember watching with Mum and both of us liking the exuberance of Peter Snow and his Swingometer! I wonder if Snow The Younger will do the same this year? In a close-fitting shirt?

I digress!

As we are miles from our new constituency of Bristol East, I have (hopefully) arranged proxy votes so we will both be involved. One of my pet hates is people who don't bother to vote, especially those that then still think they have a right to complain about the result, and extra especially if those people are women. Mum's influence again: British women died so I could have the right to vote and there are still people in this country who were alive before the law was changed. It's that recent! Don't waste the opportunity! I was surprised and delighted to see that even TV channel E4 are suspending their broadcast for the day so potential voters won't be distracted by Big Bang Theory repeats and forget to go.

Previous General Elections were a pretty easy choice for me as I lived in Norman Baker's constituency and he is an excellent local politician. Some BBC bod (Dimbleby, maybe) even commented one year that his winning was due to a local thing and so not representative of whatever national trend they were discussing at the time. But we are based in Bristol now so I've been reading up on a whole new set of parliamentary hopefuls. I have six to choose from.

My priorities are:
an integrated national public transport network that includes safe cycle and walking routes for shorter journeys - more buses and trains, less pollution and traffic jams;
sustainable farming of healthy and naturally cared for animals so the world's food supplies can actually support us all into the future;
an NHS that is there for everyone when they need it - not six months later or for additional payment;
effective restraints on huge businesses and corporations so they can't get away with ignoring national laws, ill treating and underpaying workers, and destroying irreplaceable natural resources.

I don't want much, do I?!

From what I've read, my priorities aren't compatible with the Conservatives, and certainly not with UKIP who basically seem to me to be even more classically Tory than the Tories themselves. I'm not happy with the LibDems' sellout either, so they won't get another vote from me. I have spent considerable time reading about TUSC which I wasn't previously aware of despite their significant number of candidates nationwide. I agree with some of their ideas, but have found their approach uncomfortably confrontational and perhaps with hints of Wolfie Smith (showing my age!). Also, I am struggling to understand how many of their policies could realistically be implemented as it would be such a complete about face from how Britain is currently that I can only see chaos resulting from failure to accomplish such change.

Of the two remaining possible candidates from whom I can choose, I was particularly impressed with Labour candidate Kerry McCarthy's response to my questions about humane farming and sustainable food production. I have previously blogged this letter. Kerry is the current MP for Bristol East and has been since 2005 so she must be doing something right! I also like Green Party candidate Lorraine Francis. The Greens' beliefs do significantly match my own and, apart from a couple of dafter ideas like the 14 year copyright limit, I would be happy to support their policies. They have a feel of something different about them too. Perhaps it is the strong female presence within their leadership, or perhaps it is a refreshing lack of career politicians with glib soundbites? While I think I like Kerry McCarthy as an individual politician, I am not sure how much of what she stands for is achievable within the context of Ed Miliband's Labour Party. Their Manifesto for Women is a tad patronising to say the least and I was definitely disappointed to see Blair being wheeled out again. Has he not done enough damage already?

Yes, I have decided that I will choose Lorraine Francis and Vote Green on May 7th.

And whether you agree with my decision or if you feel strongly against it doesn't matter. What is important is that as many of us have our say as are eligible. Whoever you choose, just please do make sure you Vote For Someone next week.

and stock up on snacks. It's going to be a long night!

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Davey finds his place - in Norwich

I am having a wonderful time exploring North Norfolk as
Detail from Shadows Of The Wanderer 
you can probably tell from these three travel posts on consecutive days! I promise there will be another book review post soon(ish), if I can get some reading time.

Today we used the efficient Park and Ride from Norwich airport to visit the city. I had heard of the cathedral and castle before, but don't think I've ever been there, and Dave hadn't visited for maybe twenty years so we've both been looking forward to this. Checking the tourist office website beforehand, Dave learned that some of the sculptor, Ana Pacheco's work is being exhibited in Norwich at the moment. Unfortunately we had missed one piece by two days, but did get to see Shadows Of The Wanderer (2008) in Norwich Cathedral. This multi-piece work is incredible to see and I thought it was particularly evocative shown within the religious setting. Each person is carved in detail from a single piece of wood. The folds of their cloaks and hairstyles must have taken ages, and that's without trying to understand how Pacheco has created such expressive faces. Amazing art!
Shadows Of The Wanderer by Ana Pacheco
Norwich Cathedral 
Norwich Cathedral itself is worth a visit, even if Shadows Of The Wanderer has moved on before you get there. Parts of the architecture date back 900 years and there are glimpses of the historical periods in the chapels surrounding the nave. We saw original Medieval glass in some windows then, just feet away, modern glasswork by John McLean in others. I liked how the walls were tinted by the bold modern colours. And a woven willow branch sculpture of a life sized person entitled Censing Angel was hanging from the ceiling. Created by local artists Joy Whiddett and Maz Jackson, it was put up for Easter. Not only is the Cathedral free to enter - although we did make use of the shop - but there is also a small art gallery at the entrance which features work by people who volunteer there. Creations included a dissembled 1838 Talbot car! My favourites were a huge warmly-coloured quilt by Geraldine Watson and a delicate lacework firescreen by Elaine Beer.

