May ramblings

Deal calm

After the cloudburst at the end of April came calm weather and spring blossoms – white lilac and quince in the garden.

The temperature soared for the first bank holiday in the month and I was in London, at the Foundling Museum in Bloomsbury, doing a bit more book research and taking a look at an exhibition by The Lost Words artist, Jackie Morris.

And still on a book theme, the paperback copies of my second book, Alice’s Secret, arrived!

Alice's Secret

After a cold start to spring the flowers picked up – my ‘Pheasant’s Eye’ narcissus, planted in memory of my mum, was the last of the bulbs to flower, and the first rose came out by mid-month. The hedgerows were bursting with May blossom and it was warm enough to open up the summer house and check on the spiders that had taken up residence there over the winter.

I spent a weekend in East Sussex, visiting Charleston and Virginia Woolf’s house, Monk’s House, at Rodmells in the pouring rain. No photography allowed inside Charleston, but both gardens looked lovely, even though it was so wet. And it was fascinating to see Virginia Woolf’s bookshelf and writing desk!

Later the same week, I visited Goodnestone in lovely sunshine – the surrounding landscape looked spectacular but the gardens were yet to hit their full glory.

Goodnestone

The weather had a downturn by mid month – the sun stayed out but a chill wind blew in off the sea. And my daughter arrived early, to surprise us all, on a visit from India! She left nearly 40 degrees behind and shivered in 14… But we had a great afternoon at the Sandwich Food Fayre, with an impressive array of food on offer, including vegetarian and vegan, and we picnicked on the grass outside St Peter’s Church. Deal looked fabulous in the sunshine, too.

Deal Kite

The following week was grey and gloomy and it was a real struggle not to put the heating back on. I gave in when Jules came back for an overnight visit, when we went to Sandwich Museum and the Court House to escape the rain and cold.

The garden did its own thing meanwhileand I spent a weekend, when the sun returned, doing battle with nettles almost as high as me. The garden centres were filled with temptation and the garden burst into the next stage of bloom, producing foxglove spires in all the borders, one glorious lupin and, by Chelsea week, roses everywhere.

The final bank holiday was another hot one and after two days of gardening and writing it was a relief to escape to Seasalter to enjoy the sea breeze and the stunning weather. And I can’t leave the month without another photo of the grandson – fast asleep on his first holiday abroad.

Ellis

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Baking and writing

Victoria sponge

This piece first featured on Shaz’s Book Blog, as part of the Alice’s Secret digital launch blog tour, but here it is again, this time with photos.

Cakes and baking play a major part in the modern-day narrative in Alice’s Secret. Alys, our contemporary heroine, has left London for Yorkshire to help her aunt run her café – the Celestial Cake Café. She wants to bring a few recipes of her own to the venture – lemon poppyseed cake is one that she is trying to perfect throughout the novel but you’ll also find chocolate chiffon cake, Victoria sponge, lemon drizzle, brownies (below) and flapjacks on the café’s cake stands.

Brownies

Baking was a big part of my own upbringing. Before my Mum went back to work full-time she use to bake once a week – I can remember gingerbread topped with toasted, flaked almonds; fruit loaf; walnut loaf; chocolate cake sandwiched with chocolate buttercream; scones and a kind of bakewell tart that she made in swiss roll tin and then cut into fingers. In addition, she always made puddings at the weekend – plum, rhubarb and apple crumbles and pies and, when she was back at work, a quick weekday trifle: slices of shop-bought swiss roll and tinned fruit with custard poured over the top, refrigerated. In those days, it was still considered a treat to have tinned fruit and evaporated milk as a dessert after Sunday tea.

When I was old enough, I wanted to bake too so I started out with packet mixes for what we called buns but are now known as fairy cakes, and chocolate and vanilla sponges. They were very light in texture when baked but I can still remember the odd, synthetic smell of the ingredients when you opened the packets. On Sundays I made ‘ice cream’ by boiling a tin of evaporated milk, whisking in sugar and flavouring using our new blue-and-white Kenwood mixer and then freezing the mixture.

When I left home, I graduated to ‘proper’ baking, making pastry, raspberry buns, coconut biscuits and Yorkshire curd cheesecake. On the pudding front, it was pecan pie, sticky toffee pudding and black cherry clafoutis.

