An Al fresco evening

Starlight Express

This climbing rose is called Starlight Express and it is one of the most prolific I’ve ever seen. At the height of its season we have been known to deadhead more than a hundred blooms in a single day.  It was launched in 1997 (the year that we moved into our present house)  to support the Great Ormond Street children’s hospital fund. We planted this one  the following year.  The fragrance is light and I usually choose more fragrant roses but I love the colour. Indian Summer is my all-time favourite. I have one of these in the front garden.

As we went out for lunch today, we only wanted a light meal this evening so, making the most of the slightly cooler temperature, decided that we could eat outside. Our un-shaded south-facing garden has been far too hot over the past few evenings. A light tuna and egg salad was enough.

Tuna & egg

I’ve been baking this afternoon so we followed it with a sticky lemon cake (made this afternoon) served with chopped strawberries and peaches. Chopping strawberries is a little quirk of mine. I cannot eat a strawberry unless it has at least been cut in half. I can tell you exactly where this odd habit arose. I was a small girl in my grandparent’s garden when, one day, I pulled the stalk out of a strawberry and was greeted by a tiny, wriggling white creature – some kind of caterpillar I expect – but I ran in screaming that there was a worm in my strawberry and I didn’t eat them for years afterwards!

Cake fruit

Whilst we sat there enjoying the warm breeze, I thought I could take you on a tour of my garden which slopes upwards away from the house. Leading from the house, French doors open onto the patio which has a few filled pots, like the one below which contains alstroemeria.   There are some lilies still to flower. I know from previous years that they will be stunning.

Alstroemeria

There is also a small border  where we grow sweet peas, I adore their smell. Amongst their roots are Welsh poppies and Nigella.

Nigella

Seven steps, with a rockery to each side lead centrally from the patio to the next level. On the right hand side is a bird bath and two feeders – one contains seeds and the other, fat balls. There are lots of little hidey-holes for wildlife in amongst the plants.

Bird bath & feeder

At the top of the rockery sits a huge California lilac and behind that a purple lilac tree. Both are well past their flowering time now but here is a picture taken a few weeks ago. It’s a shame that the lilac blossom is so short lived.

Lilac

The second level provides lots of little areas for wildlife, several shrubs including a large orange blossom,  the aforementioned Starlight Express rose, and Madame Grégoire Staechelin, another very vigorous climbing rose, this time white with very dark glossy leaves and a strong heady fragrance.  It is a later flowering rose so nothing to see at the moment. The two roses intertwine with honeysuckle and cover an arbour which sits at the top of the steps. We dispensed with the grass a couple of years ago and laid a circular stone area instead.

corner

A few more steps lead to another, much smaller, rockery and the garden shed which started life as a summerhouse. For a tool store cum propagation room it is rather well appointed with lined walls, tiled floor and fancy wall lights! We so rarely used it for its intended purpose that when the old shed got damaged by bad weather, we decided to co-opt the summerhouse as its replacement.

Summerhouse shed

Behind the shed and up another couple of steps is our small vegetable patch where we (I use this term loosely – I NEVER do gardening other than a rare rose deadheading) grow runner beans, leeks, raddish, spring onions, tomatoes and rhubarb. The raddish are not doing well this year – lots of leaves but very little raddish.

Beans & Leeks

I’m off to paint my nails now, ready for tomorrow’s Ascot Ladies Day.

 

 

 

 

Best foot forward

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I have a real liking for brightly coloured shoes. I like the way that they contrast with my clothes as I wear a lot of black and navy. Apparently the reason why women so love to buy shoes is because they still fit when you’ve put on weight!
My wages as a Saturday girl in the early 1970s were spent almost solely (pun intended) on shoes. I earned £1.25 a day and can remember spending £4.99 in a very exclusive shop on a pair of divine pair in black patent leather when an average pair cost less than half that price. I think my love of good shoes was born there and then. My father was so horrified at the price he said that I should take them back but my mother said that I’d earned the money and now I should live with the consequences of wasting it all so frivolously; it would be a good lesson and I’d soon regret it. I didn’t consider it frivolous at all, and no lesson was learned – I wore them proudly until they fell to pieces several years later.