Edith Cavell memorial window 
Back on the street in front of the cathedral there is a statue in memory of Edith Cavell and I spotted this stained glass image of her in a pub window as well. A nurse during the First World War, Edith equally treated soldiers from any country, but also helped British soldiers to escape enemy territory. For the latter, she was executed and was declared a martyr by the British. Dave remembers the shocking postage stamp artwork shown on this Wikipedia page from his own childhood collection. Edith was born close to Norwich.

We wandered many streets such as Elm Hill, pictured on the right, and
Elm Hill, Norwich 
pretty much every lane of the North Lanes area which has lots of independent shops and cafes. The Little Red Roaster is a tiny cafe where we stopped for an excellent hot chocolate and the first Pastel de Nata pastry I've had since Portugal two winters ago. Norwich has a large permanent market which Dave remembered visiting years ago. I have seen acre upon acre of rape fields in full bloom during our recent drives and cycles so I took the opportunity to buy a bottle of local Yare Valley rapeseed oil from a stall called Drupe. We got Norfolk Garden damson jam from The Cheeseman too. I hope it's as nice as Marta's! A must-see nearby is Imelda's shoe boutique. I know a few people who wouldn't have been able to resist the truly fabulous designs.

We took a chance for lunch by visiting the racily named Lust And
Fry Up Inspector trail map 
LiquorThis diner serves Tex Mex style food - I had pulled pork and sweet potato tacos. Dave has slow cooked Texas beef brisket. The food was perfect and I enjoyed my Vedett white beer too. Highly recommend this place as a meal stop. The waiter was friendly and helpful and I don't think they've been open long. On a vaguely linked note, I searched Etsy to see what Norwich-related art might be available and found this fun Norwich Cafes Trail map for the Fry Up Inspector. It's in ShopMissElla. Let me know if you've been to any of the featured eateries!

I was also delighted to see this photograph of lots of green watering
The Common Room by
cans! We have our own in Bailey although it is not as bright. We passed the cans strung in the trees but the whole name wasn't visible so I didn't take a picture. This image of The Common Room is from the shop FineCityStreetPhoto on Etsy. A Norwich photographer, he has an interesting selection of views of the city and street art examples.

And finally, the moment you've all no doubt been impatiently waiting for during all my previous ramblings. This is Davey at Davey Place!

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Please feel welcome to browse my new shop!

Monday, 27 April 2015

Swanning around Swannington -we go on a cycle tour

Another day, another leaflet!
One side of Swannington village sign 

I already mentioned the excellent information pack that Claire and Tim have put together here at The Siding campsite. After our Marsham walk, it was Dave's turn to choose and he selected Off The Beaten Track: Around Swannington which is a fifteen mile cycle tour prepared, again, by Broadland District Council. One side of the leaflet is a fold-out Ordnance Survey map of the route, the other gives brief details of places of interest along the way.

We cycled from our campsite - head for St Agnes, then Church Lane, Jack Lane, Brandiston Road - and joined the tour at point 6 just before Brandiston. The whole route is on small roads which were generally deserted or with just light car traffic. I thought the car drivers on the whole were courteous and gave us a wide margin (except one show-off in a banana-yellow Toyota) and I liked that all the other cyclists called greetings as we passed. There's a friendliness here that I could get used to! We got lucky with the weather too. The forecast drizzly cloudiness failed to appear so we had glorious blue skies all day. The wind is cold, but when sheltered from it, the temperatures are practically Spanish (winter!).

Don't mess about in Haveringland! 
I was surprised by the Scandinavian-looking names of several villages we passed through which had been there since pre-Domesday times. Haveringland used to be Heveringalanda and Swannington was Sveningatuna. Was North Norfolk part of the Danelaw? I should know that but need to find out with a google! Haveringland's village sign is positioned right next to their old stocks, presumably not still in use, but we didn't take the chance.