The result of all this is a sweet tooth, of course! I can’t resist a slice of cake whenever I’m in a café and I’d happily skip a main course when I eat out, in favour of a starter and a dessert. I’m often disappointed by the café cakes, though – too dry, too sweet or sickly – but I struck lucky only last weekend with a simple and delicious un-iced chocolate sponge, sandwiched with buttercream and almost as good as the one Mum used to make!

Now, with my own children grown up and gone, I only make cakes and desserts to take along to friends and family otherwise the danger is that I would eat my way through the lot. Today’s baking repertoire consists of clementine cake, Nigella’s chocolate cloud cake, chocolate brownies and a vanilla sponge, usually filled with raspberries and cream and dusted with icing sugar.

If this listing of cakes has made you salivate, you’ll be pleased to know that the recipes for some of the cakes and biscuits that I’ve mentioned feature in Alice’s Secret, like the cardamom shortbread (below). Happy baking!

Shortbread

Alice's Secret_copy

April ramblings

Rape fields 1

‘April is the cruellest month’ according to TS Eliot and there were certainly times this month when that felt only too true. It started though, with Easter and babies – well, one baby, lots of photos!

Spring was slow to get going but the bulbs were poking through in the pots (Spring squill and Rip van Winkle daffs), while a trip to Goodnestone under grey skies found the magnolias in full flower, amazing Larch (?) cones and carpets of primroses on the banks. (Magnolia stellata is on my wish list for next year.)

Mid-month brought a burst of heat – suddenly we were up to 25 degrees, and the cool of the trees was welcome on a walk to Kingsdown, while a glass of rosé in the garden after a day’s writing was the perfect end to a week.

On a walk along Deal seafront on a bright day I spotted houses painted in the perfect colour for my hall walls – which I’ve only just this month painted grey and can’t face doing it again… And I drove myself slightly mad in a constant quest for paving for the patio, finding the right colour embedded in mixed packs but never on its own. (Had to compromise in the end.)

The heat brought out the oil seed rape planted in the fields all around me, and on 25th of April I saw the hawthorn in flower along a particularly sunny hedgerow. I turned to hanging CDs (Apple ones, appropriately) in the quince and cherry trees to ward off the sparrows who destroyed the cherry blossom buds last year. It worked – this year the cherry tree was in bloom, although it was to be short lived.

A short story of mine appeared in Love Sunday magazine, a section of the Sunday People. Not sure that it worked as publicity for Alice’s Secret but at least I can say I’ve been published in a national newspaper!

piece-in-paper.jpg

The weather turned again, back to normal spring temperatures, and towards the end of the month I went to Margate to see the Journeys with the Wasteland exhibition at the Turner contemporary. I would have preferred to see much more about Margate at the time of his sojourn there and more paintings from the era (like the one by Paul Nash),­ while the best bit for me was the Promenade newspaper produced for the exhibition by the students of Canterbury UCA. I thought the content was brilliant and  deserving of being up on the walls in the gallery.

One of the bad things about the month was my daughter losing her best friend and companion in Goa, her dog Chulo. He took himself off on walkabout, was spotted a couple of miles away and then vanished for five days, during which she was distraught and feared for the worst and the stress levels here were almost as high. He was found, thankfully, after five days having worked his way back close to home. Injured, dehydrated, hungry and exhausted but alive. It hasn’t been straightforward nursing him back to health, however, but at least he’s safe.

The weather at the end of the month brought the jumpers back out again. I took a trip to Harrogate to celebrate a friend’s big birthday with a fabulous Italian meal in very good company, followed by a trip back to London and more baby worship! The last day of the month produced a massive storm with high winds and a whole month’s rain in one day. Bye-bye cherry blossom – and hello to over a week with internet speeds those of a geriatric snail, due to water getting into some wiring…

Vintage inspiration

Coffee set

Vintage china is an important part of the scene-setting when Alys transforms the café in Alice’s Secret, and the inspiration came from my own collection. I started to buy individual coffee cups in my twenties, mainly designs from the 1920s and 30s, as well as plates, dishes and even a whole coffee set. With a pattern of boughs of cherry blossom, this became the basis of tea set that Ella uses to serve tea to Grace Ward and Esther Weatherall in Chapter 12, overhearing them discussing her sister Alice as she does so. Apart from being inexpensive, the attraction was the beautiful designs painted on the cups and saucers and also their individuality – I rarely found more than one of the same pattern or even of the same shape.