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Recently mentioning at the gym that I was taking a pair of shoes for re-heeling, I was shocked to hear someone ask, “Do people still do that?” Turns out this person throws them away once the heel has worn down! Several others agreed that they no longer took shoes for heeling. I really do look after my shoes very well. I have a whole basket of products designed for leather care and I polish my shoes almost every time I wear them. I also always spray new shoes with a leather protector. This is why I still have shoes that were bought in the 1980s, including the multi-coloured ones in the picture above. They were from the Clarks Piazza range and I wear them perhaps a couple of times a year.

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The gold moon & star ones are Roland Cartier, bought when my daughter was a little girl, c 1990. The yellow ones were from Jacques Vert and were bought for a wedding maybe twenty years ago. I have other several pairs which are up to 15 years old.
At the gym I wear the two-tone lace ups – I am not a girl that does trainers! My latest shoe purchase was cerise suede ballerinas, bought for no other reason than that I fell madly in love-at-first-sight! That rarely happens of late. The green and the lilac ones are just two of several pairs that have been dyed using TRG Easy Dye bought from Amazon. They have a huge range of colours available and, as suggested in the name, it is very easy to use. (I’ve successfully dyed boots too, and have a few shoe-dyeing tips to share so if interested, just ask).
The younger me loved heels, though never ones as high as my friend Angela wears even though she is the same age as me. She refers to them as her Carter-Bar shoes (i.e. they’re so high that you can only walk as far as from the car to a bar in them)! The queen of divinely gorgeous shoes (and very glamorous with it) , she even has red-soled Louboutins. I think the heels are about 4.5”! I still love the look of heels but rarely wear them nowadays, though I have retained a few pairs for occasions that demand them. My usual style now is ballerina, and in particular, those made by Gabor. In real terms, I think they are still less expensive than those beautiful black patent ones!
Some years ago I visited the Manolo Blahnik exhibition at London’s Design Museum. Here I saw the most amazing, most outrageous, most creative shoes ever. But they could only be viewed behind glass, or from a good distance away. There was no trying on and no touching. Understandable, of course, but so, so disappointing!

I have a favourite pair. They are red leather ankle straps and were bought at a relatively inexpensive price several years ago from Marks & Spencer. Sadly though I love to look at them, they are more or less unwearable because they are so uncomfortable! Nevertheless, I can’t imagine ever throwing them away.

imageI’m almost embarrassed to say that this selection only comprises a small part of my shoe collection. I’ve not even mentioned sandals or boots (apart from the fact that I dyed a pair…light tan to deep wine),  I said in an earlier post that my love of beautiful shoes had waned on becoming a student, and this is largely true. I buy few now but when I do, they have to be especially beautiful.

Coffee with friends

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Good friends are one of life’s essentials and time spent drinking good coffee and chatting with those friends is one of life’s great pleasures. I have friends of twenty, thirty, forty and even fifty years standing. With these, much of the conversation centres on reminiscing over shared experiences – testing times when we’ve been there for each other offering support and a shoulder to cry on, and times when we’ve celebrated together. We talk about our children and grandchildren and bemoan the fact that we sometimes sound like our mothers! We’ve even started comparing aches and pains!  We meet in nice coffee shops, perhaps at a garden centre or local craft centre, and sometimes in the pub. When we were younger the idea that pubs would serve morning coffee would not even have been within the realms of possibility.

In the past few years I have made a new group of friends at the gym. Over a post-exercise coffee, conversations often involve social events – the planning of birthday lunches or afternoon teas feature frequently! Some of us are forming a team for a charity quiz night next month, and we also have a mock Ascot Ladies Day to look forward to. Our ladies only gym is aimed at the more mature among us and the peripheral social life is a big part of it. I’ll tell you more about the unique Gymophobics concept in another post.