Another side of the Swannington sign 
Swannington has a curious metal pyramid on top of a wooden post which, I think, depicts important influences in the village's past. We identified the helmet on the top, oak leaves, corn stalks, chains and a castle. It is intricately moulded and worth pulling up to gawp at properly. Thanks to the bus driver who slowed right down giving Dave time to hoist his bike out of the road! Swannington still has its water pump, built in 1888 and with two plaques on it honouring Hastings Parker and his wife Elizabeth who lived at the Manor House. It is protected by a thatched roof that echoes the pyramid shape of the sign - or perhaps the sign echoes the pump?

Swannington village pump 

A gentle warning about Kett's Lane, going away from Swannington and named for Robert Kett, leader of the peasants' revolt in Norfolk. It's not an especially steep uphill, but it does go on awhile so pace yourself!

Towards the end of our tour, we suddenly spied the delicate spires of St
St Michael's and All Angels, Booton 
Michael's Church at Booton. It looks wonderfully dainty and out-of-place here because pretty much every other one is a square-towered Norman example. I learned that it was designed by Reverend Whitwell Elwin who was rector there from 1850 until 1900 and was a literary man. We pulled into the driveway of the Old Rectory to take this photo, possibly the same driveway used by Thackeray, Scott and Lockhart when they came to visit.

From Booton, we were guided home by the beacon that is St Agnes. That huge tower is a real landmark and a very welcome sight as we were both quite tired by this point. Overall, with the additional cycling from Cawston and a brief unintended detour, we probably completed about 17 miles. We're proud of ourselves!

As an added bonus to the hot shower and cuppa when we got home, an email was waiting from one of our favourite singer-songwriters, Danny Schmidt. His album that I helped to Kickstarter last year, Owls, is now available to download. Woo hoo! I'll get Dave to put in on the iPod later this evening so we can have a listen. The official launch is May 19th, but you can hear previews and pre-order your copy through Danny's website.

If you like my photographs, some are now available as Greeting Cards via Zazzle.
Please feel welcome to browse my new shop!

Sunday, 26 April 2015

We are Norman church spotting in Norfolk - Cawston and Marsham

As of Thursday, we are settled in a beautiful Caravan Club CL in Cawston,
St Agnes church tower in Cawston 
Norfolk. The site used to be sidings and a station house for a railway line, now dismantled and reimagined as The Marriott's Way - a 26 mile long footpath / cyclepath / bridleway that goes from Norwich to Aylesham. The Way is just behind the hedge behind our caravan with the gate leading onto it some 20 metres from the campsite gate - even more convenient than The Cuckoo Trail was from The Homestead campsite! Looking out the opposite way, we can see the tower of the 14th century St Agnes church. At 120ft, apparently it is the second tallest in Norfolk.

If you want to pinpoint us from home, we are on Ordnance Survey
Creatively woven signpost 
Explorer map 238 which I know because of a wonderful information pack put together by the CL owners, Claire and Tim! Together with lots of local guide booklets, we also have the loan of some walking and cycling route leaflets for the duration of our stay. Yesterday we undertook a six mile walk around the next-door village of Marsham, one of the 'Out And About Broadland' series. A well thought out walk, we were guided through heathland ablaze with yellow gorse flowers, past cute village cottages and a sprinkling of posh houses, through the churchyard of the 13th century All Saints, over windswept agricultural land where we attempted to identify the seedling crops, and into pretty dense woodland which felt extremely old. The bridleway sign pictured had been creatively reinstated in the woodland after its pillar fell down. The thatched boathouse below was in the grounds of the Cawston Psychiatric hospital. Someone had also partly hidden a scraggy toy dog in the hedge here which made us jump! En route Dave spotted a Muntjac deer and I spotted a Roe deer. Less excitingly, I saw a squirrel and Dave a rabbit! Rabbits appear on the campsite in early evening too and one is the prettiest golden-brown colour. We also have a speckled thrush - I haven't seen another for years.

Thatched boathouse 
Our other two afternoons have seen us cycling. Thursday we explored The Marriott's Way for a few miles in the Norwich direction, and Friday we went the other way, to Aylesham. It is not tarmac at this end so the surface is a mix of earth, rock and thin sand. All perfectly rideable although a bit juddery in places! I was very proud of us for managing to get all our shopping on Friday without using the car. Firstly we took a walk into Cawston which is only a couple of hundred metres. There is an excellent deli-patisserie-cafe, All Things Nice, with lots of local produce. Then, the other side of Cawston, is a Londis incorporating a Post Office. After lunch, our cycle to Aylesham enabled us to reconnoitre the Bure Valley Railway station and find the cycle-locking points (they're on the platform), before nipping into Tesco to pick up the few things we hadn't found in Cawston. I saw a Morgan in the car park. I have a photo, but the picture seems too big for the 2G wifi on our Osprey.