The blue patterned cup and saucer with the design of dragonflies, flowers and foliage that Alys finds in the Nortonstall charity shop, which starts her collection (Part One, Chapter 9), is also my first one, although sadly the cup is now broken and I only have the saucer – I’ve matched it with a different cup. The daisy-bordered sandwich plate in the same chapter is in my collection, too, along with the gold daisy cup and saucer (Part Nine, Chapter 3).

My collection grew quickly, soon filling the shelves of the kitchen dresser that I had at the time. I also picked up a couple of beautiful water jugs or ewers, which would have been used in bedrooms for washing in Victorian times, and these found their way into Chapter 10 of my first published book, Ella’s Journey.
Jugs
Other vintage and antique items in my possession appear in Alice’s Secret. A locket passed down from my grandmother is the inspiration for the one given to Alice by Richard, and rediscovered years later by Alys in an embroidered bag (Part Five, Chapter 5). The date is different but the back has scrolls of ivy leaves. The embroidery on the bag was inspired by a hand-embroidered vintage lingerie bag once owned by my aunt.

Even the baubles that Alys hangs in the window of the cafés in Nortonstall and Northwaite at Christmas (Part Nine, Chapter 3) are based on ones that once belonged to the same aunt. They come out each year to hang on my tree but they are made of glass and very fragile; over the years their wire hangers have failed and they have fallen and smashed but the ones that remain are very precious to me.

I had to stop collecting the coffee cups ago when I ran out of space and they spent many years stored in a box but I’m still always tempted whenever I see a particularly lovely example in a shop or on a stall. The cups, and the jugs, are now on display again, but I do have a collection of vintage china plates sitting in a box under my bed…

Jug cupboard

 

 

March ramblings

Walmer beach

It was a rather chilly month, with brief glimpses of spring but an awful lot of rain, wind and gloom – and even another late month snow flurry. When the sun came out, it made for a lovely photo over the shingle towards the sea near Walmer – what’s missing from the photo is the biting wind!

I had a very productive spell during the horrid weather and made the patchwork quilt for new baby Ellis within a week, in time for (new) Mothers Day. On my occasional walks, I saw the blackthorn flowering bravely, along with cherry plum, brightening up the grey days.

It was quite something to see my first paperback shelved in The Deal Bookshop, and to pop in to sign a few copies for them.

Then it was time for another trip to London, for a baby visit and to go to a private view where one of the pictures on display had been painted on our trip to Goa earlier this year. (It feels like much longer than that!) London by night had a certain magic that went some way to making up for the horrors of getting around it in rush hour on public transport.

A planned weekend walk to have Sunday lunch at The Zetland Arms ended up taking place with a wind chill of -5 and driving snow! Surprisingly, the walk over the top at Hawksdown, along the edge of the old First World War airfield, was more protected than I’d expected. My slice of meat pie was the perfect reward, as well as good preparation for the walk back.

The following weekend found me in Bluewater, for the first time ever, meeting friends for a four-hour lunch – we hadn’t met in 15 years so there was a lot of catching up to do! The next week began with a glorious day when spring truly was in the air – a good chance to get some serious gardening done.

Back door

Sadly the weather didn’t last and it was back to a chill wind and rather grey skies, followed by heavy rain, for a trip to Chatham Dockyard for research purposes. One of the most interesting discoveries (for said research) was in the first stop, the café! A three-panel reproduction of an engraving from the Georgian era, (excuse the wonky photos), was filled with fascinating detail. A sneak peak at the amazing building where the ropes were made was another highlight, as was the submarine tour, if only to confirm that I could never, ever be a submariner! It was an eye-opener in so many ways – not only the amount of nuts, bolts and hardware visible inside, but also how little room there was for the crew, under the waves for ten weeks at a time.