I spent this morning in the delightful company of a much newer, much younger friend. We didn’t talk of the past for we have little shared history, and we didn’t plan future meetings, though I have no doubt that they will happen. We are at very different stages in our lives but we still managed to talk seamlessly for nearly two hours whilst drinking some extremely nice coffee.

Saving the best for what?

Cerise suede

It was a beautiful jacket, fuchsia pink cashmere and love at first sight. It cost a not-so-small fortune and there’s no way that I could afford to buy it now, not even at its 1993 price. You would think that I’d have worn it to death, for I felt a million dollars in it. But stupidly I rarely allowed myself the joy of putting it on it because I thought that it might get spoiled and that it should be saved it for best.  It ended up, years later, in the charity bag, barely worn and now hopelessly outdated.

I’d like to say that I learned a lesson from this but I still have a tendency towards saving things to keep them nice. But for what? So that I can enjoy looking at them? In case I won’t be able to find anything quite as nice to replace them? This, of course, won’t be necessary if they never get used anyway as they won’t wear out, and eventually, they’ll go the way of the cashmere jacket.

I have a particularly treasured piece of jewellery. It’s not especially valuable in monetary terms but there is great sentiment attached to it and yet, I would need no more than the fingers of one hand to count the number of times I’ve worn it. But why on earth would I not? Is it a case of ‘what if I lost it’? Well. If I did, at least I could think back on how much I had enjoyed wearing it. As things stand, if we were burgled and it was stolen, I’d have almost no happy memories associated with it.  Heavens, I have even refrained from using the leather bound notebook gifted by a friend who knows how much I like unusual stationery, because it’s ‘too nice to use’.

There’s probably an element of hereditary here.  My mother kept best tea towels. Tea towels for goodness sake!  The old ones were used day to day, whilst the newer ones remained pristine as they hung over the oven rail. Was it because anyone coming into her kitchen would say “What beautiful tea towels you have”? Because, of course, that’s what people do!!  Right.

There were other nice things that rarely saw the light of day, a best dinner service kept only for the most special occasions, hand embroidered table linen not used in case it got spoiled, a set of exquisite cut glass tumblers consigned forever to a display cabinet in favour of using plain ones, probably bought in Tesco. What pleasure my mother could have had, every day, drinking from sparkling Waterford crystal.

And what pleasure I could have if, instead of keeping them boxed in my wardrobe, I took out the cerise suede shoes I bought several months ago and actually wore them.  I’m going to do it; I really am. And I’m going to wear that necklace and write in that book. I’m going to use my beautiful things and make every day feel a little bit special.

How about you? Do you have things that you love but never use, and if so, why do you think this is?

It’s the little things

Rainbow

I read in the newspaper this morning that Britons claim to feel a wave of true happiness eight times a week.  I suppose it depends how you term happiness and on what it is that makes you happy.  I think of happiness, not necessarily the result of a single event, but as a general state of mind. But even when we don’t have that underlying feeling of happiness, it is still possible to experience those momentary little pleasures.  I’m not talking here of ongoing stuff like the fact that my husband clears up after dinner every single evening (for which I am ever grateful), or the general enjoyment of a day out or a holiday; what I mean are those fleeting occurrences that ‘lift’ us, and these can be experienced many times every day.

A few little pleasures that make me feel good:

  • hearing a long-forgotten old favourite song on the radio whilst driving
  • the golden hue cast by winter sunshine
  • the smell in the air on a crisp autumn day
  • the rainbow that follows a summer rain shower
  • the waft of a beautifully perfumed flower as you walk into a room
  • the instant healing power of warm water on an aching body
  • being told that my 21 month old grandson had pointed to Helen Mirren on TV and said, “Nanny”. This is a very specific one, of course!

There are so very many more and they happen every day.  Yes, I’d love to win the lottery and see my children’s faces when I handed them a large cheque but it probably won’t happen (likelihood might be greater if I actually bought a ticket) so I’ll carry on enjoying those momentary little pleasures.