This afternoon we're off to visit Dave's Dad in Sheringham. I'm fairly certain we'll go by car and we plan to see some of Norwich on Tuesday. We've got several leaflets for the city in our pack too.

Bailey at The Siding with The Marriott's Way behind the hedge 

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Casting Shadows Everywhere by L T Vargus and Tim McBain / The Postmistress by Sarah Blake / Beloved by Toni Morrison

Casting Shadows EverywhereCasting Shadows Everywhere by Tim McBain and L.T. Vargus
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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I think I first found L T Vargus and Tim McBain on Twitter - a great resource for discovering indie authors! This novel of theirs, Casting Shadows Everywhere, was a free gift for signing up to their email newsletter and I am glad I did as I have already been able to take advantage of a reduced price offer for their Awake in the Dark trilogy boxed set.

Casting Shadows Everywhere follows a few months in the life of Jake, a shy American teenager, as he blossoms into confidence but seriously oversteps the good/bad line. Essentially it is a coming of age tale, but told from an interesting perspective. We learn everything from Jake's point of view, narrated in the first person, and so get to understand why he is drawn so far into his cousin, Nick's shady life and also how difficult the transition is. Jake is not just another good kid gone bad for no reason.

I liked the strong characters that lead this story. It is easy to believe the world they inhabit and understand the power struggles of young men trying to find their place in a social hierarchy that is based more on brute strength than intellectual ability. The female characters are nicely drawn too. Beth is fun and witty and I enjoyed the dialogue between her and Jake.

Vargus and McBain build the tension throughout the first two-thirds of the story. I wasn't sure how far either Nick or Jake would go and the unveiling of later horror is shocking. However I did not like the plot device that twists the tale! I won't explain it here as the spoiler would, well, spoil it for future readers, but REALLY?! (If you read the story, you'll know what I mean when you get there!)

The PostmistressThe Postmistress by Sarah Blake
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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The Postmistress by Sarah Blake draws together the lives of three American women during the first years of the Second World War, before America had actually joined the fighting. Iris is the eponymous Postmistress - although, as she frequently insists, that title does not exist and she is the Postmaster - in a small town called Franklin on Cape Cod. A single woman and an incomer, she observes the townspeople while maintaining her professional distance. Emma is also not of Franklin. She arrives at the beginning of this story having married the local doctor. Finally, the third of the trio is initially a voice heard through the airwaves as Frankie is a journalist in London, reporting on the nightly bombings of the Blitz and the efforts of Londoners to continue living during the bombardment.

Blake sets up her novel well and I appreciated many individual scenes which are insightful and dramatically described. I thought her portrayals of London were particularly atmospheric. I could also easily believe in the characters she has created, both female and male. My problem with the book is that I didn't feel it really went anywhere. The dilemma announced in the synopsis is repeatedly touted, but then effectively becomes redundant and I think, by trying to keep focus on too many individuals and huge themes, Blake didn't do any of them complete justice. I did enjoy her writing style but would have preferred a stronger sense of direction.

BelovedBeloved by Toni Morrison
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Buy the paperback from Waterstones

A recent email from Waterstones announced the release of Toni Morrison's new novel, God Help The Child. In a tenuous coincidence I had swapped for her fifth book, Beloved, on the exchange shelves at Chapter 12 not long before. This is my first Toni Morrison read but I am practically certain that it won't be my last! Beloved is an emotionally difficult book to read and to say I 'enjoyed' it feels wrong due to the subject matter, but it is wonderfully written, imaginative and engrossing.

Sethe is an astounding character. Her drive to do the very best she could for her children, even though that best was murder, is a shockingly powerful thing to try and contemplate. I was glad that the edition I read had a foreword by Morrison in which she explains that, not only is Beloved inspired by truth, but also some of the realities of family for slave women. "a history in which ... birthing children was required, but 'having' them, being responsible for them ... was as out of the question as freedom." I read that statement over and over having not really considered its implications before.

Morrison's interweaving of the spirit and material worlds is beautifully done so that the existence of a ghost in the house becomes perfectly possible. The draining of joy and happiness from the house as the spirit grows and the gradual withdrawal of friends and neighbours is moving. I particularly felt for Denver, Sethe's daughter, isolated and lonely and clinging to stories of her birth as the only way to confirm her identity.

I cannot describe and consider all the themes Morrison explores without writing a review that could be as long as the book itself! I will say that I think everyone should read Beloved. There are inspirationally strong women - Sethe, Baby Suggs, Lady Jones - and such a graphic detailing of the horror that ensues when one group of people decide they are so superior to another.