The start of the Easter Bank Holiday brought more rain with it. An orchid from last year bravely decided to flower, despite the cold weather we’ve had and the fact that it has found itself in the home of someone useless with houseplants! With brownies baked ready for another trip up to London, the month drew to a close with a pizza lunch at The Taphouse in Deal, busy with visitors determined to make the most of it as the sun came out for a few hours – before the next band of rain moved in…

The importance of location

Lumb Bank
Lumb Bank

Finding the right location and immersing myself in it is really important to me when writing. The Mill Valley Girls novels – Ella’s Journey, Alice’s Secret and Sarah’s Story – are all set in a fictionalised version of Hepstonstall (Northwaite) and Hebden Bridge (Nortonstall) in West Yorkshire. They came into being during an Arvon writing course that I attended at Lumb Bank, once Ted Hughes’ home. Every morning before breakfast I would take a walk down along the wooded paths to the side of Colden Water, to the ruins of the mill there, sometimes walking further along the bank, crossing over then coming back along a higher path on the other side.

After heavy rain overnight, the waterfalls of Colden Water churned fierce and brown and the sound of the rushing waters became a backdrop to our writing days. I was completely captivated by the landscape, photographing the unusual tree and rock formations I saw there, and when we were asked, as a writing exercise, to create a character, decide what they did and set them in the local landscape, then the character of Alice, a mill worker in the late 19th century, was born. The Prologue of Alice’s Secret is almost word-for-word the piece that I wrote on the course.

When it came to developing the story I had, like Alys, locked everything ‘deep within the phone’s digital heart’: the mill past and present, where Alys sits and waits, trying to connect to the past (below).

The Deer Pool – a mysterious pool (below left and bottom) set back from the path and easy to miss unless you spot the animal tracks leading through to it – where Alice has trysts with Richard. The Bathing Pool, where Colden Water collects in a deep and tranquil pool and Rob comes across Alys swimming. The stone which Alys thinks of as the Fairy Slide (below, right) – a section of the path that seemed polished as though by the passage by hundreds of feet over the years.

Bathing pool
The bathing pool

Then there are the tracks down through the woodland, past trees with strange root formations and deeply incised bark, where I imagined Alice to have walked to the mill each working day, and her mother Sarah before her. It’s also the path Richard would have taken on the day of the fateful fire at the mill, and Alys would have trodden some of the same route on her walks to Nortonstall.

There’s also the path up over the top, high above the valley, where John walks in Ella’s Journey, trying to drive from his mind the memory of everything he had witnessed in war (below, left). Lumb Bank itself became the model for The Big House in Alice’s Secret. Alice stands alongside one of the stone walls at the edge of the wood, looking out over the field towards the terrace of the Big House (below right, seen from the house) and witnesses Richard’s wedding reception there.

I’ve returned several times to the area and explored further afield, each time finding things that have fed into the series. Looking at the views I captured from my bedroom window at Lumb Bank, down into the garden or along the wooded valley, it’s easy to see how such a beautiful setting can be so inspirational and how over 250,000 words, several generations of one family and a whole cast of other characters grew out of my five-day tenancy of that lovely space.

Window view1
Room with a view

 

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February ramblings

Goodnestone

February – and the blog is a year old! The month started with some re-upholstery – only the second time that I have attempted it and it involved major use of a staple gun… But the two finished chairs looked good, I think. Then there were a couple of attempts to buy patchwork fabrics. I retreated, overwhelmed by choice both times. Lovely fabrics, but not quite right for the recipient of the cot quilt.

Some nice weather after a cold, crisp spell found me in the garden doing some early tidying after winter. It was even warm enough to have lunch in the garden three days running (the table is in a very sheltered, sun-trap spot)! The arrival of the paperback version of ‘Ella’s Journey’, looking very bright and summery, reinforced the idea that spring is on its way.

A trip to Goodnestone gardens to see the snowdrops bore out this promise, although it was a chilly day. Catkins, aconites and more snowdrops than last year suggested spring was almost here.

A walk along Deal sea front in a biting wind suggested otherwise, although the light was beautiful.

Deal boats

Hopes of spring were completely dashed by the arrival of the Beast from the East, which brought snowfalls and the most horrific wind chill. I wanted to get up to London to meet the snow baby, my first grandchild who decided to put in an appearance 4 weeks early, but I was thwarted by trains being cancelled and roads treacherous. Freezing rain, which turned windscreens, windows and roads to sheets of ice, was the final straw. Made it in the end, though!

January ramblings

Shanti space

January got off to a good start with a trip up to London on a very blustery day to visit the Foundling Museum, a fascinating first for me. Another first was a Yo-sushi lunch, luckily at special January prices otherwise the bill for all those small plates could very easily mount up!