Let’s cook!

Cookery books

Cooking is something I really enjoy and it is often my ‘go-to’ activity when I need to de-stress (never did I bake so many cakes whilst I was working on those uni assignments)! Recipe books have come and gone in my house but a few have survived for the duration.

Among these is a Good Housekeeping loose-leaf folder  received as a present in the early 1980s . In it  I save recipes cut from magazines or newspaper supplements, those found on the internet or in blogs I follow (thank you Margaret Powling for your delicious nut roast!), or scribbled down after dinner with friends.  Included is a pull-out from an early 1980s magazine. The ten featured cakes were all made or adapted for my children’s birthdays.

Birthday cakes

It also includes this recipe written by my then 7 year old daughter. We used to make these regularly. I wonder if she remembers.

Steph's recipe

Another stalwart is Good Housekeeping’s The Best of Vegetable Cookery. It saved this once young housewife from serving my guests a Bird’s Eye boil-in-the-bag chicken casserole with Surprise dried peas, which was just about all I could manage when I left home at nineteen having been brought up by a mother who considered Cadbury’s Smash an epicurean miracle!

My current favourite  is Jack Monroe’s A Girl called Jack. Borne out of the necessity of feeding herself and her son on an extremely tight budget, Jack’s recipes are ultra simple and inexpensive; they are also very tasty.

The earliest known cookery books were quite vague in terms of instruction. Quantities, temperatures and cooking times were not routinely included until the mid 1800s. There was an assumption of existing knowledge as they were aimed at professional cooks since the lower classes could rarely read. One of the earliest known cookery manuscripts was the The Forme of Cury c1390 which was produced by the chefs to King Richard II and recipes included delicacies such as whales, seals and porpoise and ingredients like as galingale (an aromatic sedge similar to ginger), powder douce (a spice mixture which varied by region) and hyssop (a bitter mint), none of which we are likely to see in modern recipes.

Evident in 17th and 18th Century book titles is that they were often more than simple recipe books. Many advised on household management or how to excel as a wife , one notable book title being The Whole Duty of a Woman: Or a Guide to the Female Sex (1696).  The celebrated Mrs Beeton was still extolling the virtues of good household management in 1861 and by now recipes included ingredients list, precise quantities and cooking times and were almost exclusively directed towards the housewife rather than the professional cook.

Pre-WWII Britain had imported a considerable amount of food but amid concerns that supply ships might be bombed, food rationing had been introduced and several Government campaigns to save food and wastage were implemented. A more informal language and tone was adopted in these and several propaganda techniques were employed in the emotive language of the campaign posters, the words used tending towards inciting feelings of guilt, implying that compliance was virtuous whilst non-compliance was unpatriotic and could lead to suffering on the part of soldiers. According to the World Carrot Museum (the only museum in the world devoted entirely to carrots – really!)  “The Government let it be known that carotene was largely responsible for the RAF’s increasing success in shooting down enemy bombers.” Anyone seeking out frugal recipes today might be tempted by The Ministry of Food’s suggested wartime recipes such as Carrot fudge, potato milk pudding and the famous Woolton Pie.

war cookery

The latter part of the 1900s saw the rise of the celebrity chef and ‘pretty food’ where artistic representation was as important as expertise in combining ingredients. And now, in the 21st Century, it seems that anything goes. On one hand we have the Jamie Oliver ‘chuck it all in and whiz it around’ style, and on the other, recipes that require twenty five ingredients you never heard of and a degree in science. Do you actually know anyone who indulges in molecular cookery or owns a sous-vide machine? That said, I’m a great fan of MasterChef.

It’s not at all unusual for modern recipes to indicate nutritional value, calorie count, or suggestions for the local sourcing of ingredients. Whole books are devoted to specialist diets, especially vegetarianism, which was rare even as recently as the nineteen seventies, and foreign travel has introduced many new flavours to the British palate. The variety of foodstuffs to which we now have access is quite astonishing and for someone who loves experimenting, that’s a gastronomic delight!