View all my reviews on Stephanie Jane or on Goodreads

Thursday, 23 April 2015

We love Bury St Edmunds!

We had originally planned a day out Cambridge from West Stow, but
Abbey ruins in Bury St Edmunds 
when it came to it, having already driven to Stratford and back at the weekend, we decided that Bury St Edmunds, a mere 5 miles away would be much the better option. Of course, having now still not visited Cambridge (maybe next year!), I can't compare the two, but I did absolutely love Bury St Edmunds.

We began with a wander through the twice-weekly market - Wednesdays and Saturdays - which is pretty big and has an excellent range of stalls. There was also lots of fresh produce and baked goods, all of which looked tempting. Even Dave commented on how nice the veg looked and for Dave to say that ... ! We bought some new potatoes to go with our Elveden sausages tonight.

We turned off and walked through an imposing tower gateway to begin
Gateway to Abbey gardens and park 
exploring the Abbey grounds. The Abbey itself was destroyed during the reign of Henry VIII in what must have been a fantastically lucrative exercise - for Henry, if not the monks. Now some ruined walls do still stand and the area is a beautiful park with truly gorgeous flower beds. The tulips are blooming already. The park is a lovely tranquil space which includes a water garden and also a children's play area that is bordered with woven willow fencing - so much more attractive and inviting than the metal wire alternative. We left the Abbey grounds via a different route, wanting to see the Regency Theatre Royal. Unfortunately, it is only possible to view the theatre's interior by either seeing a show or getting there in the morning before half-past twelve. We were an hour too late! However, we did spot some incredible modern houses that are actually built into the remaining Abbey ruins. Chatting with the guide at St Mary's Church later, we learnt one of these went for several hundred thousand pounds a few years ago.

House built into the Abbey ruins 
We visited two churches. St Edmundsbury Cathedral dates back to 1503 when the elegant nave was built, but also has a quire and altar from the 1960s and a Millennium Tower in the very centre which was completed in 2010. It is all sympathetically done and makes for a light and airy space, but I felt it lost some of the sense of history. By contrast, St Mary's Church feels much older and most of it is. Both buildings do have impressive ceilings and stained glass windows. I spent most of our visits looking straight up! St Mary's also contains the remarkably small and plain grave of Mary Tudor, Henry VIII's sister who seems to have led a pretty interesting life. I remember her character vaguely from the TV series The Tudors, but must do some reading about her. Can anyone recommend a book?!
Flower bed in the Abbey gardens 
Our thirst for history and culture sated, we walked back into present-day Bury St Edmunds. We were pleasantly surprised by the great range of shops and eating places. There are high street standards, but also many independents that look to be doing well. Special mention must go to Shoephoric where, after much deliberation, Dave has finally found a pair of Josef Seibel shoes he likes to replace his worn out Merrells. It's only taken over a year, off and on! We ate in a little Greek cafe just by the side of the market. Cafe Kottani serves delicious Greek meze and filo pies. Dave had a generous slice of Spanakopita and I had a meze plate of hummus, olives, stuffed vine leaves and hot pita bread. The coffee was good too.


Tuesday, 21 April 2015

A history day: West Stow Anglo Saxon Village and Grime's Graves

After our weekend 'holiday' in Stratford, we are now on an interesting
Caravan Club CL site on the edge of Thetford Forest, Wideham Farm. Our field is part of a working equestrian centre which stables dozens of horses and ponies, their own, some liveried for other people and some which are undergoing rehabilitation. We are asked not to approach any but can watch them from a distance. There are also a few geese which get quite vocal at times, and a dozen or so hens with a very grand rooster. The hens came to check us out pretty much as soon as we arrived and surrounded Dave's chair. Coincidentally, Kris Delmhorst, whose great gig we attended in Lewes on Wednesday, also keeps chickens. For those of you who weren't at the Con Club, you missed one of the best evenings. Kris was well worth the seven year wait. She has a strong emotive voice and her harmonies with new-to-us discovery Hayward Williams were simply perfect.

Wideham Farm is incredibly convenient for visiting the West Stow Anglo
West Stow Anglo Saxon village 
Saxon Village which is just over the road and easily walkable. The site includes several reconstructed houses and buildings incorporating experimental archaeology to test out theories. There is also a good visitor's centre with lots of interesting artefacts from West Stow and its surrounding villages. Most are genuine and include lots of flint axes, arrowheads and the like, plus pottery, glass and jewellery. A few things are replicas such as gold bangles, silver dishes and 'the Sutton Hoo helmet'. We both tried on a different replica metal helmet which was unsurprisingly heavy. I also found it pressed down on my nose - did Anglo Saxon people have much smaller noses? A small agricultural section of the village has pigs and chickens and raised beds where traditional food plants and medicinal plants are grown. The staff were knowledgeable and helpful, and we mostly managed to dodge the sixty-strong school group who were very enthusiastic!