Yo sushi
By the second week of January I was on a plane to Goa, along with several friends, to repeat last year’s holiday and visit my daughter. Writing this now in temperatures of 4ºC it’s hard to believe that it was 34ºC every day out there. It was equally hard to imagine gales, rain and snow back home whilst lying by the pool or watching the sunset on the beach.


Open-air breakfasts of fresh fruit and masala scrambled eggs and maybe dhal, sometimes after 8am yoga by the pool (well, twice…) or early morning beach walks, were swiftly followed by taking up the prone position by the pool for sunbathing, reading and, sadly, catching up on FB, Twitter and the world in general. Afternoons featured more of the same, sometimes with lunch at the beach and some sea swimming thrown in for a change. The main decisions were where to eat dinner that night, and where to have sunset drinks. Usually Mojitos on the beach or G & Ts on the roof terrace, but we did venture out for cocktails at Chalston Beach resort.


We weren’t entirely sloth-like – we went to a night market on our first weekend and had dinner there, too. We shopped (several times..) at Rangeela Goa and Eternal, as well as at street stalls and Anjuna. We had a day trip to another beach, Ashwem, with the most fabulous sea for swimming and a lovely beach restaurant, La Plage, complete with paintings hung amongst the palms. We went to a kids book festival organized by Calangute’s sole bookshop, Litterati.

Some of us ventured further afield for an overnight trip to Agonda in south Goa, where we stayed in beach shacks and enjoyed another sublime sea, and a beach complete with herds of (sacred) cows and a (wild?) white horse that roamed the beach at sunset.


We dined at Pink Chilli, home to the exotic tuk-tuk and spicy thalis, A Reverie (mini avocado cornets, anyone?), Nirvana (interesting clientele, cheap food and oh, the karaoke…), Gusto (Mediterranean and Kashmiri menus), Chalston Beach resort (amazing Rajasthani dancers), Pousada on the Beach (lovely setting) and had a wonderful beach BBQ, courtesy of Aggies. A special shout out to Zest in Agonda, for amazing vegan and vegetarian food – I will remember my beetroot ‘ravioli’ for a long time!


I also attended (along with 1200 others) an evening celebration of a 25th wedding anniversary in a stunning hotel setting, and had a day trip to Panjim where I was very taken by the beautiful Portuguese architecture as well as the art and sculpture installations all around the streets, including a whole set of steps decorated with a peacock and its trailing tail. We lunched at a gallery that had a definite Farrow & Ball/western vibe and I spent most of my last few rupees on the lovely handmade cards from Paperworks.

Back in the UK, it was a nasty shock to discover that my boiler had packed up while I was away, and a huge relief once it was working again. Thanks to my lovely neighbours topping up my wood supply I did at least have one toasty room in the house, heated by the woodburner.
Now the tan is fast fading along with the memory of all that heat, and its back to muddy walks, wearing lots of layers. Roll on spring – in the meantime, here’s a Calangute beach sunset!

Sunset 1

December ramblings

Tree–dec

The weather was determined to throw most things at us this month – rain, gales, frost and the odd snow flurry. We still managed the odd welcome sunny day and beautiful sky, though – and Christmas lights and decorations brightened things up.

It is winter, I suppose! So thank heavens for parties and Christmas treats!

Christmas Eve was made rather special by a novel take on Christmas lights, as seen in Ramsgate harbour, before a trip to possibly the largest Wetherspoons known to man.

Ramsgate

And, of course, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without any presents. There were certainly plenty of those!

Presents

November ramblings

Dark sky 2

My over-riding impression of November was that it was a gloomy month. Yet I do remember a summary of the month’s weather saying it had been brighter than average! We clearly had some good days, because I pruned the roses and picked the remaining blooms. And there were some brisk, crisp days of autumn colours and leaves to kick through when out walking.

There was also a trip to London, when a walk through a damp and drizzly Kew Gardens was enlivened by the testing of the lights for their winter wonderland show.

I seemed to spend a great deal of time at my desk without achieving very much at all! And I had an enforced absence from my work for 4 days after the neighbour’s cat, who has decided she would like to re-home herself, performed a four-paw keyboard command which locked and crashed my computer. She does a good line in ‘don’t mess with me’ looks, too…!

The linocut for the Christmas cover of the village magazine neared its final version, with striking Beardsley style yew trees. And the month went out with stormy skies again!