Dave models an Anglo Saxon helmet.
A Sutton Hoo helmet replica is in the background 
Killing time before lunch, we strolled past the Village and down to the River Lark, a small and picturesque river whose footpath leads to a reclaimed gravel quarry that is now a lake and a natural wildlife haven. An important trade route in Anglo Saxon times, the river is now only partly navigable. We saw Canada Geese, Greylag Geese and Egyptian Geese all with their goslings, orange tipped butterflies (or possibly the same one repeatedly), mallards, a coot, big fish that were probably carp, and another butterfly that we couldn't identify because it wouldn't sit still long enough. All this in the space of a hour's stroll!

By contrast to the fairly busy village, our visit to the English Heritage owned Neolithic site called Grime's Graves, a twenty-five minute car drive away, was practically a private tour. I was reminded of Iceland by the disturbed and uneven landscape except here, instead of recent lava flow, the craters and hillocks are man made. Originally identified as an intensive flint mining area in the 1800s, Grime's Graves covers some 400 individual pit shafts over a 96 acre area. Each looks like a collapsed Sussex barrow but the one that is open to visitors entails climbing down - and back up - a thirty foot ladder. I really didn't think that through before visiting! At the base of the ladder, it is possible to peer down ridiculously low chalk and flint tunnels but they are gated off to prevent visitors getting the full Neolithic miner experience and, presumably, getting stuck!

Returning from Grime's Graves, we made a tiny detour to Elvedon Estates Farm Shop which I learnt of this morning via a great developing resource, the caravanning-based website Meals In Fields. This directory includes loads of local shopping opportunities nationwide such as farm shops, pubs, cafes and restaurants. I searched for a farm shop near West Stow and up popped Elvedon Courtyard - a huge tempting display of deliciousness! We bought sausages, cheese, jam, two small fruit crumbles ... and onions.

I'm going to finish up this post with a blast of art and this gorgeous
The Forest Path by
Shannon Curtis 
photograph of Thetford Forest by MotherDuckStudio, a company which is actually based in Nebraska in America. I took a few pictures during our walk through the forest on arrival last Thursday, but they haven't come out well so I'll leave this scenery to an expert! The photographer is Shannon Curtis and the image, entitled The Forest Path, is available on Etsy UK as a greeting card print for a smidge under five pounds, including airmail shipping to the UK. I like the way Shannon has caught the eternal quality of the forest and the way its trees seem to continue endlessly into the distance. Also, I think her photograph was taken on a typically British grey day which makes the lighting particularly atmospheric.

If you like my photographs, some are now available as Greeting Cards via Zazzle.
Please feel welcome to browse my new shop!

Monday, 20 April 2015

Chocolate cupcakes recipe

I set to frantically baking last week as we invited friends for afternoon tea
at our then campsite, The Homestead in Hailsham. At the time I promised to post this recipe for fudgy chocolate cupcakes. The recipe made a baker's dozen and they were delicious both warm from the oven and cold the next day. As a preference for next time, I think served warm and with vanilla ice cream would be perfect although, for the two of us, all thirteen would definitely be overkill! I used silicon cupcake cases so if you use paper ones, you might need to reduce the baking time a tad. The original recipe I found on House And Garden suggested a rich ganache icing, but I think the cupcakes were fine without it and might even have been too sickly sweet with the addition of icing.

175g softened butter
150g demerera sugar and 1 tbsp vanilla sugar
3 large eggs
150g self-raising flour
50g of cocoa
1 tsp baking powder

Preheat oven to 180c.

Mix ingredients together in a large bowl until completely combined. If you are using unsalted butter, also add a pinch of salt. I used 2 tbsp of our Spanish Valor Cao drinking chocolate which is quite sweet. A pure cocoa like Bournville would produce a more bitter chocolate taste.

When thoroughly mixed, spoon mixture into individual cake cases, leaving room for the cakes to rise.

Bake at 180c for about 20 minutes.

The cakes would probably last 3-4 days in an airtight container. Of course all mine were gone within 24 hours!

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Walking the Stratford-Upon-Avon canal from Wilmcote to the Navigation Inn

Yesterday in Stratford-Upon-Avon was so warm and sunny that it felt
Narrow bridge over the Stratford Upon Avon canal 
like summer was already here. Today was definitely either back to early Spring or possibly already autumn! In preparation for a typical UK summer, I think these cast iron rain gauges in the English Heritage shop are a fun idea.

The 25 mile long Stratford Upon Avon canal runs from Birmingham to Stratford and, according to a helpful placard along the way, was the first in England to be restored to navigability. It was reopened by the Queen in 1964. We walked a short section today and I loved the peace and tranquillity. We didn't see much in the way of exciting wildlife - mostly ducks and sheep - although I was delighted to spot six tiny ducklings with their mother. When they accelerated across the canal, they were practically running on the surface like pondskaters. The last of the daffodils were flowering together with some primroses. We also saw lots of bright cowslips which I love, and our first bluebells of the season. Ironically, our sighting of (probably) a sparrowhawk on the garden fence when we got back to Measure Cottage was the most 'exotic'!

Cowslips on the canal towpath 
We began our walk in the picturesque village of Wilmcote, parking opposite Mary Arden's farm which is apparently a working Tudor farm. The cows in the field were certainly of a long horned breed I had never seen before. Along the canal we saw several narrow bridges which looked as though maybe they could be raised to accommodate tall boats and were only just wide enough for narrow boats. Having posted my review of the walk on TripAdvisor, I was surprised to receive a message from John Bishop who kindly explained the bridges to me: "The bridges you describe are the originals. To keep the canal as cheap as possible to construct, the bridges were made very narrow. Just wide enough for the boats. This was long before any motive power (c1800) and the barges were hauled by horse and donkeys. Because there was no tow path, the rope from the horse to the barge was passed through a narrow gap in the apex of the bridge. They did not open. Most of them have collapsed or subsided so the gap has disappeared." So now we know! Thank you John.

There were also two aqueducts with the towpath continuing alongside high above the road and railway lines. One of the two, the Edstone Aqueduct, is the longest in England. There's more information on this pictured placard - click into the photograph to see a larger version and actually read the text:

About the Edstone Aqueduct 

An hour an a half's leisurely stroll got us to the Navigation Inn where we
Edstone Aqueduct 
glanced at the narrowboats for hire and hurried into the warm bar! The pub has a traditional olde-worlde feel and serves an excellent lunch with generous portions. I had ham and eggs, Dave a homemade burger, Gemma an omelette and Carrie a chicken pie. After yesterday's microwave-reheated offering, Dave was quite envious of the pie!

We cut ten minutes off our time on the return walk to Wilmcote. The sun did break through clouds for a few minutes here and there and it is nice to be in the shelter of the towpath, out of the wind. Now we've got one more night at Measure Cottage before Dave and I return to Bailey tomorrow. We've decided to avoid the M6 on the return route and will brave the Coventry ring road instead!
Cast Iron Rain Gauges 

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Toodle-oo Sussex, now we're in Stratford-Upon-Avon!

I think every single possible Shakespeare pun has been employed in the
Stratford has many
naming of shops and businesses in Stratford-Upon-Avon and the surrounding villages. The Bard and his life is a huge tourist attraction around here. We are staying for the weekend in Wootten Wawen - nope, no idea how to pronounce it! - in Measure Cottage. It's a cute little property with replica beams and low ceilings upstairs, lots of wood floors and doors, and only a shortish walk into Henley-In-Arden. I wasn't too impressed with the cleaning when we arrived - cobwebs in the kitchen and upstairs, vintage biscuit crumbs between the sofa cushions - but the cottage is well-equipped with everything we could need and even has a hot tub in the tiny garden.

Today we drove into Stratford, although walking along the canal would have been quicker due to the volume of traffic also going to town. We'll know for next time! I loved the varied range of independent shops and boutique store, plus cafes, pubs and restaurants to suit every taste. We had a good lunch at the No. 37 cafe and I can happily recommend the Brie and Cranberry Quiche. Dave was a little disappointed with soft pastry on his Chicken and Leek Pie.
Independent shops abound in Stratford 
Hall's Croft is a striking example of a 17th century building in Stratford and it was far enough from the tourist trail to be able to take a photo of the whole place! I am told that it was owned by Shakespeare's daughter Susanna and her husband John Hall. John was a doctor and Hall's Croft houses a museum of medicine as it was in his day. We didn't go in though - enjoying the fabulous sunshine was the priority.

Hall's Croft in Stratford 
After lunch and a whippy ice cream bought from a narrowboat, we watched the restaurant boat, The Countess of Evesham, successfully navigate a lock on the canal and saw a beautiful swans sculpture by Christine Lee. Apparently the sculpture is part of a fountain but the water wasn't flowing today.

Swans by Christine Lee 
Stratford does have quite a chocolate-box quaintness to it and I think it blends the historical half-timbered houses well with the vibrancy of a modern town. I think if we visited again, we would bring our bikes and cycle into town, especially on a sunny Saturday, as there seems to be good provision for cyclists and the car traffic was a nightmare! Tomorrow we think we will take a stroll along the canal and maybe gaze longingly at a few narrowboats. Dave is still very attracted by the idea!

Dave and his daughters, Gemma and Carrie,
recover in the Measure Cottage hot tub after a
tough day's sightseeing! 

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley / A Night On The Orient Express by Veronica Henry / Where The Bird Sings Best by Alejandro Jodorowsky

Crome YellowCrome Yellow by Aldous Huxley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Brave New World is the famous Aldous Huxley novel and I was very impressed with my audio version of it a few years ago. I saw Crome Yellow in Hailsham's OXFAM shop, an almost new copy at at just £1.50, so bought it expecting something vaguely similar. There are a few glimmers of the direction Huxley's writing would later take, but Crome Yellow, his first published novel, is actually a very humorous country house-based tale. Published in 1921 and set in the same era, it describes the visit of a self-conscious young man, Denis Stone, to a society gathering.

Huxley based his fictional characters on real people and, according to the excellent introduction by Malcolm Bradbury, not everyone was flattered by their portrayals! Huxley pokes fun at the pretensions of the time and of the upper classes, and also includes his writing in the mix. One character, Scogan, is particularly critical of exactly the type of novel that Crome Yellow is. I loved the Wimbushes, Henry and Priscilla, and can picture people I know who are remarkably similar to them. Not a lot happens during the gathering, but Huxley's sharp observations and the incidents he sets up are great fun and frequently had me giggling. There are a few moments where lengthy speechmaking slow the pace and date the novel, but overall I enjoyed Crome Yellow very much.

Buy the paperback at Waterstones.

A Night on the Orient ExpressA Night on the Orient Express by Veronica Henry
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I received a copy of Night On The Orient Express as a prize during Sophie and Suze's Review Challenge and it's taken until now for us to travel close enough to my sister that I could collect the book and get reading it.

Veronica Henry introduces us to several couples who will be travelling on a single Orient Express journey to Venice. Each pairing is quirky in some way and we learn a little of their history as the novel progresses. Flitting from one story to another made the pace swift, but I would have preferred to have spent more time with fewer people and got to know them better. Particular stories such as Riley and Sylvie are potentially fascinating.

Although the book is inspired and based around the physical train journey, there isn't much detail outside its carriage windows. I did enjoy getting insider information about the Orient Express as it's a trip I have aspired to, but I think most of our protagonists' journeys are within their own emotions as they discover what they really want from their relationships. Having said that, this isn't a deep philosophical read and I was a little irritated by sweeping gender stereotyping. A Night On The Orient Express is an entertaining light holiday novel and I'm happy to have had the opportunity to read it in a sunny campsite field among daffodils!

Buy the paperback at Waterstones.

Where the Bird Sings BestWhere the Bird Sings Best by Alejandro Jodorowsky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a copy of Where The Bird Sings Best from its publishers, Restless Books, via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. I think this review is my tenth for Sophie and Suze's NetGalley Challenge.

I had not previously heard of Chilean born film director and writer Alejandro Jodorowsky so this translated edition of one of his most popular Spanish language novels is my introduction to his work. The book is a truly fantastical journey back through several generations of the Jodorowsky family, each more bizarre than each other, as they make their way from Russia, via Argentina, to settle in Chile. We meet circus performers, political activists, shoemakers and ballet dancers, a rabbi who doesn't actually exist and a child who is desperately trying to engineer his birth. I did find it quite difficult to keep track of the vast cast of characters, especially because they all are portrayed in a fairytale style. Men and women act on sudden instinct and make life-changing decisions, but without much explanation to the reader so I never felt as if I had got to know anyone as a real person. Also much of each storyline progresses through magical occurrences and extreme coincidence so it is impossible to guess where the narrative will go next!

I was totally swept up in Where The Bird Sings Best for about the first half of the book. Jodorowsky's rich language and incredibly inventive imagination make for a very different reading experience. However, I do think the book is too long to sustain its pace. I thought some of the later threads failed to maintain the promise of their earlier counterparts and felt rushed. I'm very glad to have had the opportunity to read Jodorowsky. His prose does require effort from its reader, but is certainly rewarding and I plan to try the Restless Books translations of two more of his novels at some point in the future. I just need some lighter reads to refresh my brain first!

Buy the hardback at Waterstones.

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